Catholic News Service
Edwin Ramos, a worker for Burger King, participates in a march outside a Wendy's restaurant in Boston.
Catholic News Service
Edwin Ramos, a worker for Burger King, participates in a march outside a Wendy's restaurant in Boston.

JOLIET, Ill. — The American dream has a flip side. It's the nightmare of injustice.

Once upon a time, it was the dream that every young person, however poor, could become successful. Success didn't necessarily mean a mansion, a Cadillac and a million-dollar paycheck. It just meant a relatively comfortable life. It meant having enough.

Generations of American Catholics, mostly blue collar, lived that life. It became the mantra of that age: work hard, do the right thing, help the less fortunate. Catholic social gospel concurred, supporting fair wages, collective bargaining and work with dignity.

Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren may not be so lucky. Today the American dream is losing its happily-ever-after hope for many as the gulf widens between the haves and the have-nots.

The income of those at the top of the pile -- CEOs, corporation executives and financial executives -- is growing exponentially, while the income of their workers is stagnant or declining. There is no longer the question of just having enough. For some, there is no "enough." Such corporations make their executives and shareholders happy and rich while savaging the workers who make it all happen.

It's even worse since the Great Recession: Companies are cutting workers back to part time to avoid the cost of providing usual full-time benefits such as health care, and then demand workers do more with less. There's chronic underemployment and unrelenting, growing poverty. This is a matter of justice: a living wage, health care, maternal benefits (a life issue) and more reflect Catholic teaching.

Worse, many of those part-time jobs come without the opportunity for advancement, which is what lifted yesterday's workers out of poverty and into the middle class.

The church recognizes this injustice. Pope Francis has decried the exploitation of workers, saying work "fills us with dignity (and) ... gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one's family, to contribute to the growth of one's own nation."

U.S. bishops have agreed that economic forces are failing to provide American workers with the honor, respect and opportunity they deserve. In their annual Labor Day message, the bishops nailed it. The increasing economic inequality between the growing richer and the growing poorer is troubling, said Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

At its best, the economic engine creates "decent jobs," contributing to the common good. People become more important than profits, he said.

It's not working out that way.

We've been here before. There have always been some business leaders who exploit their workers for personal and corporate gain. We used to call them robber barons. Their excesses were checked when lawmakers belatedly recognized that providing workers' rights benefits all society, not just a privileged few.

Today, many of those regulations have been blunted, removed or ignored by government, encouraging today's version of the robber baron.

There is pushback. Witness the recent nationwide protests by minimum-wage workers in the fast-food industry and at retailing giant Wal-Mart.

But how do we teach justice? We must continue to remind those leading our economy of the values that once boosted a nation, values that reflect Catholic thought, theology and teaching.

Workers should demand dignity and respect from employers, and the church should continue to seek justice and fair treatment for those oppressed and exploited.

No, we should not expect businesses to be purely altruistic, but corporations must recognize their obligation to pay a just, living wage. No successful business would be wasteful with its raw materials. Neither should it be wasteful with its workers.

Justice continues to be a two-way street. Workers, too, have an obligation. There's still something to be said for doing the right thing, working hard, helping others.

The writer is former editor of the Catholic New World.