On Aug. 4, 1980, workers at Poland’s vast Gdansk shipyard went on strike, occupying the complex and demanding not just a halt to ever-rising food prices and relief from the perennial shortages of consumer goods, but also government recognition of free trade unions.  

As the strike developed into a nationwide political movement that would be known as Solidarity and gathered international support, Poland’s communist government agreed in principle to the strikers’ demand for unions. 

On Aug. 31, representatives of the government signed a formal agreement to that effect. Lech Walesa, one of the leaders of the strikers, signed with a giant pen bearing a portrait of Pope John Paul II. The not-very-subtle message was clear: inspired by the Polish pope, the workers were demanding a complete overhaul of the system in Poland. 

In January 1981, delegates from Solidarity visited the Vatican. During his three days of meetings with the delegation, Pope John Paul II insisted that the Solidarity movement must not simply be against Poland’s communist regime, it must offer a positive alternative. “Fight for something,” the pope said, and he encouraged the delegates to fight for the common good of all Poles. 

On the last day of the Solidarity delegation’s visit, Pope John Paul celebrated Mass for them in his private chapel in the papal apartments. In his homily that morning, the pontiff urged his guests, “Let your work serve human dignity, let it elevate man, let it elevate families, let it elevate the whole people.” 

Growing in number 

Pope John Paul’s views on labor were rooted in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, which condemned the exploitation and degradation of workers, industrial workers especially, who endured unjust wages and dirty and dangerous working conditions. Too often employers regarded factory workers as barely human, more like robots that performed monotonous, repetitive tasks to serve the machines. From this point of view, workers were only a means of production, and once they were no longer productive they could be discarded, like a broken or worn-out tool. 

Pope Leo deplored this unjust system. In Rerum Novarum, he stated the Church’s position plainly: It is intolerable that “a very few rich and exceedingly rich men have laid a yoke almost of slavery on the unnumbered masses of non-owning workers.” 

He went on to say that Marxism’s solution — war between the classes and the abolition of private property — is no solution at all: It violates the right to own property, which is guaranteed under natural law, and it hamstrings enterprise. To the Marxists, Pope Leo said that warfare can never resolve the inequalities that are an inevitable component of human life. To the owners, the pontiff said what they owe to their workers is not charity but justice. 

At a time when owners and governments frequently employed troops to put down strikes, Pope Leo XIII insisted that workers had legitimate grievances. Furthermore, he insisted that it was the state’s obligation to pass legislation to eliminate the working conditions that prompted the workers to strike in the first place. 

But Pope Leo also encouraged the growth of labor unions: “It is gratifying that societies of this kind [labor unions] composed either of workers alone or of workers and employers together are being formed everywhere, and it is truly to be desired that they grow in number and in active vigor.” 

Three key rights 

In September 1981, to mark the 90th anniversary of the publication of Rerum Novarum, Pope John Paul II issued his own encyclical on labor, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work). 

He repeated Pope Leo’s calls for recognition of the dignity of all workers and his demand that they be treated justly, but John Paul also addressed the spiritual dimension of labor. When men and women work, he said, they are imitating Jesus Christ who, before he began his public ministry, earned his living as a carpenter; furthermore, when men and women work, they are participating in God the Father’s ongoing creation of the world. 

Laborem Exercens is a lengthy and complex document in which the pope addressed the shortcomings of both capitalism and Marxism, business practices which make rich nations richer while keeping poor nations poor, and the proper relationship between workers and employers. In a phrase American readers will recognize, he declared that all workers possess “inalienable rights.” The question, then, is what are those rights? 

In addition to the right to a just wage and safe working conditions, Pope John Paul identified “principal rights,” which we would call a benefits package.  

The pope declared: 

“The expenses involved in health care, especially in the case of accidents at work, demand that medical assistance should be easily available for workers, and that as far as possible it should be cheap or even free of charge.” 

“The right to rest … involves a regular weekly rest comprising at least Sunday, and also a longer period of rest, namely the holiday or vacation taken once a year or possibly in several shorter periods during the year.” 

“The right to a pension and to insurance for old age and in case of accidents at work.” 

Pope John Paul asserted that workers had yet another right — the right to association, in other words, to form labor unions “for the purpose of defending the vital interests of those employed in the various professions.”  

And he did not limit the right to organize to industrial workers, but also recognized the right of agricultural and white-collar workers to organize. Unions, the pope said, are “a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice.” But he warned against the Marxist doctrine of class struggle.  

For common good 

Echoing what he said nine months earlier to the delegates from Solidarity, Pope John Paul declared the primary purpose of labor unions is to secure the just rights of working people, not to foment warfare between labor and management, or between rich and poor, in which working people seek to eliminate employers, business owners or the wealthy. Members of trade unions are not to see themselves as fighting to defeat an enemy, but strive “to build a community.”  

Of course, the pontiff recognized that some negations between labor and management will become heated, but still he did not depart from his basic philosophy, that unions must be for a greater good. “Even if in controversial questions the struggle takes on a character of opposition towards others,” Pope John Paul wrote, “this is because it aims at the good of social justice, not for the sake of ‘struggle’ or in order to eliminate the opponent.” 

Then the pontiff added a caveat, which resonates these days when many state governments and public-employees unions are at odds with each other. “Just efforts to secure the rights of workers who are united by the same profession should always take into account the limitations imposed by the general economic situation of the country,” Pope John Paul wrote. “Union demands cannot be turned into a kind of group or class ‘egoism.’”  

Furthermore, he warned unions not to become too cozy with any political party. “In such a situation they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society; instead they become an instrument used for other purposes.” 

Although undoubtedly a friend to laborers and labor unions, Pope John Paul opposed the adversarial “us vs. them” approach to labor-management relations, just as he opposed the idea that unions should try to squeeze everything they could get out of management, and ally themselves with a political party in order to increase their own power and influence.  

Instead, he called upon workers, managers and owners to build a community in which the dignity of each individual is respected and his or her rights safeguarded.

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of OSV’s Catholic Cardlinks series.

'True Protagonist' of Work (sidebar)

In this important sector of social life, we are undergoing a profound evolution that at times has the shape of a radical change. The form of work has changed and its hours and sites have been altered. In the more industrialized countries the phenomenon has taken on such dimensions that the model of dependent work that was carried out in big factories with set hours already belongs to the past. 

Like every major transformation, this too presents elements of tension and, at the same time, of complementarity between the local and global dimensions of the economy; between what is defined as the “old” and the “new” economy; between technological innovation and the need to safeguard the workplace; between economic growth and environmental compatibility. 

It would be a serious error, however, to think that the changes taking place happen in a deterministic manner. The decisive factor, the “arbiter” of this complex phase of change, is once again the human person, who must remain the true protagonist of his work. He can and must take responsibility in a creative way for the changes that are happening, to ensure that they promote the growth of the person, of the family, of the society in which he lives and of the entire human family (see Laborem Exercens, No. 10). 

In this regard, the emphasis on the subjective dimension of work, constantly referred to by the social doctrine of the Church, is enlightening: “Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2427). 

— Pope John Paul II in a 2001 message to a Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace symposium on “Work as the Key to the Social Doctrine.”