The Common Good: Labor Day thoughts

Author: Charles K. Wilber

Charles K Wilber

Catholic Social teaching claims, most forcefully in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem excercens, that work is integral to the development of the human person.

Human dignity and the dignity of work are key principles of Catholic teaching. All people are sacred, made in the image and likeness of God. Ethiopians are as important to God as Americans. This doctrine emphasizes people over things, being over having. Further, people have a right to decent and productive work, fair wages, private property and economic initiative. The economy exists to serve people, not the other way around.

Is this a realistic claim? If so, how may it be achieved?

An economist might argue that “humanization” of work may be impossible because markets split peoples’ identities into “consumers/workers.” So what they prefer as consumers — lower prices — makes what they prefer as workers — better working conditions and wages — less obtainable. Also working against humanizing work are the competitive pressures of the market that force businesses to become ever more efficient.

Humanizing workplace improvements are not likely to spread widely unless there also is a decrease in production costs. Competition from other firms will prevent “humanizing” costs from being passed on in higher prices and, thus, profits will decline. Since competition is now worldwide, even a whole country faces difficulties in mandating workplace improvements that raise costs.

The problem is reinforced by human greed and the constant effort of business to promote consumption as the ultimate end of life. This creates constant pressure to reduce labor costs, undercutting attempts to improve the quality of work life. Thus, the only hope may be to change work organization in ways that are both humanizing and efficient.

In an earlier column on Google’s gift and the pope’s teaching, I argued that more humane working conditions, higher wages and benefits can be cost-saving and thus efficient if workers respond to these initiatives in a “spirit of gift,” increasing their identification with the companies’ goals, thus putting out more effort and needing less supervision. This may be the hope of the future — developing more cooperative relations between workers and owners, as Google has done.

Charles K. Wilber is a Notre Dame professor emeritus of economics and fellow of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies who has written widely on Catholic social thought and economic theory. His most recent books are Economics and Ethics: An Introduction (Palgrave Press, 2010) with Amitava Dutt and Catholics Spending and Acting Justly (Ave Maria Press, May 2011). Email him at