Carol Anne Costa: Disparity & Self Honesty
Thursday, December 05, 2013
Stephen Beale and Kate Nagle exposed a story of high salaries in Providence, which is still reverberating throughout Rhode Island. The story and investigative reporting revealed the salaries of Providence’s highest paid municipal workers. In the wake of the piece, many emotions have stirred. It has garnered much reaction from those seeking office and thus started a conversation that at times is divisive. But it does provide a starting point for an honest conversation about disparity, labor, and compensation viewed through many facets including the Pontiff’s feelings on wealth, wages, working, and treatment of the poor. Right now you are thinking to yourself, what the heck is she talking about? How can these issues be related or even mentioned in the same column? Indulge me and I will attempt to connect some dots that seemed immediately present to me.
Lessons of Social Justice
Not since Pope Leo XII’s encyclical 1891 Rerum Novarum has there been a more insightful directive from the Vatican on class, labor, disparity, and social justice in modern times...until now, with the release of the new Pontiff’s Evangelii Gaudium (meaning the Joy of the Gospel). The 85-page document is a good read even if you're not Catholic, as it speaks directly to us as consumers, workers, and citizens. Considering Francis’s thoughts as well as reflecting on Rerum Novarum has forced me to consider the modern day issues of disparity, workers, and fairness with a multifaceted approach. The salaries of Providence municipal Workers and the protests of the working poor are directly impacted by each of the Pontiff’s points of wisdom.
It is very easy as a Democrat and a progressive (both titles I wear proudly) to cast all of the indictments of disparity onto big business, the 1-percenters, Wall Street, and the extreme right wing. But alas, the salary story and its followups, as well as worker protests at big box stores have allowed me to be honest and cast the shadows in other directions. This is not comfortable for me, but sometimes looking into an issue with new eyes and the new wisdom of persons truly dedicated to serving the poor like Popes Leo XIII and Francis, can allow opinions to become less targeted. I have had to come to grips with the fact that disparity lives on both sides of the political divide.
Yet, the working poor still struggle, as evidenced by not only by the Black Friday protests and rabid consumerism but also—according to Kate Nagle’s research—as the per capita income in the City of Providence totals a meager $21,628. The gulf between high paid municipal workers and the people they serve helps to create resentment and too often a place from which neither side can retreat either rhetorically, literally, or otherwise. The chasm of understanding is as wide as the wage divide… and growing.
A Multitude of Antagonists
The municipal workers and their salaries mentioned in the above story did not get here alone, and all the gasping and whining in the world will not make the substantive and moral changes that are imperative to deliver a more equitable future for all. Pope Francis engages us in the chapter entitled "Some Challenges of Today’s World": “A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule!” This is where I believe much of the disconnect resides. Let me be clear: I hold no animus for the earners, as they operate in a system designed by political and union leaders of many affiliations and through many generations (who dare I say did not look to the future but merely to the next election or contract). I am pretty certain the compensation packages and perks were not a one-way negotiation as well as being traditionally ratified by public bodies in the public forum.
I have heard the feedback of folks calling names and stamping the salaries with words such as “lavish” and "hefty". Let’s be honest, the men and women mentioned serve the public and oftentimes, the neediest and poorest people in society. I know I have not done it, but I guarantee it is not lavish to run into a burning building or to carry a victim to safety. So let us be fair and treat the people who do the service on our behalf with respect, even if we disagree with the state of their pay today.
I do however ask them this: when is enough, enough? Only they themselves can answer that question. It is so simple to train public wrath on the folks earning the overtime and negotiated benefits that total up to what many consider sizable compensation packages. But let's look at this in the light of history and accompanied by common sense and honesty.
These salaries did not happen overnight; they evolved through numerous administrations and over many negotiating tables, and they are not exclusive to Providence. To vilify only the recipients is an imperfect response and a simplistic approach to a many layered issue. Many more hold culpability: the political leaders who seek reelection, as well as the unions who are merely doing their jobs by the pushing weak-kneed politicians into places that they simply must have known the money could run out, but not in their term of office. I also lay blame with the apathetic public who abstain from the debate when it is ongoing.
The historically successful bargaining and political strategies combined with public lethargy have led us as members, taxpayers, and citizens to essentially loot our own store. The collective bargaining agreements which have evolved these packages to their present state have largely been forged with no eye to the distant future but eyes keenly trained on the immediate future, on both sides of the table and both sides of the political spectrum. Although negotiated agreements made at the time appear businesslike transactions, they simultaneously carry a large moral burden for everyone.
In Rerum Novarum, sections 45 and 46 in part, read, “Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner." He states further, “If a workman's wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income. Nature itself would urge him to this. We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable." Pope Leo speaks of being fair to labor, paying fair wages, and giving jobs and confidence to the working class poor. I find bargains fraught with indifference to their impact are counterintuitive to the common good, and we all suffer.
Time to Reset
Perhaps the time has come to seriously weigh the morality of “the bargain”; to take the advice of Pope Leo XIII and allow for fair wage and collective bargaining in order to build confidence and the spirit of humankind. At the same time, we must heed the words of Francis, when he speaks of the idolatry of money: “One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols.” he continues, “The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”
The idolization of money and power is visible on the left and the right of politics and only with honesty and morality can we move to make the world better for ourselves and our progeny. The task ahead is filled with hard choices and only if each looks inward may we all find direction. Many of those seeking office are quoted as desiring a comprehensive review—I only hope it is followed by action rooted in fairness, morality, and honesty. And may the workers also consider as Pope Leo advises: to be sensible and practice thrift in order to secure a “modest” income.
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