Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape
— Evangelii Gaudium, 53
During today’s General Audience address, Pope Francis spoke about one of the central aspects about St. Joseph: his work as a carpenter. Returning to a topic that he has spoken about frequently—the right to dignified, meaningful work—the pope spoke about how Joseph and Jesus were carpenters or craftsmen, who worked hard and did not make much money. Francis, reflecting on this fact, was reminded of all those in the world today who have no work, or those who have no choice but to work in poor conditions and without security or a living wage:
Joseph and Jesus [make] me think of all the workers in the world, especially those who do grueling work in mines and certain factories; those who are exploited through undocumented work; the victims of labor: we have seen a lot of this in Italy recently; the children who are forced to work and those who rummage among the trash in search of something useful to trade…
Let me repeat what I said: the hidden workers, the workers who do hard labor in mines and in certain factories: let’s think of them. Let’s think about them. Let’s think about those who are exploited with undeclared work, who are paid in contraband, on the sly, without a pension, without anything. And if you don’t work, you have no security. Undocumented work. And today there is a lot of undocumented work.
[Let us think] of the victims of work, who suffer from work accidents. Of the children who are forced to work: this is terrible! A child at the age of play, who should be playing, is forced to work like an adult! Children forced to work. And of those — poor people! — who rummage in the dumps to look for something useful to trade: they go to the dumps… All these are our brothers and sisters, who earn their living this way: they don’t give them dignity! Let us think about this. And this is happening today, in the world, this is happening today.
We have written about the concern of Francis for the welfare of workers many times in the past, because dignified work helps build up the kingdom and is for our own good. As he wrote in Patris Corde, his apostolic letter beginning the Year of St. Joseph, “work is a means of participating in the work of salvation, an opportunity to hasten the coming of the Kingdom, to develop our talents and abilities, and to put them at the service of society and fraternal communion” (9). In a reflection on the pope’s letter for WPI, John Paul Manfredi wrote, “Quite simply, work is holy. To labor for the benefit of others is the work of a saint. Work draws us closer to God by allowing us to participate, in our own small way, in his work and thus sanctifies us. This is not to romanticize manual labor and long for a bygone era, but to recognize the fact that all work, done well and in the service of the common good is, in fact, good, even redemptive.”
Unfortunately, since we live in a fallen world, not all employers can be counted on to treat employees justly or to be concerned for their interests. This became starkly evident with the rise of the industrial age. In response to this reality, the labor movement began, and workers began to organize into labor unions. The ruling classes opposed these attempts of workers to advocate collectively for their rights, but the Catholic Church raised its voice in support of the workers with the first great social encyclical.
In his second book about Pope Francis, Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church, Austen Ivereigh describes how Rerum Novarum was received by the upper class at the time. He writes, “When Leo XIII said this in 1891, during that first era of globalization, the European Catholic bourgeois of the time had said the pope was crazy. What did the old man in Rome know of the scientific wonders of the market? Why not stick to faith and morals and leave business to the businessmen?” (11). He goes on to explain how history has repeated itself, as many conservative Catholics are decrying Pope Francis’s message of conservation, shared responsibility, and ending the throwaway culture. “Now, 124 years later, the Catholic conservative business folk in the United States and the colleges and institutes they funded were saying the same about Francis’s teaching document on the environment, Laudato Si’, before it was even out. The pope hadn’t any authority to speak on the science of climate change, so why listen to him when he tells us to conserve energy and cut consumption?”
In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo describes the need for “societies for mutual help” for the working class, and says that “The most important of all are workingmen’s unions, for these virtually include all the rest. History attests what excellent results were brought about by the artificers’ guilds of olden times. They were the means of affording not only many advantages to the workmen, but in no small degree of promoting the advancement of art, as numerous monuments remain to bear witness. Such unions should be suited to the requirements of this our age – an age of wider education, of different habits, and of far more numerous requirements in daily life. It is gratifying to know that there are actually in existence not a few associations of this nature, consisting either of workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together, but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient” (RV 48-49).
The Church teaches that sometimes it is necessary for the state to intervene on behalf of workers by passing laws and regulations on businesses that protect and promote labor unions. In his encyclical Mater et Magistra, John XXIII spoke forcefully on this point:
As for the State, its whole raison d’etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters. On the contrary, it must do all in its power to promote the production of a sufficient supply of material goods, “the use of which is necessary for the practice of virtue.” It has also the duty to protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women and children. It can never be right for the State to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of the working man.
It is furthermore the duty of the State to ensure that terms of employment are regulated in accordance with justice and equity, and to safeguard the human dignity of workers by making sure that they are not required to work in an environment which may prove harmful to their material and spiritual interests.
