Proclaiming the Dignity of Work

Vol.1, No.2, 1995

National Work Commission, Secular Franciscan Order, U.S.A

Ed & Mary Zablocki, SFO, Co-chairs, 360 Beard Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14214 (716) 838-4178

Labor Day Thoughts

The situation of workers today is reaching a point probably not unlike that faced by those Americans who fought for their rights through efforts to unionize and who fought to have their efforts respected through the creation of Labor Day. Scanning articles written about the pressures on the workforce leaves me with a queasy feeling that something is going to give. In this issue, I'd like to share with you some of the trends that are effecting those in the labor force. The Church stood by workers in their efforts to unionize at the beginning of this century and maybe it's time for the Church to intervene again on behalf of workers.

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.

On-the-Job Burnout Reaching Epidemic Levels

"Welcome to the Age of Overwork" proclaims Fortune magazine. "Are You Stressed to the Limit?" asks Working Woman. "Exhaustion, depression and battle fatigue afflict these burned out managers in today's lean, mean, downsized or re-engineered corporations. More managers and executives are burning out" says a psychologist from Massachusetts. Three out of four executives in the nation's largest companies agree that the threat of experiencing burnout is greater today than 20 years ago. Workers are putting in longer hours than at any time since World War II and are part of the first meaningful reversal of a continuing trend of reduction in work hours that dates back to 1850!

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%.

American Workers - Most Productive and Least Secure - the Brave New World of Work

American workers have regained the title of being the world's most productive workers. The American worker has reaped little from this regained ascendancy. While American corporations have seen their profitability rise even faster in today than in the 1980s - workers are getting little of the benefit. Instead they are mostly on the receiving end of consultantspeak: hearing about the need for restructuring, downsizing, re-engineering, delayering. They are made to feel fortunate to have a job and uncertain as to whether they will keep it.

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.

Scientific Proof that Money Isn't Everything

Recent scientific studies confirm the much quoted but little observed adage, "Money isn't everything.' A study by psychologists at the University of Illinois, Champaign has found that "economic growth has provided no apparent boost to human morale." This cross-cultural comparison found that once a nation has reached a certain level of material well-being, more wealth doesn't add to people's subjective sense of well-being. Japan provides the most striking example. In the late 1950s, the per capita income of the Japanese was one-eighth that of the U.S. Today it has risen to seven- eighths yet no change in the level of Japanese happiness could be found over that period.

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!