Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 27, 2001
A bishop's Labour Day reflection
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
As we prepare to celebrate another Labour Day weekend I have been pondering the words of Pope John Paul that "human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question."
For some people work has become the sole activity that gives meaning to their lives. They spend all their energy at work. It is their primary or only focus. They sacrifice all things for their work. They derive their identity from their work.
This is unhealthy where it is voluntary, and unconscionable where it is forced on people.
At the other extreme, for many people work is unobtainable, or is so structured that workers find it nothing more than a necessary evil to earn a wage or salary. It has little value in itself and does not enhance the person performing it.
A friend recently sent me this little piece on Work vs. Prison:
In prison - your time is spent in an eight-by-10 cell. At work, you're in a six-by-eight cubicle. In prison you get three meals a day. At work, you get one meal a day, and you have to pay for it.
In prison - you get time off for good behaviour. At work, you get rewarded for good behaviour with more work. In prison - you can watch TV and play games. At work, you get fired for that.
In prison you get your own toilet. At work, you have to share. In prison - family and friends can visit. At work, you can't even speak to them.
In prison - you look through the bars from the inside and want out. At work, you want to get out and go to bars. In prison - a guard locks and unlocks doors for you. At work, you do it yourself.
In prison, there are sadistic wardens. At work, there are managers. In prison, all expenses are paid by the taxpayers. No work is required. At work, you pay expenses to go to work, and then pay taxes for the prisoners.
Given the work experience of some people, I'm not really surprised that a comparison would be drawn from work and prison.
In today's economy the drive to cut costs and increase profits frequently results in the worker being regarded as simply one other means, like capital or machinery, of producing profit. This is nothing less than a reversal of ends and means.
The economy is meant to be for the sake of people. Yet often people are being treated as if they existed for the sake of the economy.
Pope John Paul calls this an error of materialism because it places the spiritual and personal (human activity, moral values and such matters) in a position of subordination to material reality.
While there is much in the conditions of work that needs to change, it is first and foremost working people themselves who need to take a new attitude to their work. We need to see work as more than a job, even more than just a career. It needs to be perceived as a calling as a way of contributing to our world and making our society a more decent place.
If workers themselves give in to the pressure of looking on their work only as a means of making money or of climbing the ladder, they shouldn't be surprised if the enterprises for which they work gladly accept their compliance in such an approach.
If working people reduce themselves to being earners and consumers, then other agents in the economy will reflect that sort of attitude and exploit it.
There are also the voluntary organizations or associations to which we belong. Human society is organic and accomplishes most of its tasks through intermediate associations, such as labour unions, professional organizations, consumer groups, support groups, political parties, service clubs, charities and churches.
These bodies influence the way we see things. They help shape our society, and influence the policies that affect both our work and attitudes to each other.
Catholic social teaching sees unions, for example, as having a particular vocation to serve as the mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice.
Governments also play a major role in creating the conditions in which people work, and in promoting a particular vision of the place of work in life and society. Governments can help assure that opportunities for everyone who wants work to have it. They can affect the conditions and safety of work.
They can provide security and compassionate treatment for the unemployed and opportunities for the challenged. They can help set the tone for the relations between employers and employees. It helps if governments see people as more than economic factors in the processes of exchange and consumption.
Globalization is a fact of life in today's world of work. It has clearly had an impact on both the vision of work, its availability and the conditions of work. Yet, "globalization" is not some impersonal and deterministic force that we need accept in silence. We can mould it.
Persons, voluntary associations and governments can all have a serious impact on global trading corporations and on global trading conditions. Globalization is capable of fragmenting and marginalizing societies, but it also has the potential to bring people together.
Important as work is in each human life, it doesn't begin to compare, for example, with love. We are, above all, capable of knowing and loving God. We can participate in family life. We are able to contribute to political activity and other forms of service to the common good.
As intelligent beings, we possess the ability to appreciate what does not come from our work: life, the earth itself, truth, beauty. Our work, if it is well-conceived, can contribute in some way to each of these, but it cannot create them nor take their place.
Exquisite balance is called for.
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