Over the past 200 years, the Catholic church has consistently held a favorable attitude toward labor unions and the rights of workers to organize. A key step in attaining this position was the action of an American Cardinal, James Gibbons of Baltimore, in pursuading Pope Leo XIII not to condemn the Knights of Labor in 1887. The Knights were an American attempt to organize workers and some bishops argued that the group possessed the characteristics of a secret society. But Cardinal Gibbons saw that it was important to support the recent immigrants to American shores, many of them Catholic, whose work conditions were hard and often unjust.
Pope Leo XIII agreed, and in 1891 wrote a groundbreaking encyclical, Rerum Novarum (“On the Condition of Labor”) which argued, among other things, that a worker had a right to a wage sufficient to support the worker and his or her family. The workers’ rights also extended, said Pope Leo, to reasonable hours, rest periods, health safeguards, and a decent work environment.
The commitment of the church to the working person was re-iterated in the encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Guadragesimo Anno, written on the 50th anniversary of Rerum Novarum and by Pope John XXIII in his own encyclical, Mater Et Magistra (1961). During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, many Catholic priests worked tirelessly to support the rights of workers, including the right to join unions. The priest played by Karl Malden in the motion picture classic “On the Waterfront” was a composite of several New York clergy who fought for the rights of dockworkers along the Hudson River. Strong Catholic advocates for labor unions in more recent years have included Fr. George Higgins of the U.S. Catholic Conference and Cardinal John O’Connor of New York.
The Church has sometimes criticized corrupt practices within a particular union, or warned against the practice of fostering division between management and labor. Yet Pope John Paul II in his encyclical on labor, Laborem Exercens (1981) asserted the fundamental principle of “the priority of labor over capital.” While in actual fact capital has organized itself against labor in our society, John Paul II insists that capital exists to serve labor: “There is a need for ever new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers…The Church is firmly committed to this cause, for it considers it to be its mission, its service, a proof of its fidelity to Christ…”
Today there are great changes taking place in our national economic structures, as the development of a world economy changes the way companies and factories do business. Labor unions have declined in strength and the most difficult amd physically demanding forms of work are once again performed by recent immigrants to our shores. Many of us have forgotten the better working conditions won for our grandparents through the efforts of organized labor. It’s important for us to remember the tradition of our Church in supporting workers in their efforts to achieve a better life.
Fr Joe Scott, CSP lives in Los Angeles and is a longtime contributor to the Busted Halo Question Box.