Church and Labor

Why is the Church is involved in labor and work issues?

 

This often-posed question first needs clarification since the term “labor” can refer to either the institution of trade unionism in all its aspects or to the activity of work. The term “Church” also needs clarification: with the capital “C” it refers to the Catholic Church, the organizational base of the Guild; with the small “c” — normally in the plural form, it refers to the general body of Protestant and Catholic churches–and in economic and social justice contexts, often encompasses temples and synagogues, and other religious traditions.

The answer to the question of church involvement in the area of work or economic activity is to be found in the content of one’s religious faith. Some hold that there is a gap or divide between religious activity and everyday life: i.e. religious activity is restricted to formal religious worship, private prayer and financial support for one’s own church/temple.

Most Christians hold that this is not an accurate understanding of the Christian faith, the word and example of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, most churches hold that one observes one’s faith by his/her daily activities that go beyond prayer to include the routines of family life, work, and civic activities. This is the perspective that has been espoused by the Catholic Church in countless documents over the centuries, most explicitly in the series of the so-called papal social encyclicals of the past 100 years, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.

The religious foundations of this justice work is multi-layered.

1 Interestingly, the first or bottom strand is based on reason rather than on religious belief. It is the layer of “natural law” philosophy, a system of thinking that is familiar to all Americans in the Declaration of Independence with such phrases as, “all people are created equal.”

This school of thought was especially strong in the earliest papal social writings, Rerum Novanim, Quadragesimo Anno, and Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). lt gives the documents universality, making them applicable to any workplace, and any debate on labor justice. It also provides the rationale for the Guild’s expansion from its original sectarian Catholic base to its non-sectarian, community-wide membership.

2 The second stratum of religious thought is the Judeo-Christian scriptures. This would include the Decalogue of the Jewish scriptures concerning the worship of God and the treatment of one’s neighbor, the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, as well as the many parables of the New Testament graphically presenting the obligations of justice, mercy, and love. Throughout these writings there is the constant refrain of God’s concern for the poor and the weak, and the responsibility of the privileged to share their blessings. This is the body of thought which underlies the Guild’s historical focus on “the ordinary worker”, the worker so often burdened in the evolving American economy. One way this has been expressed in Guild history is, “we are not anti-management, but we are pro-worker”.

3 The third religious building block is derived from papal and other Church writings on social justice of the past century. This largely represents applied theology where such issues as the theology of work, the appropriate allocation of created goods among the populace, the concept of the “living wage”, the principle of subsidiarity, the proper role of government, and the right of association and collective action are developed. Together, these three levels of religious thought present a long list of social principles and criteria which apply to economic life.

A partial list of them most central to the Guild’s work would include the following:

The moral dignity of a “person” demands respect from all of us, and the moral right to some form of “voice” in decisions affecting oneself in the workplace. Corollaries of this principle include the right of association and collective bargaining.

There is a necessary role for government to establish and enforce standards and institutions, structures and practices, that the total society judges are needed to promote the social peace and well-being of the total community. The difference between this work of justice/social ministry and the traditional corporal works of mercy become clear in reading the above principles. The command to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick”, etc., is focused on the individual person in distress.

In contrast, the energies of the Labor Guild, and the labor movement itself, aim to address some of the causes requiring such corporal works by improving the wages, benefits, and working conditions where men and women spend so much of their daily life. This attention to institutional reform, improving the fairness of economic activity, is not as emotionally rewarding as the personal contact of the corporal works of mercy, but it clearly is crucial to the general well-being of the community.

Why do the churches apparently support unionism?

Again it is necessary to break this into two parts. Why do they support an occasionally corrupt institution such as unions? Why are religious organizations involved in unionism, for it means involvement in direct work situations where they generally admit to no special competence or charisma?

The churches’ basically endorse unionism as “an institution.” Normally it neither endorses or opposes its presence in a specific workplace. This latter decision is to be made by the workers involved; a decision which should include among its considerations the viewpoint of the organization’s administration. The churches simply support the principle that workers should be allowed some voice in workplace decisions, and that the form that such voice takes rests with them.

Underlying this general philosophy, churches point to the constitutional right of association and a natural law philosophy that holds that a fair distribution of rights and duties in any social organization is best obtained when the parties involved possess relatively equal power. In business life, such equality normally cannot exist in a one-to-one relationship between a manager/owner versus employee, but can be found only in a collective group versus manager/owner.

Clearly, a look at American and European business in the late 19th and early 20th century shows widespread greed and exploitation of workers. In light of such actual conditions, it is not surprising that many church representatives regularly encouraged members of their congregations to form unions. These conditions similarly spurred the U.S. Catholic Bishops in 1919 to formally endorse unionism (the Program of Social Reconstruction). Historically there have been segments of the Catholic community, including several moral theologians, who have suggested that workers have a moral obligation to form or join a union. They reasoned that it is only via a union that a worker can effectively fulfill the obligation to represent his own legitimate economic and social needs!

Doesn’t the existence of corrupt unions invalidate this reasoning, and thereby the appropriateness of church support for trade unionism? No. Rather, the churches propose that the problem is rooted in imperfect human nature rather than in the institution of unionism. Instead of abandoning corrupt unions, church thinkers suggest that the main body of honest workers should become more involved in their own local unions and unseat such corrupt leadership.

The question of the appropriateness or necessity of unions in non-profit organizations, including government and church organizations represents a more complicated scenario. The absence of the profit motive presumably means less repressive management. But there is still the problem of ego and power factors which can result in hardships for isolated, unorganized workers. Moreover there is the matter of the positive contributions that a unified (unionized) workforce can make inside their own workplace and in the larger public forum.

Before concluding, it is necessary to note that its basic thesis ‘religious teachings encourage social solidarity, a spirit of compassion and justice’ is not the only religious perspective. Historically, in almost all religious traditions there have been impulses to focus on the “after-life” with its vision of total happiness, usually accompanied by disparagement of worldly activity, a certain spirit of escapism. In addition, the element of respect for authority – tradition found almost universally among religious at different historical moments has been so emphasized so as to discourage any forms of protest by members against secular authority including economic institutions. Clearly both perspectives would have negative implications for the formation and/or support of an independent labor movement. The slight mention made in most labor histories on the influence of religious institutions on the American labor movement would indicate that this is the perspective which has been adopted by the bulk of our labor historians.

The 1964 pamphlet “Religion & Labor”, published by the national AFL-CIO, however, documents that almost all major Judaic-Christian religious bodies are officially on record supporting the faith-economic justice linkage proposed here.

We come now to the close of this effort to describe something indescribable — the mysterious operation of God’s grace in the hurly-burly of everyday life. The religious roots of unionism is evident where members address one another as “brother” and “sister.” attest to the dignity of all — not simply the most talented – and whose basic credo is “an injury to one is an injury to all”.

That is why institutions such as the Labor Guild do not bestow religious value on unionism and collective bargaining, but rather acknowledge the existence of God’s spirit already present and seek to nurture its growth. Surely the Guild’s efforts have not been without flaw, but recalling the adage, “God writes straight with crooked lines” we rejoice and give thanks for the contributions large and small that the Guild has made the past 50 years to the well-being of workers and the healthy functioning of the labor-management system here in Massachusetts — and in some small way across our nation. It is the spirit that keeps the Guild “fighting the good fight,” as it now enters upon its next half-century.

“PRAY FOR THE DEAD,
AND FIGHT LIKE HELL
FOR THE LIVING”
Mother Jones

 

 

See  Labor Statements by Religious Communities