Across the country, newly elected Republican governors and legislators, and some Democrats too, have been waging war against the last remaining bastion of organized labor, public employees unions, attacking their rights to recruit members and to bargain collectively. This wave of antilabor initiatives is taking place as the church marks 120 years since Pope Leo XIII published his encyclical letter “On the Condition of Labor” (“Rerum Novarum,” May 15, 1891). That letter inaugurated the church’s modern social teaching. In the United States it also began a sometimes uncertain relationship between the Catholic Church and the labor movement. In recent decades those ties have been frayed by the resistance of some Catholic hospitals, universities and school systems to unionization and even more by broad secular trends like globalization, deregulation and technological innovation. The anniversary of the labor encyclical offers Catholics an opportunity to re-envision the role of labor in the global economy and to re-establish the alliance between the church and labor.
For most of the last century, the church and unions were allies. In this country Catholics played leading roles in organizing craft, industrial and agricultural unions: Philip Murray (C.I.O.), the Reuther brothers (U.A.W.), César Chávez (U.F.W.) and John Sweeney (S.E.I.U. and A.F.L.-C.I.O.) among them. Urged on by Pope Pius XI, Catholic labor schools educated a generation of labor leaders. Labor priests like John M. Coridan, S.J., Edward Boyle, S.J., Msgr. George G. Higgins and Msgr. Jack Egan served as the movement’s chaplains, with these last two putting labor’s concerns on the agenda of bishops and Catholic institutions.
In Poland, the Solidarity labor federation took its inspiration from Catholic social teaching and the counsel of Blessed John Paul II. The late pope wrote two encyclicals in which the growth of Solidarity stood like a giant in the background: “Human Work” (“Laborem Exercens,” 1981) and “On the 100th Anniversary of ‘On the Condition of Labor’” (“Centesimus Annus,” 1991). “Human Work,” now much overlooked, is a primer on the dignity of labor and its moral priority over capital in economic relations. Appearing just a year after the formation of Solidarity, the encyclical, though it had a broader compass, may be read as counsel to the fledgling movement, especially in the encyclical’s pleas for solidarity among workers and for the movement to resist the temptation to become a political party, a counsel the movement for a time ignored.
“Centesimus Annus” appeared following the emergence of democratic governments and capitalist economies after the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe. It offered advice on how to navigate the transition to market economies in ways that would respect the dignity of working people. On labor, the encyclical reiterated the church’s core teachings: Human dignity is realized through work; productive activity contributes to the common good; and solidarity is essential to upholding workers’ rights. While upholding private enterprise, the pope argued that it can become illegitimate by “breaking the solidarity among working people,” among other ways.
Pope Benedict XVI has extended that teaching in his 2009 encyclical “Love in Truth” (“Caritas in Veritate”). He called for “a compact for decent work” that “permits workers to organize and make their voices heard.” He reminds Catholics and all people of goodwill of the church’s continuing support and encouragement for labor unions, and he asks unions themselves “to be open to the new perspectives that are emerging in the world of work.” They should be especially amenable to the concerns of the unemployed at home, to migrants and to workers in the developing world. Civil society, he asserts, is the suitable forum for unions in defending the interests of workers, particularly “exploited and unrepresented workers.”
With workers under so many pressures and unions facing open attack, it is time to recall these principles: (1) that human dignity is realized through work, (2) that in a world of powerful corporations and weak bargaining power on the part of workers, unions are necessary for achieving a decent livelihood for workers and their families and (3) that a principal role of government is to protect the common good by safeguarding and implementing the rights of working men and women. The growth of economic inequality and impoverishment in the United States track quite closely with the decline of the labor movement. The continued fragility of the organized labor movement will doom the country to further economic and social distress. While new circumstances make new compacts necessary between government at all levels and working people, unions must have an active voice in shaping the new arrangements by which workers’ rights are realized.