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Deacon Gutierrez: The broad consensus on jobs and work

In the last few months I’ve been writing about things that unify us. As I have contended for some time, we are not as divided a nation as we think. One area of agreement less controversial than abortion or immigration is jobs.

Most readers may not remember Florence Reece, but she’s the author of “Which Side Are You On?” a folk song written in 1931 in the midst of the brutal crackdown of unionizing coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky. She wrote the words after having to endure corrupt police officers ransacking her home in front of her seven children and threatening the life of her husband, a coal miner, who was then in hiding. 

The song, resurrected in the ’60s by Pete Seeger, is a challenge to our nation. Do you care about corporations or do you care about workers? The implication was that the workers of Harlan County were the real America.

Today, Harlan is still known for coal and blue-collar workers asking for a fair wage. But unlike the crowds following Seeger, Harlan County voted 85% for Donald Trump in 2016. The only higher percentages were in Harlan’s neighboring counties, Clay, Jackson, McCreary and Leslie, the last of which went nearly 90% for Trump. 

What accounts for this? Former Obama White House aide Van Jones said on CNN that the election of Trump was “whitelash” against a black president. Later, to his credit, he interviewed actual voters and in one case an Ohio family who had voted for President Obama twice but then voted for Trump. Why had they made the switch? Jobs, not racism. 

In an interview for National Public Radio, the head administrator for Harlan County, Dan Mosley, a democrat, admitted that during the years of the Obama presidency this coal mining area of Kentucky had seen layoffs “like we’ve never seen in the last 50 years.” 

Having a good job and a fair wage are fundamental human rights. Yet, politicians and pundits on nearly every side have largely ignored this truth. Unskilled laborers who have seen their wages depressed over the past 30 years have been told to either get more skills, move or depend on the government. None of these answers fully reflect human dignity.

We all have our own particular passions for this or that public policy, but too often we forget that one of the primary roles of the government as it pursues the common good and advances social justice is to secure the conditions for the working class.

Pope Leo XIII, in his 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (“On Capital and Labor”) taught that since the State should seek to benefit every class in society, it should “promote to the utmost the interests of the poor” (no. 31). This is because “the more that is done for the benefit of the working class by the general laws of the country, the less need will there be to seek for special means to relieve them” (no. 32). In the same document he writes that “wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government” (no. 37).

Sometimes this may mean regulation. Sometimes this means deregulation so that businesses can flourish and hire more people. Those particulars are up for debate between well-intentioned economists and the citizenry. Regardless, we should all agree that better working conditions, better wages and wider employment are crucial goals for our public policy. 

According to an article published just last month in the New York Times, wages are up across the board in our country, but especially for low-wage workers. We can all approve of that good news.

Deacon Omar Gutiérrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at ofgutierrez@archomaha.org.

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