The Church and Labor

1891-1934

• Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) upheld workers’ rights, including the right to organize into associations of their choice. Leo endorsed increasing associations of workers or of workers and employers together and thereby assisted the worker-directed labor movement in the United States.

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• Forty years later Pope Pius XI, in Quadragesimo Anno, envisioned a corporatist social order and stressed the importance of effective intermediary associations on behalf of individuals and society. He articulated the concepts of social justice, the common good and subsidiarity. He also recognized the structural foundations of social injustices, highlighted necessary reforms and upheld the struggle for a living wage and for distributive justice.

• Since their 1919 Program of Social Reconstruction, the U.S. Catholic bishops have upheld the worker’s right to organize and to negotiate through chosen representatives. In 1934, during Congressional hearings preceding the Wagner Act, the bishops described the right to form labor unions and bargain collectively as an inherent human right, parallel to voting rights. They urged safeguarding workers’ free choice of representatives in order to equalize power in the wage contract and argued that undue interference with this choice is unjust to worker and public alike.

1948-1986

• In 1948, the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights set a standard for all cultures and nations; it recognized the primary dignity of the human person, which undergirds the right of association. In 1963 Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris spelled out the human rights of all and emphasized the importance to society of organized labor.

• In 1982 Pope John Paul II specifically addressed labor unions in Laborem Exercens. He wrote that labor unions are an “indispensable element of social life.” (On this point, the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church also calls them “indispensable” and notes that labor unions “defend the vital interests of workers” and “are a positive influence for social order and solidarity.”) John Paul called unions “a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people,” and added that the struggle is “for” the just good, but not “against” others, since working together should build community among managers, owners and workers. Unions are responsible for fostering the common good; they can also foster solidarity with all workers.

• In their 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, the U.S. Catholic bishops supported a worker’s right to organize to secure just wages and working conditions, opposed organized efforts to break unions and prevent workers from organizing and urged legal reform to further worker rights and remedy unfair labor practices. Workers have both rights and duties (to their employers); collective power ought to advance the common good. Labor negotiations require some measure of equality of sacrifice by unions, managers and shareholders.

Today

• The statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2007, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, reiterates: “Catholic social teaching supports the right of workers to choose whether to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively, and to exercise these rights without reprisal.” It urges the cooperation of workers, owners, employers and unions “to create decent jobs, build a more just economy and advance the common good.”

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