We’ve given some attention to Pope Francis’s address to the Fourth World Meeting of Popular Movements, and one of the major issues supported by members of these movements is workers’ rights. In Wounded Shepherd, Austen Ivereigh describes Francis as a leader who is trying to galvanize people to join forces and advocate for workers. He writes:
Francis wants the workers to organize for change, to band together against the new harsh winds of the global economy: “only by joining forces can we say ‘no’ to the unfairness which generates violence,” he tells them. The following month in Bolivia he would give his second rousing speech to the “popular movements,” mobilizing them in favor of another kind of globalized modernity, one that didn’t make shareholder profit the main criterion of economic organization, but the right of all to land, labor, and lodging. When Francis spoke like this he was called Marxist, but it was an old call, repeated by popes across the twentieth century, for the markets to work for the many, not the few, the kind of thing President Juan D. Perón tried to create in Francis’s childhood Argentina, or Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States. Work, Francis told the workers in Turin, was key to human and social flourishing. Society had to be organized to produce jobs for all.
Why is this increased focus on the organization of workers so necessary? Because in our profit-driven economy, employers increasingly treat employees as expendable and have worked aggressively to oppose the unionization of their workers.
Michael Sean Winters lamented this trend in his column for Labor Day 2019. He wrote, “The decline of organized labor is not merely coincidental with the rise of our hyper-financialized economy in which the only interests corporate leaders have cared about are the interests of the stockholders. As labor has declined, income inequality has grown. When labor unions are strong, workplaces are safe and when they are weak, workplaces become more dangerous.”
Obstructing the rights of workers to unionize certainly has financial incentives. The news is frequently filled with stories of large companies suppressing attempts by employees to organize. We hear stories of wealthy mega-corporations like Amazon and Walmart even using invasive (and possibly illegal) practices such as electronic surveillance to monitor whether their workers are attempting to organize. As Jo Constantz reported last month in Newsweek, “Leaked internal documents from Walmart included methods for monitoring employee activity and conversations about union activism, Amazon’s Whole Foods utilized heat maps that were based on predictive analytics to track store locations considered at high risk of union activity, and Google reportedly has a system to alert managers to any internal meetings scheduled with 100 or more employees.” This surveillance blurs the boundaries between professional and personal lives, and sometimes companies even spy on their employees’ home computers and monitor their activity outside of work hours. Constantz points out, “These practices became even more invasive as the shift to remote work dissolved boundaries between home and work for many.”
Why aren’t such practices receiving more attention from the Catholic Church? Indeed, some prominent Catholics have openly opposed the pro-union stance of the Church. John Garvey, the outgoing president of Catholic University took to the pages of America Magazine to celebrate CUA’s legal victory against adjunct professors’ attempt to unionize as a victory for “religious liberty.” (Legal technicalities aside, an attempt by a Catholic institution to suppress organized labor is not something to celebrate.) This is part of our tradition. In a 2018 column, Winters wrote about the centrality of labor unions in Catholic teaching for the last 140 years:
The Catholic Church’s support for organized labor is one of the crowning achievements of Catholic social doctrine, dating back to 1887 when Baltimore Cardinal James Gibbons defended the Knights of Labor, one of the nation’s first unions. Since Pope Leo XIII’s seminal 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum on capital and labor, every pope has repeatedly and forcefully defended workers’ right to organize.
As a son of immigrants and as a priest and bishop in a country with a rocky political and economic history, advocacy for the rights of workers and the poor to organize aren’t simply an abstract notion to Pope Francis, but a part of his lived reality. He explained this to journalist Dominique Wolton in his book-length interview, A Future of Faith: The Path of Change in Politics and Society:
The poor, the workers, always have to be defended. I’m talking on the basis of my experience in Argentina with the trade unions, and, because of the corruption and a lot of other things, the poor are forgotten. And the poor begin to associate among themselves on other bases. They are the popular movements. They are very important in Asia, in the Philippines, in India, in Thailand. Very, very important. And they’re trying to develop in Latin America. They’re organizing well in Central America. In Argentina, when I was a bishop, I started working with them when I heard about them. Then that first meeting was organized, then the second, and now the third. But my intervention during the second meeting turned into a mini-encyclical on the three Ls. (pp. 229-230)
It’s important that we as Catholics, especially those of us involved in Catholic organizations and who work for social justice, cultivate awareness and vigilance for unjust labor practices. Unfortunately, even some of the most socially-conscious and human rights-oriented Catholic organizations tend to overlook the importance of labor rights as an issue. As Michael Sean Winters noted in another 2018 column, “Sadly, many Catholic activists I know, from people who focus on pro-life issues to those who work on environmental issues, labor rights are an afterthought at best.”
Where might Catholics and Catholic organizations be more attentive to the dignity of workers? Winters goes on to list a few things that negatively impact workers: “Every time you stay at a hotel that denies its workers their right to join a union, every time you take an Uber rather than a union-driven cab, every time you even think of shopping at Walmart, you are crossing a picket line, disrespecting workers and making Catholic social teaching seem irrelevant.”
This has been a much-neglected issue that requires more attention. Perhaps we can take the time to educate ourselves and pray about where God is calling us to show solidarity with our fellow workers and those who advocate on their behalf. Consider reflecting on these words from Pope Francis today:
Today, we should ask ourselves what we can do to recover the value of work; and what contribution we can make, as the Church, so that work can be redeemed from the logic of mere profit and can be experienced as a fundamental right and duty of the person, which expresses and increases his or her dignity.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Alexey Achepovsky.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.