Proclaiming the Dignity of Work
Vol.1, No.2, 1995
National Work Commission, Secular Franciscan Order, U.S.A
After reading the news summaries that follow: What do you think the Church can do to help workers today? Please write and let us know.
Burnout is not confined to executives alone. Downsizing has left many doing what used to be the work of two. Maria Ester Treminio, employed by a janitorial firm in Washington, D.C.observes: "I was expected to clean 26 bathrooms every night in just six hours. I has to scrub the urinal in the men's room by hand until all the stains were gone. Even when I work gloves my hands peeled because of the chemicals." Why the stress? Hard-pressed companies have elected to lay off workers (whose pay and benefits represent the largest chunk of their total operating expenses) and then to work the survivors longer rather than incur the costs incurred by taking on new employees.
One of the first signs of a response to this epidemic was a recent strike by General Motors workers. They went out on strike because they were being forced to work mandatory overtime - 60 to 70 hour weeks. The workers said that they would gladly sacrifice the money they were earning in exchange for more time with their families and for themselves. Unfortunately, the members of the United Auto Workers union are among a diminishing population of union workers who can stand up for their rights. The number of unionized workers is now below 20%.
There is good reason for concern - more than 2.5 million jobs have been eliminated thus far this decade according to a Chicago consultant firm. To add insult to injury, the buying power of the average worker's salary is less in 1995 than it was in 1970 although the worker today may be putting in longer hours and receiving fewer benefits. As workers' job security has evaporated, so has their bargaining power - their ability to ask for more money, more vacation, more health benefits. What has emerged for most workers is a brave new world of work in which they feel that the employer can call all the shots.
Three factors - weakening unions, foreign competition and automation - are undermining workplace verities, like annual salary increases and regular promotions, on which most Americans counted and from which they charted their future.
Happiness researchers agree that rather than material wealth, the real ingredients for a contented soul have to do with inner resources and personal relationships. Yet younger Americans believe the myth of materialism in increasing numbers. Today 75% of first year college students believe that being very well off financially is "very important" compared with 39% in 1970. Conversely, the number who felt that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was important plummeted from 76% to 43% over the same period. May we Secular Franciscans help our fellow Americans to see the value (and happiness to be found) in "seek[ing] a proper spirit of detachment from temporal goods by simplifying their own material needs." (art. 11) [excepted in part from Science, March 24, 1995]
It is fascinating to compare these scientific findings with the situation in which the American worker finds himself today. If workers could realize that the American dream of more, bigger and better - the myth of materialism - can be abandoned and their sense of peace and inner security actually increase, perhaps there would be less stress and tension at the workplace and in families. This is not to make light of those who are working longer hours out of necessity, but a point to give pause to all of us who must make decisions as to how we will allocate the gift of time given us by the Lord. We Franciscans have much to say to the overburdened American worker - after we have simplified our own lives!