Friday, February 18, 2011

"Labor unions are the mouthpieces for the struggle for social justice, for the rights of working people" (Pope John Paul II)

“We must first of all recall a principle that has always been taught by the Church: the principle of the priority of labor over capital. This principle directly concerns the process of production: in this process labor is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause”. (Pope John Paul II)

The two encyclicals with the most extensive treatment of labor issues are Rerum Novarum (1891) and Laborem Exercens (1981). Although separated by ninety years, they share at least one remarkable feature: both display a tendency to move back and forth rather quickly between an abstract theological reflection and practical principles of worker justice. This quick passage from eternal truths to specific measures reflects the great confidence shared by both their authors that the nitty-gritty reforms advocated by these documents are fully congruent with the will of God for the world.

Both Pope Leo XIII and Pope John Paul II hold up an ideal of worker justice that demands close attention to the concrete conditions that face workers in the actual workplace and in the labor markets that determine the availability of work and the terms of employment. While both popes respect the fact that the great diversity of conditions complicates the way broad principles of worker justice are applied from place to place, neither is shy about insisting on the importance of concrete measures, such as the institution of “living wages” and reasonable work hours, for the entire workforce.

Of all the principles regarding work staked out within Catholic social teaching, perhaps the most controversial is the Church’s abiding and enthusiastic support of labor unions. In his encyclical on labor, Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II states:

“Labor unions are mouthpieces for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions.”

Workers’ rights to organize and enter into collective bargaining are considered an important outgrowth of other human rights, such as the right to free association and the right to participate fully in the economic and political life of society. Of course, it is well known that labor unions have come under substantial criticism on a number of grounds, sometimes with good reason For example, we often hear them association with corruption, favoritism, and the threat of disruptive and potentially violent strikes. They are also accused of driving up the cost of doing business and sacrificing the international competitiveness of domestic industries because of the allegedly excessive wage demands they make.

Clearly, there are some problematic aspects of union activity. Yet Catholic social teaching forthrightly contends that a world without labor unions would witness a much less favorable environment for achieving justice and an equitable sharing of the earth’s resources. Without the ability to combine their voices through collective bargaining power or organized labor, workers would be at the mercy of their far more powerful employers who might take advantage of their inferior position. Viewed from this perspective, labor unions are crucial elements in the overall balance of power in the economy, and Catholic social teaching consistently portrays them as playing a constructive role in the pursuit of economic justice. Indeed, it is increasingly a source of concern that in many places unions seem to under attack or on the decline.

It is, of course, not surprising that executives and supervisory personnel of large corporations have frequently opposed and resisted, sometimes with coercive and even blatantly illegal tactics, the unionization of their companies. Management has every incentive to squeeze workers out of higher pay and fringe benefits in order to lower the production costs of their enterprises. The history of labor relations reflects the often conflictual nature of employer-employee interactions, although the historical record also contains much encouraging evidence that mutual respect and constructive cooperation can develop, with or without the presence of labor unions.

One recurring problem is that union-free workplaces may devolve into exploitative environments, as the persistence of degrading sweatshop conditions in many places attests. A health union presence in a given industry may well be the best way to retain adequate checks against potential labor abuses. Those who argue that unions are unnecessary today generally present only one side of these complex issues. The assumption that benefits will eventually trickle down to all workers in a prosperous, competitive industry, even in the absence of vital labor unions, contradicts much of the evidence produced by studies in labor economics.

(From Thomas Massaro, "Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action")

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)