Justice Now

The Working Truth: A Look at Labor on World Day of Social Justice

The Amazon Prime package that was just delivered is more than the result of your bed-shopping a few nights ago— it’s also a representation of the dominant quality of today’s economy: globalization. As people, goods, and services continue to flow around the world, you and I can use today: World Day of Social Justice, to consider our responsibilities and roles as participants in the global economy. Can we stop to find ourselves and see our fellow human beings in the swirl of products, people, profits, and professions all around us? 

One of the things I like best about living in the Washington, DC metro-area is the access to incredible theatre. A few years ago, I saw a production of These Shining Lives, by Melanie Marnich. The plot is based on the true story of a group of four women who jump at the opportunity for well-paying employment (sadly, a rare thing in the United States during the 1920s of which the tale takes place) at a watch factory called Radium Dial Company.

 

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The new hotness in the watch-making world was glow-in-the-dark features, which at that time was achieved by painting a radium-based compound onto the watch face. Catherine Donohue (the main character, in whose voice the story is told) and her would-be-colleagues were hired to do the painting and were assured that they would not be endangering themselves through exposure to the chemical.

But after a short time on the job, Catherine and company realize their hands are glowing in the dark. Then, they begin to experience serious ailments, including jaw infections and bone pain. When they raise their concerns with local doctors (including the company doctor), they are told there is nothing to be concerned about. At last, they travel to Chicago and find a doctor who is willing to seriously investigate and then go on to diagnose them with radium poisoning. 

The women decide to file a suit against the Radium Dial Company with the help of an attorney who agrees, despite the risk, to take the case for free. Before her death in 1938, Catherine had won her case against the Radium Dial Company seven times, the final time before the Supreme Court. The case of Catherine and her colleagues would go on to play a strong role in the creation of workers’ rights in the United States.

Just over 100 years since the creation of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1919, the importance of social justice is ever more pressing. The ILO places decent work and productive employment at the center of its social justice agenda because both are key if we want to achieve a fair globalization and poverty reduction. 

Inequality and exclusion are on the rise, threatening social cohesion, economic growth, and human progress. We are forced to confront the changes in climate, demographic, and technological development, and what they mean for the world of work.

We know we advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability. That’s why World Day of Social Justice 2020 is dedicated to closing the inequalities gap—because that’s what we need to do if we want to flourish as a peopled and prosperous planet going forward.

Catherine Donahue’s was one victory in the fight for human productivity and flourishment, but many battles remain if the war is to be won.

 

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