This past June, Pope Francis, speaking to delegates of the Confederation of Trade Unions in Italy said: “The capitalism of our time does not understand the value of the trade union, because it has forgotten the social nature of the economy, of the business. This is one of the greatest sins.”
The economic life of society is a social reality that is, by its nature, supposed to serve the needs of people and not people serving the economy. A just economy takes into consideration the wellbeing of all the members of society and ought to aid in the development of all peoples, workers, employers, the elderly, the young, the unemployed, the foreigner and so on. Unfortunately, because of sin, the economy is made up of all of us sinful humans, and as such, there enters into the economy various decisions, policies, procedures and laws that do not have the intrinsic dignity of the human person and the common good as their foundation and aim.
As Pope St. John Paul II stated the task of the union, then, “is to defend the existential interests of workers in all sectors in which their rights are concerned. The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies” (“On Human Work,” 20).
In addition to stating that there is a right to organize into unions he also enumerated several other rights with regards to the worker in his encyclical letter “On Human Work,” which included a family wage, a pension, safe working conditions, healthcare “that as far as possible it should be cheap or even free of charge,” and leisure.
While we often think that labor unions’ sole purpose are to bring about higher wages, the church sees unions as so much more: “It is always to be hoped that, thanks to the work of their unions, workers will not only have more, but above all be more: in other words, that they will realize their humanity more fully in every respect” (“On Human Work,” 20).
The work of unions ought to also keep in mind that they have a role in helping workers and employers become better people, more fulfilled people, dedicated to building a just and good society.
Recently, we have seen a drastic decline in union membership in the United States. The percent of workers with union membership has declined to less than a third of its peak in the post-WWII era.
As the United States bishops wrote in 1986: “No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing” (no. 104).
Pope Benedict XVI also acknowledged the challenges facing unions when he said in his encyclical letter “Charity in Truth,” “Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions.”
And that union “rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level” (25).
As people of faith it is important for us to recognize the importance of unions and the work they can do to build a more just and peaceful world. We can help promote their existence through participation in unions, promoting legislation that supports the worker and the rights of unions, and encourage unions to be centered on the dignity of each person as well as the common good and not just the good of a few or exclusively the good of their members. Asserting the rights of workers, including the right to organize and negotiate for living wages, healthcare, safe and dignified working conditions, unemployment benefits, time off among other workers’ rights, and working together to ensure such rights are recognized in law and practice, is key to our development of a just economy that respects the dignity of the human person and cares for the common good.