People must come first: As society deals with changes in the economy Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler, editor   
Thursday, Sep. 02, 2010 -- 12:00 AM

Editorial logo

Some of us have made calls to a business and encountered a person with an Indian accent on the other end of the phone. That person might be working at a call center in India.

It’s just one example of the many changes we’ve been experiencing recently in the way we work. We can barely keep pace with innovations in technology and communications in a truly global economy.

Effects of economic changes

But do we ever stop and think about how these changes are affecting people? Although it’s good that people in India are being employed, I wonder if workers in India may be paid less and have fewer benefits than workers in the United States.

Workers in our country are losing jobs as companies outsource their jobs to foreign countries. In some cases U.S. workers are forced to train their replacements!

As a result of this situation and the struggling economy, 15 million people are unemployed in this country and another 11 million can only find part-time work.

Similar to Industrial Revolution

In some ways, the situation in our society today is similar to what happened at the time of the Industrial Revolution. During the latter part of the 18th century and into the 19th century, there were major changes in technology and manufacturing. This meant switching from a manual economy to a primarily machine-based economy.

At that time, workers lost jobs on farms as they were replaced by machines. The same thing happened to clothing and textile workers. Later steam power led to more changes, as did the advent of the internal combustion engine and electricity.

All these changes led Pope Leo XIII to issue his encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) in 1891. This encyclical is said to have ushered in the era of Catholic social teaching. Pope Leo XIII supported the rights of workers to form labor unions and encouraged employers to pay just wages and provide healthy working conditions.

Putting people first

In reading this encyclical, I noted that Pope Leo XIII emphasizes that people must come first. He says that the wealthy owner and the employer should not look upon their workers as bondsmen, but “to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character.”

The same principles should apply to workers in the 21st century. The U.S. Catholic bishops’ annual Labor Day statement emphasizes the importance of putting people first (

The statement was issued by Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. “America is undergoing a rare economic transformation, shedding jobs and testing safety nets as the nation searches for new ways to govern and grow our economy,” observed Bishop Murphy.

He called for a new “social contract,” drawing on the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI, which call for placing the human person at the center of economic life and emphasize the role of civil society and mediating institutions such as unions in pursuing the common good. “Workers need to have a real voice and effective protections in economic life,” said Bishop Murphy. “Private action and public policies that strengthen families and reduce poverty are needed. New jobs with just wages and benefits must be created so that all workers can express their dignity.”

Behind the numbers

Pope Leo XIII and Bishop Murphy both give us much food for thought and action. We often hear about numbers of unemployed, percentages of economic growth, the Dow Jones average — the list goes on. But behind those numbers are real people.

And there are the tragedies: the deaths of 29 miners in the West Virginia mine explosion this past spring and the death of 11 workers in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion causing the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Tragedies like these have sometimes been traced back to negligence or lack of concern for the safety of workers. Again, they reveal the need to put people — rather than profits or expediency — first.

Whether we are employers, workers, or recipients of products and services, we should think about whether we are putting people first in our economic decisions. If not, we should consider what we can do to make changes that do put people first.