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The Dignity and Rights of Workers

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November 21, 2011

Many scholars trace the beginning of modern Catholic social teaching to the 1891 publication of Rerum Novarum (Of New Things).  Reacting to the abuse of workers during the Industrial Revolution, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical focused on the application of the Gospel message to an industrial society.  

In our post-industrial age, where workers are nothing more that “units of labor” to an economist, that exploration is as important as ever.  Pope John Paul II continued the discussion with Laborem Exercens (On Human Work).  His life experiences with Polish-style communism and the growth of the trade union Solidarity, contributed to his understanding of the commoditization of people in an economic system.

He also released Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year) in 1991 to commemorate and expand upon Leo XIII work.  Of special concern to John Paul was the freedom to work: “The obligation to earn one's bread presumes the right to do so. A society that denies this right cannot be justified, nor can it attain social peace.

“The economy must serve people, not the other way around” is one of the most oft-repeated arguments of the 1986 US Bishops letter, Economic Justice for All.

One of the central aspects of this theme is that work is the normal manner in which we provide for ourselves and our families.  In Catholic theology, work is not a result of the “fall” – it is not some sort of punishment.  Rather, it is a way in which we participate in creation.  As such, Catholic social teaching wholeheartedly supports measures which help people work.

During the early part of the 20th century, when society was still adapting to the new reality of the industrial revolution and the Catholic Church was primarily an immigrant church, much of that support manifest in Catholics involvement and support with labor unions, minimum wage, workplace safety and fairness, and other measures which allowed for the normal dignity of work.

Some of that changed during the later half of the decade, especially as unions rose above their grassroots, becoming large organizations unto themselves, and involving themselves in political issues and questions beyond their purview.  In some cases, for example, they became political players more that advocates for their workers.

“Along with the rights of workers and unions go a number of important responsibilities,” say the U.S. Bishops.  “Individual workers have obligations to their employers, and trade unions also have duties to society as a whole. Union management in particular carries a strong responsibility for the good name of the entire union movement. Workers must use their collective power to contribute to the well-being of the whole community and should avoid pressing demands whose fulfillment would damage the common good and the rights of more vulnerable members of society. It should be noted, however, that wages paid to workers are but one of the factors affecting the competitiveness of industries. Thus, it is unfair to expect unions to make concessions if managers and shareholders do not make at least equal sacrifices.” {Economic Justice for All, #106)

As governments took on more of the role of protecting workplace safety – often forced by labor unions – much of the edge has been taken off that point as well.  Nevertheless, issues of workplace equality, fair wage, benefits, family concerns and other issues continue to confront workers throughout the world, not just in the United States.

“Work is more than a way to make a living; say the US Bishops in Sharing Catholic Social Teaching (1999), “ it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected--the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.”