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Wegmans Among Businesses Putting Catholic Social Teaching to Good Use

(Courtesy of Wegmans)
Supermarket chain is one of a number of companies that are living out Church principles by putting the dignity of the person at the center of their business plans.

Peter Jesserer Smith, National Catholic Register, May 2, 2017

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — “Never think about yourself; always help others.”

The motto of the late Robert “Bob” Wegman, who pioneered the Wegmans Food Markets founded by his father and uncle, hangs up with his portrait in his one-stop supermarkets. But the business philosophy on which the Catholic merchant founded the family-owned company came from the lesson the Sisters of Mercy taught him as a boy in Catholic elementary school: The most important thing in life is getting to heaven.

Today, Wegmans Food Markets, headquartered in Rochester, New York, has 92 stores in six states and is recognized as one of 12 companies in Fortune magazine’s “Great Place to Work Legends.” In fact, Fortune recognized Wegmans in 2017 as the second-best place to work in the U.S. — runner-up only to Google.

The company attributes its success to Robert Wegman’s vision that it is “essential to treat customers and employees right.” Wegmans is among a cadre of privately held companies that have put into practice the Catholic social vision that the dignity of persons, not the pursuit of pure profit, must be at the center of the marketplace.

Sarah Kenton has worked at Wegmans since 2010, when she was 15 years old working part time as a cashier at the Canandaigua, New York, store and, later, as a customer-service representative in the produce section.

“Everyone at Wegmans is a family,” she said. While it may sound “cliché,” Kenton said it “really is true.”

Wegmans later invited her at age 17 to think about a permanent career in the company, providing her an internship that allowed her to experience various store operations under department managers. She has an offer for a full-time position as a team service leader after her graduation from Niagara University in May.

“I consider myself fortunate to have a great employer who supports me,” she said. “Wegmans wants you to do your best and learn … and it really makes them better.”

One of her best memories was working on Wegmans’ Organic Farm, getting firsthand experience on how the stores’ “farm-to-table” process worked. She said helping with the harvest gave her a new appreciation for Wegmans’ produce.

And as an intern, she and her team were asked to propose how Wegmans could improve food product “best by” dating. The company has been concerned about wasted food, especially when some people in the communities they serve are going hungry. Kenton said she and the other interns tackled the problem — and were asked to present their recommendations to Wegmans’ corporate leaders. Kenton said their response was “amazing.”

“They said, ‘Thank you so much. This is great. We’ve really got to do something about this,’” she said. “Since then they really tried to implement the suggestions and make the place an even better version of itself. That spirit of continuous improvement really makes Wegmans successful.”

Wegmans’ Philosophy

Wegmans stores — in the U.S. Northeast — employ 47,000 employees.

“We’re very much a values-based company,” Jo Natale, Wegmans’ vice president for communications, told the Register.

Natale has worked with the company for nearly 30 years and said Wegmans’ business philosophy is “always to take care of our employees, and they’ll take care of our customers.”

“It was a belief the family held as very important,” she said.

Wegmans considers its employees as their “most valuable asset,” Natale explained, so they provide competitive pay and benefits, including health care, dental care, prescription plans and retirement options. They also provide flexible scheduling to their employees, so they can care for their families.

The Wegmans employee scholarship program has awarded $105 million in scholarships to more than 33,000 employees since it started the program in 1984, including $5 million in college-tuition assistance to employees for the 2016-2017 school year.

That kind of investment in employees was a big help to Kenton as she pursued her undergraduate degree and an MBA at Niagara.

But Wegmans also truly regards itself as a member of the community where their stores are located and where their employees and customers live. Besides the Wegmans’ scholarships to help youth achieve higher education, they also work with communities to feed the hungry.

Natale said Wegmans’ success all comes down to their employees. She added that the company does not hire based simply on skills — they can teach people how to do the necessary work — so they look for employees whose “values match” Wegmans, whether they are pharmacists or chefs.

“We really look for people who have a desire to serve others, who smile and are engaging,” she said.

Catholic Social Doctrine

The Catholic Church’s social doctrine rests on four pillars: solidarity, subsidiarity, the dignity of the human person and the care of the common good. William Bowman, dean of The Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business, told the Register that this social teaching is rooted in the natural law.

Wegmans and a number of privately owned companies, he said, are living those principles in their business “day in and day out” without necessarily realizing that they have made Catholic social teaching part of their practices.

Bowman, a graduate of Harvard Business School and an experienced CEO, said a company’s lived commitment to Catholic social doctrine can be seen in how it treats its five stakeholders — the employees, the suppliers, the investors, the customers and the community at large — according to those principles.

Bowman said Wegmans practices “incredible subsidiarity” with employees, by giving them a lot of discretion to exercise responsibility and initiative, even at age 17 and 18, relative to the store’s competitors. He said, “They’re not just trained in best practices, but to think about how to improve what they do.”

