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Labour Day weekend for Worker Justice

October 9, 2013

I belong to a small inclusive, independent Catholic faith community – Our Lady of Guadalupe Tonantzin Community. In anticipation of Labour Day this year I sent a link to our pastor from the website of Interfaith Worker Justice. They promote faith groups integrating belief into action and provide resources for worship services on Labour Day weekend. Rev. Dr. Vikki Marie developed an order of service incorporating some of those resources and asked me to give the homily that day. We always encourage sharing after the homily. Here’s my notes from that day.

Thank you Vikki for bringing the focus of today’s liturgy to the celebration of Labour Day. Resources, research and thoughts about today’s reflections have been facilitated by my own experience – as a worker, as a union activist and as a social justice oriented Catholic. Also some great online resources – unfortunately all coming out of the U.S. Primarily Interfaith Worker Justice which is a group that does practical on the ground work with workers and promotes workers and their advocates, including union activists, to share reflections in worshiping communities on Labour Day. I’m also on an email list called the Catholic Labour Network and there are also good resources from the U.S. Catholic Bishops. (I provided a handout on Catholic social teaching linked here) Sadly, nothing about workers, work, labour etc. on the Canadian Bishops’ website.

A little bit about me. I’ve worked at Burnaby Public Library for 20 years. I’ve been a member of my union CUPE 23 (Canadian Union of Public Employees) for all that time. I’ve been involved in all levels – local, provincial, national – of the union. Before that I worked in retail and food service, often for minimum wage. For me unions are important but not necessarily essential if a workplace is fair and gives voice to all. Sometimes that happens. But increasingly in our capitalist world we all need to find collectives to work with each other to preserve, defend and assert our dignity as humans.

My unscholarly synopsis of our readings today is that they are about humility, justice and dignity. God reminds us in many ways to look at, to assess, our place in our world in relation to each other, to not assume that we deserve to be number one, to be “over” others. The psalm says God provides for the needs of the people. Somewhere in between there and needing to provide for ourselves is a place of ENOUGH. And enough means we don’t climb over each other to get ahead, to get an advantage, to get more and to put others below us.

In our world of work, that’s a key theme. Competition is synonymous with the world of work and business. We struggle to be promoted, to be recognized, to be acknowledged, to be graded high in our performance. Having skills and excelling at things isn’t wrong but in the context of the closed loop at work, where so much can be at stake for others – like their job – it’s ugly. And it doesn’t promote humility, justice or dignity.

I’d like to share some of Pope Francis’ words on work from his letter to David Cameron (Prime Minister of Britain) for the G8 Summit in June of this year:

Every economic and political theory or action must set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one’s own human potential. This is the main thing; in the absence of such a vision, all economic activity is meaningless.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a good statement for Labour Day, asserting that every human has the right to be respected and they also quote Pope Francis:

Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person…It gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one’s family, to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation.

They go on to say that millions of workers today are denied this honour and respect due to unemployment, underemployment, unjust wages, wage theft, abuse and exploitation.

The reality is that the work of unions consistently raises the standards for all workers. It creates the upward pressure in society at large on wages, benefits and safety. It’s a cliche but one we love to use, “Unions – the people who brought you the weekend.”! Raising wages, controlling hours, monitoring and enforcing safety are a huge legacy. The reality on the ground for union activists and stewards today is that we spend most of our time facilitating communications in the workplace; between workers and between bosses and workers. As I told a new steward recently, our goal is actually NOT to file grievances, it’s to solve the problems before they get that far.

Unions have in the past and will continue to work in the community on issues that serve us all, such as increasing the minimum wage and more so now, advocating for a living wage. Here in Vancouver, the work of the MVA – Metro Vancouver Alliance, which we are members of – gives us the opportunity to share and connect our moral position on justice and dignity with community groups and unions – showing how our humanity is shared – how we all want the same thing and we look at it through different lenses but can work on it together.

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