Unions and the Church

 

The various Christians churches have had a long history of backing the right of workers to organize. This should not be at all surprising considering the emphasis of the Bible on freeing the poor and the oppressed from domination by the rich and powerful. In fact, we might even go back to the story of Exodus when Moses, after killing an Egyptian whom Moses caught beating one of his fellow Israelites, fled for his life, but then was ordered by God to go back to Egypt to organize his chosen people and represent them before Pharaoh.  As we know, the negotiations did not go well, and Moses eventually staged what was probably the largest mass labor walkout in ancient times. Biblical historians may argue today over how much of this actually took place as described, but there is no question as to how much the Hebrew prophets championed those who were poor, underpaid, and oppressed.

 

Accordingly, there should be no surprise when we find that the more radical evangelical movements, like the Methodists, quickly took up the cause of the working man in England, which was the first highly industrialized nation, and where by the mid-19th century, inhuman working conditions, like a 12 to 14  hour working days six days a week and child labor became the norm. Likewise, here in the United States, by the early 20th century, all too often those who attempted to organize working people were harassed, threatened, and sometimes even murdered by company-hired thugs and on occasions, when even the military was mobilized by industry-dominated administrations to violently suppress strikes. protesting miners and their families were even machine-gunned near Ludlow, Colorado (1913-14) and even Army Air Force bombers were used at Blair Mountain in West Virginia in 1921.

 

The Catholic Church, most of whose followers lived in the last to be industrialized nations, was slower to respond, but when it finally did, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s landmark 1891 encyclical “Rerum novarum” in defense of the rights of labor. This turned out to be only the first of all whole series of similar pronouncements that were to follow, such as those by Pope Pius XI, Pope Paul VI, Pope John XXIII, and especially those of Pope John Paul II. It was his championing of the “Solidarity” union movement in Poland to a large extent triggered the collapse of the communist government in Poland and eventually contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Like Pius XI, John Paul II deemed labor unions, with the ability to collectively bargain, as “indispensable” for securing economic justice.  Meanwhile, not only the church, but even United Nations, had made it clear that the right of working people to organize themselves into unions to represent their interests would have a place (#23.4) in its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

 

All of which brings us to today, where we find oddly enough, here in the United States,  concerted efforts to abolish labor unions, or to take away their collective bargaining rights — a situation which already exists only in the last remaining communist countries. There the assumption is that because the government already represents what is supposed to be the best interests of the workers, there can not be any reason for a union to exist, except perhaps as a social club dedicated to keeping workers as happily duped cogs in the state-run industrial machine. 

 

None of this is to say, however, that unions themselves cannot sometimes become corrupt, or that the unionists haven’t colluded with politicians for benefits that are way out of line with economic realities. In some cases, excess union demands have led to the near-collapse of whole industries. Meanwhile, so-called “right to work” laws have undermined union membership, even while American industries continue to cut jobs or have moved them to countries where lack of labor unions have enabled them to pay next-to-nothing at all.  The result what we are seeing in this country is an increasing gap between rich and poor, even while the rich increasingly complain that they still are not making enough! 

 

Probably the ideal answer is when industries are owned by the workers themselves. This was one of the principles behind the craft guilds that did much to lead to the vitality and prosperity of European civilization in late medieval times. Even today, this ideal has been tried out with some success here in the USA. Where this is the case, the workers themselves are responsible for hiring CEOs who can lead the way in helping workers make wise decisions that will benefit everyone.  While not without its own set of problems, this approach would make more sense than what we see going on in Wisconsin, where the governor seems to have forgotten that he is, in effect, a CEO who was elected to solve problems, not to create new ones by depriving public workers (who have already offered to take the pay and benefit cuts he insists are necessary) of one of their basic human rights.

 

That the Catholic bishops in Wisconsin (now backed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops), along with the leaders of many other religious denominations, have all spoken out against what is happening there should give politicians pause to think. These politicians, like most Americans, like to think of themselves as being Christians.  Now they have the chance to prove whether they really are or not.

 

R W Kropf  3/16/2011                                             Unions & Church.doc   11-03-16.html