Another company exemplifying Catholic social teaching, Bowman said, is Nucor Steel, which became the second-largest U.S. steel company. The company has a strong culture of solidarity linked with subsidiarity, where helping each other do better — like one plant team helping another team become more efficient on the line — means the company does better.

Compensation for the CEO and employees rises or falls together depending on the company’s success. The company has three levels — the CEO, plant manager and plant workers — which enables speedy communication and delegates authority to people to exercise judgment.

“They’re given a lot of latitude to act and do the right thing, and that just stimulates the creativity in people,” Bowman said.

The Wine Group, the second-biggest wine company in the U.S., Bowman added, is another company that exemplifies key principles of Catholic social teaching.

Senior executives are only rewarded with stock bonuses for their work 20 years down the road, and planning for the company is based on a “20-year time horizon,” as opposed to issuing quarterly reports, where research and development often gets cut to bolster quarterly returns, he explained. This has allowed the company to grow at a faster pace than its competitors, increase its stock value in the long term, and reward its employees.

Bowman said, generally, large, publicly held companies have a “much tougher” time implementing the business practices Catholic social doctrine calls for because their boards base their decisions on strict metrics for return on investment.

“That in itself is a minor violation of Catholic social teaching, because the person is the purpose of the business, and not the dollar, and that has to be reflected in how the company operates,” he said.

However, he said Google is one case of a big business whose success has been propelled by a culture of “radical subsidiarity” in which employees are nurtured and given the freedom to dream up new ideas and business ideas.

Reward of Integrity

A company that acts with “integrity” toward its employees, suppliers and customers has a long-term business advantage over those that do not, Frank Hanna III, CEO of Hanna Capital, told the Register.

The companies Hanna has seen act with integrity and follow the virtues that build up the human person, such as Wegmans or Chick-Fil-A, tend to have a wealth that is counted in happier employees and executives as well as happier customers, who patronize them because they enjoy doing business with them.

“That’s a form of wealth and well-being that may or may not show up on the balance sheet,” Hanna said.

That is not to say that a company that does the right thing will always make money over those that don’t. Hanna said that is a “prosperity Gospel” mentality. The true Gospel shows that acting with integrity may get you “crucified” instead.

“But you do the right thing because you have integrity, not because it will make you more profitable,” Hanna said.

In the end, he added, “eternal salvation” is the only victory that a person who acts with integrity should look toward — just as Robert Wegman believed.

Labor board rules in favor of workers at Catholic universities

Duquesne UniversityDuquesne University

Employees at two Catholic universities are a step closer to having their unions recognized, as recent rulings from the National Labor Relations Board rejected arguments from the schools that their religious affiliation freed them from federal labor oversight.

A group of adjunct faculty at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University voted in 2012 to join the Adjuncts Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers. A regional director for the N.L.R.B. found that enough votes were cast in favor of joining the union, but the school resisted, arguing that its Catholic identity meant it was exempt from N.L.R.B. oversight.

In a 2-1 decision on April 10, the N.L.R.B. rejected that argument, saying the faculty taught secular material. It did, however, rule that theology professors are in a different category and are thus ineligible to join the union, writing that they perform “a specific role in maintaining the University’s religious educational environment.”

The N.L.R.B. ruling sends the issue back to its regional office to tabulate if there are still enough votes to unionize once the theology professors are excluded.

For its part, the school says it will continue to fight.

Ken Gormley, president of Duquesne, said in a statement to Law 360, a website tracking breaking legal news,that the ruling “directly conflicts” with previous court rulings about unions and religiously affiliated schools.

“The Supreme Court and multiple U.S. courts of appeal have recognized that the broad and deep powers of the N.L.R.B. pose serious First Amendment threats when asserted over faculty unions at religious-affiliated institutions,” he said. “For that reason, Duquesne University is evaluating all of its options pursuant to the board’s rules and regulations.”

He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the issue was not whether the university supports unions, but that the university “could not risk negotiating its Catholic mission…or the faculty’s role in it with a union, much less…[leave it] to the supervision of a government agency in Washington, D.C.”

A lawyer for the Steelworkers Union, meanwhile, said the school’s position put it in conflict with its Catholic values.

“We think it’s frankly hypocritical of them to hide behind the Catholic identity to avoid doing what the Catholic Church explicitly tells them to do—that is, to honor labor unions,” Dan Kovalik told the paper.

The N.L.R.B. also ruled against another Catholic university last week, saying that housekeepers at St. Xavier University in Chicago were eligible to unionize despite protests from the school.

As at Duquesne, officials at St. Xavier argued that its religious affiliation makes it exempt from having to recognize the staff’s vote to join the Service Employees International Union.

But in a 2-1 decision, the board found that the duties of the cleaning crew are “wholly secular” and that the staff “do not have any teaching role or perform any specific religious duties or functions.”

