Sunday, May 15, 2011

In Praise of Pope Leo and Labor Unions

One hundred and twenty years ago, on May 15, 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued the momentous encyclical Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”).

Leo XIII, who had been the pope for twenty-five years when he died in 1903, began his 1891 encyclical (formal statement sent to the bishops) by talking about the problem of “the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses.”

While opposing socialism and affirming the right of private property, Pope Leo also recognized the right of workers to unite in labor unions. The latter was a significant new emphasis and one reason there have been special activities commemorating the 120th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. One such activity was held earlier this month at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., a university founded in 1887 with the approval of Pope Leo.

Even though issued 120 years ago, Pope Leo’s encyclical speaks directly to matters facing the nation at the present time. As you know, back in February there was a clash between the public-sector unions and Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin. In a highly politicized confrontation, the labor unions were demonized by one side and strongly supported by the other.

As you might guess, Rush Limbaugh was stanchly on the side of Gov. Walker and strongly against the position of the union leaders. But it was laughable to hear Limbaugh criticize the “greedy” union members of Wisconsin (and other states) when he has reportedly signed (in 2008) an eight-year contract for $400,000,000! How can anyone who makes $137,000 a day (!) have the gall to call to people greedy who make far, far less than that a year?!

Doubtlessly there have been excesses in some of the demands and practices of labor unions through the years. But many of the things that we take for granted now were due largely to the efforts of the labor unions and their work since 1891, things like the forty-hour work week, child labor laws, unemployment benefits, factory safety laws, and the like.

It is widely recognized that labor unions tend to support the Democratic Party, so Democrats are charging that Gov. Walker and others are opposing the unions primarily to lessen financial contributions to Democratic candidates. Conversely, the Republicans are charging that the Democrats, and the President, are supporting the unions mainly in order to reap financial rewards for upcoming political campaigns.

But labor unions are not primarily about politics; they are about the welfare of workers. Thanks to those labor unions—and their support in Pope Leo’s 1891 encyclical—the workers of the nation are far better off, and far less exploited, than they would be otherwise. In the U.S. and other industrialized countries of the world “the enormous fortunes of some few individuals” still exists. But, thankfully, partly due to the labor unions, it is no longer necessary to speak of “the utter poverty of the masses.”


  1. Once again a wise and needed comment. Teachers, public workers, laborers did not get us into the current economic mess. And yet, for too many they are the ones being thrown under the bus to fix it. We need a few more thinkers like Pope Leo. We must face the reality that the larger the gap between the rich and the poor the more dangerous the social fabric of our nation. Thanks for you wisdom.

  2. Here is part of a longer e-mail received from "Pastor George" in Canada:

    "Your comments on labour unions in USA parallels the rise of labour unions north of the border. In many instances, at one time, there was one union representing workers on both sides of the border, e.g. automotive workers.

    "Unlike the USA, in Canada we have three major political parties ... Conservative Party of Canada, the Liberal Party of Canada, and the New Democratic Party (successor to the Canadian Commonwealth Federation). The latter is very much a socialist party but it was created during the dirty thirties in Saskatchewan. Two of the prominent leaders were - would you believe - Baptist preachers, and they worked diligently to bring about justice, reform, et al. so that the lives of the 'poorer' people would be made much better.

    "Yes, Pope Leo did have a conscience. I think his work paved away for other RCs to venture into working for justice for the low-income people. Although this is another, it was a RC priest who led the beginning of a cooperative movement in Nova Scotia."

  3. It's telling that in every socio-economic system so far "wealth" accumulates at the top and there's been an ideology to justify it. And those ideologies suggest or imply that what's most necessary for society are the practices of those on top, when, in fact, they're the least necessary. Sometimes I'll point out to my students that we're able to do what we do (sit in comfortable classrooms and libraries, well fed and studying) because farmers and workers are producing more than they need. If they didn't produce more than they need, we'd all have to be farmers and workers.

  4. In an e-mail just received, Dr. Glenn Hinson wrote,

    "A thoughtful blog, Leroy. Pope John XXIII based his 'Mater et Magistra' on 'Rerum Novarum,' indicative of the importance he ascribed to Pope Leo XIII's perspective. It is hard to imagine what pitiful wages and working conditions laborers would have today had there not been the boost 'Rerum Novarum' gave to the labor movement."

  5. Trade unions are good when they focus on the trade. Many offer very professional courses requiring an excellent high school education before entry into apprenticeship. The quality of American products when this focus has been maintained is undeniable. Several within my mother's family were very active in their unions, and proud of their work.

    However the dark side of unions, and their focus on non-trade related politics is also historic and on going The only time my wife joined the union was when she was forced to by law. She wanted to promote the profession, not politic agendas to which she was opposed and which had nothing to do with her profession.

    I have known the same with other friends who were proud of their work, but felt their union promoted mediocrity within the trade to hold the management in check.

    To discount non-trade politics within unions is folly. To consider God a Democrat or Republican is also folly.

    I am a fan of good trade unions, and good business owners, and common sense government. And no fan of Democrat or Republican politics, which frequently names God to support its illegitimate causes - which yield nasty results in His Name.

  6. With a brief moment available at the end of our quarterly business conference on Wednesday night – I shared this prediction with our folks and was surprised at the number of persons who had not heard of it. My intent was to smirk at it & joked with them about seeing them all in church on Sunday. Our guest preacher was sitting with us at a nearby table and I told them even he would be there to greet them with a Christian sermon. He pondered out loud, “What if I’m the only one there?” I read to them the convoluted formula upon which Harold Camping’s prediction is made – a mathematical calculation foreign to the Bible itself (an argument in itself that shows just how nutty it is and certainly not “the Bible guarantees it” as he advertises on the billboards).

    On Sunday Wanda and I plan to take a vacation day and drive out to Lawrence for our son’s graduation from KU. I’ll be ticked if that great day is disrupted after all he’s done to get there (26 years old, dropped out of HS and got his GED, worked in numerous restaurants as a server and paid his own way … finally got back to JUCO and now graduating near the top of his class … beginning law school in the fall). See what I mean?