Donald Trump and the rights and dignity of workers

by Gerald J. Beyer

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I feel compelled to respond to former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Francis Rooney's article "The Catholic Case for Trump is about Jobs and Wages." While it contains a grain of truth, Catholics should not see in Donald Trump a friend of the church's teaching on the dignity and rights of workers.

On May 1, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, I stood in St. Peter's Square with a group of leaders from Catholic grassroots organizations, trade unions, youth movements, employers' associations, educational institutions, the International Labor Organization, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and Caritas Internationalis. We gathered in Rome to participate in the Global Seminar on Sustainable Development and the Future of Work in the Context of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Pope Francis blessed the group and charged us with our task: "I hope" -- he said -- "that the event will sensitize the authorities, political and economic institutions and civil society in order to promote a model of development that will safeguard human dignity within full respect for labor and environmental legislation."

At the end of our seminar, we issued a statement of commitment and action in which we pledged to "promote dignity, dialogue, and the promotion of human rights and international labor standards as the core of any sustainable development policies."

Therefore, with all due respect to the former ambassador, I feel obliged to raise serious questions about his claim that Trump's "statements line up more closely with Catholic teaching than one might immediately assume."

Catholic social teaching certainly affirms the need to create jobs, as Rooney contends. All people of working age have a right to employment, and recent popes have agreed that a free market economy can make this a reality. When focused on creating good jobs and protecting the planet, business can be "a noble vocation," as Pope Francis stated in Laudato Si'.

However, Catholic social teaching has never affirmed that an "invisible hand" can work its magic through the market economy to promote the well-being of workers and their families.

Pope Francis bluntly said, "Such an economy kills." It is an economy where hundreds of millions are "excluded from labor rights, who are denied the possibility of joining labor unions, who have no adequate and stable income."

His statement is all too true. According to the International Labor Organization, nearly 21 million people globally are trapped in forced labor (i.e., modern day slavery). A quarter of them are under 18 years old. Every 15 seconds a worker dies from a work-related illness or injury. In the U.S. alone approximately 60,000 workers die from such causes annually. More than half of all jobs globally are informal, which means workers have no legal protections.

Economic growth and the free market alone will not change this situation. That is why in Rome we called upon states to create and enforce policies that "guarantee decent work, equitable compensation, and social protection for all workers and their families."

Although he cautioned against governments usurping the role of civil society, St. John Paul II maintained the state must ultimately be responsible for overseeing human rights in the economic sphere. According to John Paul in Centesimus Annus, "the State has a duty to sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities, by stimulating those activities where they are lacking or by supporting them in moments of crisis." He also argued that the state, in accordance with the "principle of solidarity," must place "certain limits on the autonomy of the parties who determine working conditions." In other words, the state must ensure that employers vigorously pursue workplace health and safety -- core rights of workers according to Catholic social teaching.

Rooney, on the other hand, decries "the top-down government control sought by the Obama Administration and the Democratic presidential candidates." My reading of Catholic social teaching, however, leads me to conclude that the Obama administration should be lauded for more effectively protecting the safety of workers.

For example, the long overdue stricter standards regulating allowable silica exposure in the workplace will save an estimated 600 lives per year and improve safety in the workplace for approximately 2.3 million American workers. The administration has done much to enhance occupational health and safety across the board. Will Trump continue this trend, or see protecting "the right to life and limb" of workers – as labor historian James Gross puts it -- as an unwarranted cost? Sadly, some business lobbies do.

As is well known, Catholic social teaching has unwaveringly endorsed the rights of all workers to join unions, a necessary "mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people" according to John Paul in his great encyclical on human work Laborem Exercens. Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have reaffirmed the need to strengthen unions in a world where workers' rights are regularly violated. Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich has reiterated the church's support for unions in the United States. Catholic social teaching also explicitly affirms the "decisive" role of unions in collective bargaining.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders both support the Employee Free Choice Act, which enhances protection of the right to unionize in the U.S. -- a country in which this right has been "under sustained attack" according to Human Rights Watch.

While Trump may be courting union voters now, his record reveals disdain for unions. Just ask the hotel workers at Trump Las Vegas, who have long faced documented labor violations, intimidation and other union busting tactics. Even though the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certified the union election, Trump management still refuses to recognize their just demands (as this video and commentary reveal).

One of those demands is the right to a just and living wage. According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, whether or not an economy pays a wage that allows for meeting the "material, social, cultural, and spiritual" needs of the worker and his or her dependents determines whether or not that economy is just. "Wages cannot be left solely to the whim of the market," argued Cardinal Peter Turkson in his opening remarks in Rome.

The Fight for Fifteen Movement has rightly insisted that the tens of millions of working poor in the U.S. -- where CEO pay is 774 times greater than the minimum wage -- receive their just due. This demand reflects biblical justice (see Deuteronomy 24:15 and James 5:4) and the wisdom of many religions. Meanwhile Trump maintained last November that the minimum wage is already too high.

Laborem Exercens insists on other workers' rights, such as affordable healthcare, rest (at least one day per week and a yearly vacation), retirement pensions, unemployment insurance, workers compensation, maternity leave and safe working conditions. These rights are needed to "ensure the life and health of workers and their families." Catholic social teaching does not view these rights as luxuries. All workers are entitled to them, including migrants.

Trump hatefully derides immigrants while not flinching from hiring and exploiting them, according to several reports. Catholic teaching holds migrants have a right to emigrate and to a decent life in their new country when conditions in their native lands preclude this. Francis made this pretty clear to the man who wants to build walls, rather than solidarity with the people of the Global South.

In short, Trump's stated desire to create jobs for American workers does not allow Catholics to check a box in his favor. Those jobs must also be decent jobs, which afford the worker all of his or her rights.

As Benedict put it on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 2005, all people must find decent work, where "working conditions may be ever more respectful of the dignity of the human person." In fact, John Paul maintained in Centesimus Annus that private ownership that puts profits over maximizing decent work opportunities "has no justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man."

In this jubilee year, mercy can move us to recognize Christ the Worker in each laborer in God's vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), especially the dirty, the infirmed, the exploited and marginalized. Only mercy enables us to see her or him as a human being, united by the Incarnation to Christ, and not merely an instrument of profit.

Catholics should ask themselves if Donald Trump really shares the vision of their tradition -- for American workers and their brothers and sisters globally -- regardless of their gender, race, immigration status or nationality.

[Gerald J. Beyer is associate professor of Christian Ethics at Villanova University.]

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