Pope Francis will visit America soon and become the first pontiff in history to address Congress. As we celebrate Labor Day, it's worth paying close attention to a Pope who reminds us that honoring the dignity of work is a cornerstone for any just society.
The spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics isn't a politician or activist, but it's not hard to imagine him rolling up his sleeves and joining the "Fight for 15" -- a national movement winning pay increases for fast-food workers -- or standing alongside federal contract employees on Capitol Hill who clean and cook for the nation's powerful but earn poverty wages.
During a recent speech in Bolivia, the Pope sounded like a fiery union organizer.
"Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change," Francis insisted, highlighting labor, along with access to affordable housing and land, as "sacred rights." When he met with unemployed Italian workers in 2013, the Pope had stark words for business leaders dodging their ethical responsibilities. "Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at how to make a profit -- that goes against God," he said.
These are timely messages that need to be heard in the United States.
In the years after World War II, wages for most American workers grew. Strong unions and government policies helped create a vibrant middle class. The era was characterized by relative shared prosperity.
But by the middle of the 1970s, pathways to the American dream narrowed. Over the next 30 years, productivity remained high but workers watched their earnings stagnate, attacks on unions grow and retirement portfolios fizzle.
Public policies that served the common good gave way to privatization and anti-government ideologies that often benefited multinational companies more than struggling families. It's not a coincidence that as the share of workers represented by a union declined dramatically, the gap between the wealthiest few and everyone else became a huge chasm.
A recent study from Glassdoor Economic Research found that the average CEO compensation at 26 companies on the S&P stock index is now more than 500 times their average workers' pay. While the unemployment rate is falling and the economy is showing signs of growth, take-home pay is dropping for the nation's lowest-paid workers.
And for all the lofty rhetoric from politicians, the United States is the only developed country without guaranteed paid family leave for workers who need to care for a newborn, a sick spouse or dying parent.
Only 12% of U.S. workers have access to paid family medical leave through their employees. At least43 million working Americans don't even have a single paid sick day.
While Pope Francis won't come to Congress with a 10-point policy agenda, his emphasis on the dignity of labor and the need to challenge what he calls "an economy of exclusion" should be a wake-up call.
Some U.S. conservative pundits and politicians insist the Pope is naive -- a socialist who doesn't understand American-style capitalism.
These critics conveniently ignore the fact that for more than a century, bedrock Catholic social teaching has affirmed workers' right to organize and recognized the limits of unfettered markets.