Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Seven Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching: Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers

This post is the third in a continuing examination of both presidential candidates based on the seven basic Catholic themes of social teaching. If you're new here, be sure to read the earlier posts in this series to see where I'm coming from:
Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
Economic justice...calls for decent work at fair, living wages, opportunities for legal status for immigrant workers, and the opportunity for all people to work together for the common good through their work, ownership, enterprise, investment, participation in unions, and other forms of economic activity.

The last section of McCain's 14-page economic plan contains two paragraphs about "Competitive American Workers." In those two paragraphs McCain talks about giving students access to "any school of demonstrated excellence" and "expanding the ability of parents to choose among schools for their children." That sounds like school voucher talk to me, which in my mind doesn't really have much to do with the rights of workers.

The section continues discussing overhauling unemployment insurance to allow it to meet workers' needs for paying bills and attending new training, which sounds encouraging. Finally, it talks about how he will "strengthen community colleges and technical training" and give displaced workers "more choices to find their way back to productive and prosperous lives." It's all pretty vague to me, with a bit more detail on unemployment insurance than anything else, but it's totally lacking specifics. I would like to know more about his unemployment insurance plans.

In a section on workplace flexibility, McCain discusses forming a "National Commission on Workplace Flexibility and Choice" to "modernize" labor laws to allow more flexible scheduling arrangements, help home-based workers and telecommuters, make "portable" healthcare (does that simply mean private insurance instead of employer-sponsored?), choice in retirement plans, and job-training assistance.

With regards to immigration, McCain focuses on securing the border between the U.S. and Mexico before legalizing aliens (a break -- some say nod to conservatives -- from the plan he had championed for years before abandoning his own immigration bill in the Senate). McCain's plan for non-agriculture jobs calls for creating a market-based system for low-skilled workers that changes with market demand. It allows workers to "enter the U.S. in an orderly fashion" and "return to their home countries after their temporary period in the U.S." while allowing for visa renewals. It would also offer limited green cards to those workers wishing to stay. Agricultural workers don't appear to get anything other than a "non-bureaucratic" program set by the market, whatever that means.

No use of the word "union" that I could find, and no mention of minimum or fair wages anywhere.

The Obama website talks about strengthening the ability of workers to organize unions free of harassment, protecting striking workers from being fired, and raising the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011 and indexing it to inflation.

On "work/family balance," Obama proposes expanding the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to include smaller businesses and including circumstances such as elder care, domestic violence, and even leave for parents to participate in their children's academic activities. His plan would expand flexible work arrangements by educating businesses about flex schedule benefits and make the federal government a model in adopting flexible schedules. Obama's plan would also expand the child and dependent care tax credit and double federal funding for after school programs that help working parents.

Obama's immigration policy is frankly a bit sparse. He discusses improving our immigration system by encouraging illegal workers to become citizens by paying a fine, learning English, and going "to the back of the line" to become citizens. (I'm not sure what that means, but I think it means the back of the existing queue of people waiting for citizenship.) His plan also talks about cracking down on employers who hire illegals to discourage incentives for entering the country illegally.

Obama also has extensive sections on poverty, rural, and urban issues (although "extensive" maybe isn't the best word to describe the section on rural issues). There's too much interesting stuff to go into here, but there's a wide range of proposals on topics such as promoting responsible fatherhood, establishing "promise neighborhoods" in high crime and poverty areas, creating a "green job corp," enhancing workforce training, supporting "innovation clusters," and of course raising the minimum wage.

Overall, both candidates provide a good amount of support for workplace flexibility programs. Obama takes that a bit further with his plans for expanding the FMLA and after school program funding. Both candidates also offer a nod to workforce training, although neither goes into too much detail there.

Whether you like his ideas or not, McCain has more information on his website about immigration. Even though he switched course in the past year, McCain arguably still has more experience in this matter due to the location of his home state. I'm not sold that we need to police the border more closely, let alone militarize it. I'm also a little nervous that his "market-based" ideas are merely codes for letting the market work itself out without regulation, or maybe letting industry lobbyists set visa levels. It may not be all bad, but some clarification would be nice. McCain's comment on changing unemployment insurance also sounds interesting, but I wish it would have earned more space than part of the last paragraph in a 14-page section.

While he doesn't go into enough detail on immigration issues on his website, Obama goes a lot farther than McCain in hitting the goals of creating living wages, participation in unions, and creating programs to spur innovation and small business creation, and I think overall he does a better job than McCain at meeting the goals of protecting the dignity of work and the rights of workers.

Obama: 3
McCain: 0

Next up: Option for the Poor and Vulnerable


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