Back to Forum

“Labor Justice in Catholic Social Thought and the Occupy Movement”

Pope John Paul II began his 1981 encyclical letter Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) with the stunning claim that “work as a human issue is at the very center of the ‘social question.’” This pope who had held some interesting jobs himself during his lifetime (factory hand, actor, mineworker) reminded his readers that “the Church considers it her task always to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated, and to help to guide changes so as to ensure authentic progress by man [sic] and society.”

In many ways, the agenda of the Occupy movement reflects this same set of concerns. As diffuse and disputed as its agenda may be, the Occupy movement has called unprecedented attention to the great imbalances in power and material outcome experienced by Americans today. One could quibble with the movement’s tactics and demands or even with its math (that overly simplistic motif of the 99% and the 1%), but you would have to possess a very large blind spot indeed not to notice the ambient social inequities surrounding us today.
At the very root of many of these disparities and inequities is human work. One need not subscribe to a crass Marxism to recognize that work arrangements do indeed determine the life prospects for just about all of us. The way that labor is divided, distributed and remunerated makes a huge difference in promoting or frustrating the attainment of social justice.

On both the individual and societal levels, so many of our deepest concerns are closely related to labor. The struggle against unemployment, our aspirations for adequate income and a decent standard of living, the opportunity to spend a third of our waking hours in a dignified and rewarding environment—all pivot upon fair and just labor practices. The Occupy movement demonstrates a keen sensitivity to these realities, and Catholic social thought has been promulgating this message for over a century.

Because they are people-oriented rather than materialistic, both Catholic social teaching and the Occupy movement challenge the tenets of a market fundamentalism that throws up its hands when workers press for greater protections than the laws of supply and demand alone might yield. It has been two hundred years since Thomas Malthus articulated the “iron law of wages,” a supposedly objective truth of the universe which sentences the working classes to a perilous life of bare subsistence and interminable misery (and that is for the lucky ones among us who do not starve for lack of employment). No matter what the “dismal science” of economics might tell us, work must never be reduced to a mere commodity, an object to be bought and sold without regard for the human dimension. Every human who performs labor is to be treated as a subject, a being of inestimable worth. This is precisely what our contemporary economy is not doing, and why it invites rebuke and demands correction from pro-labor religious and humanist voices alike. Hard- working people deserve security and dignity; it is hard to imagine a healthy society without a rich array of worker protections.

Arguments emanating from theological as well as secular bases for social concern readily converge on many observations about labor justice. Among them is how serious a betrayal of public trust it is for corporations to treat workers so badly and for government to afford workers so little protection. It is encouraging to see the push-back against state governments like Wisconsin and Ohio that have attempted to strip public-sector workers of collective bargaining and other long-recognized rights, but observers of labor relations know that the grand arc of the labor movement has been swinging downward for decades.

For over a century, Catholic teaching on the economy has championed such pro- worker measures as a living wage as a moral minimum owed to workers. In ways explicit and implicit, the Occupy movement is now echoing this imperative, as part of its message advocating equity and economic security for the non-elite. Violations of the dignity and rights of workers are not just background conditions that all of us should get used to. They are deep social problems, about which something serious must be done. One noble response is to write eloquent encyclical letters about social justice. But for those of us who are not popes, taking to the streets and lifting our voices for worker justice is a fine place to start. The Occupy protesters have been evicted from their encampments or otherwise quieted in most locations for the time being, but neither aggressive police tactics nor harsh winter weather will be able to silence the perennial concerns about worker justice that they raise.