Housekeepers asked to join the S.E.I.U. in 2012 and held an election in 2013, but the ballots were kept secret, Law 360 reported. The board’s decision sends the case to a regional director.

In both the Duquesne and St. Xavier rulings, the acting chairman of the N.L.R.B. dissented, arguing that the board was wading into thorny constitutional questions.

In his dissent on the St. Xavier case, Philip A. Miscimarra wrote that although “this case might look like an easy one—most would view housekeeping as a secular activity—cases involving nonteaching employees may present facts that lead the Board into even deeper entanglements with an institution’s religious mission.”

St. Xavier and and Duquesne are hardly alone when it comes to universities arguing that their religious identity exempts them from government oversight. The rulings are the latest salvo in a years-long battle about the role of proposed unions, often for adjunct faculty, at Catholic institutions.

In an essay published last year, Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., the president of DePaul University, said the issue is not Catholic animus toward unions, but government interference in church affairs. He wrote that a N.L.R.B. ruling in 2014, which extended labor oversight to non-religious employees at religious-based entities, is allowing the government to define religious activity rather than believers themselves.

“Several Catholic universities now find themselves in the positions of deciding whether to oppose the attempt of the N.L.R.B. to assert jurisdiction on this new legal basis,” Father Holtschneider wrote. “The freedom to determine what is or what is not religious activity inside our church is at stake.”

Labor advocates note that the Catholic Church has a long history of supporting unions and say Catholic institutions opposed to organizing efforts are acting hypocritically.

“The glaring inconsistency between Catholic social teaching and the failure of Catholic institutions to protect the right to unionize may even lead Catholics to abandon the church,” ethicist Gerald J. Beyer and lawyer Donald C. Carroll wrote in the National Catholic Reporter last year. “Catholic institutions of higher learning cannot successfully pursue their mission without practicing what they teach.”

Stop the Excuses: Working for Social Justice is Not Optional for Catholics

The phrase “social justice” tends to trigger a wide range of responses depending on where one lands on the political spectrum. For some, it’s a pejorative. For others, a badge of honor. Either way, from a secular perspective, social justice is often viewed through the prism of partisan politics.

But for Catholics, it’s something much different. For us, social justice is a central component to our faith, a key part of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). If the mass is how we celebrate, enrich, and renew our commitment to Christ, then social justice is the manner in which we live and practice that commitment. As defined by the USCCB:

Catholic social teaching is based on and inseparable from our understanding of human life and human dignity. Every human being is created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family. Every person, from the moment of conception to natural death, has inherent dignity and a right to life consistent with that dignity. Human dignity comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment. Our commitment to the Catholic social mission must be rooted in and strengthened by our spiritual lives. In our relationship with God we experience the conversion of heart that is necessary to truly love one another as God has loved us.

What’s particularly important to note about the Catholic commitment to social justice is that, unlike its secular counterpart, it is consistent and enduring, not changing with the political seasons or latest political trends.

The rich theological tradition of Catholic Social Teaching is based on recognizing the inherent dignity of each human person through the unconditional love of God. Therefore, justice, in the eyes of the Church, is owed, not earned.

The worker is owed a living wage for his or her labor.

The unborn child is owed the right to life.

All persons, sick and healthy, are owed quality healthcare.

The earth is owed good stewardship.

The homeless are owed shelter.

The naked are owed clothing.

The hungry are owed food and drink.

Unfortunately, this is one of the biggest shortfalls in American society, even in many Christian circles. We have a bad habit of putting politics before Christ and allowing challenges—such as cost, labor, and time—to become excuses for inaction.

We operate under the impression that works of mercy and justice come strapped with contingencies, and only those we deem deserving—those who meet a particular set of standards—may receive them. But this is not the spirit of social justice or the gospel.

In fact, not only are humans inherently owed justice, but it’s our Christian duty to ensure that justice is properly distributed—especially to the poor and marginalized. This is not a suggestion. It’s a non-negotiable obligation, and the scripture makes it clear that we will be judged on how we treat the least of these.

That means that American Catholics must have a presence in social and political life. It means we are responsible for ensuring that the workers are paid justly, that unborn children are protected, that the earth is cared for, that the sick have quality medical care, that the homeless have homes, that the naked are clothed, and that the hungry are fed. We simply cannot shy away from civic involvement.

And to that point, we must remember that Catholic Social Teaching, with its commitment to social justice, is not a political ideology. It does not conform to any party platform, and so we cannot put our trust entirely in the Republicans or the Democrats. What we must do, instead, is look to the Church first, adjust our mindset to see social justice as the Church sees it, and then work together to find solutions that protect the dignity of all people.

Matthew Tyson is a Catholic writer and marketing strategist from Alabama. He is an advocate for pro-life ideology on the Left and a co-founder of The New Pro-Life Movement.