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April 04, 2005

John Paul II on Labor

We will see many conservatives evoking "the spirit" of John Paul II in political arguments in coming weeks and years, so it's worth honoring his memory by reminding people of the complicated combination of social conservatism, opposition to military actions, and commitment to economic justice that was his legacy.

For those committed to labor rights, John Paul II wrote a landmark encyclical, On Human Work in 1981 that laid out tough pro-labor views that conservatives routinely ignored.

John Paul II saw the rights of labor as THE issue for economic justice; "human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question, if we try to see that question really from the point of view of man's good." John Paul II rejected market relations as delivering justice for workers and emphasized "solidarity" between workers as the critical element that the Church must support:

In order to achieve social justice in the various parts of the world, in the various countries and in the relationships between them, there is a need for ever new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers. This solidarity must be present whenever it is called for by the social degrading of the subject of work, by exploitation of the workers and by the growing areas of poverty and even hunger. The church is firmly committed to this cause for she considers it her mission, her service, a proof of her fidelity to Christ, so that she can truly be the "church of the poor."

While John Paul II rejected class conflict in the classic Marxist sense of the term, he actually followed the core judgement that labor was the core engine of economic life and that capital was merely the extraction of that labor and that capital should always be subordinate to labor, including the labor of the poorest workers:

This gigantic and powerful instrument--the whole collection of means of production that in a sense are considered synonymous with "capital"--is the result of work and bears the signs of human labour...Obviously it remains clear that every human being sharing in the production process, even if he or she is only doing the kind of work for which no special training or qualifications are required, is the real efficient subject in this production process, while the whole collection of instruments, no matter how perfect they may be in themselves, are only a mere instrument subordinate to human labour.
Instead of class conflict, however, John Paul II saw the solution neither in capitalism nor Soviet-style collectivism, but in a broad social understanding that private property, while a useful social tool at times, is not an inherent right: "the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone."

John Paul II wanted a socialization of property that would not merely transfer control of social resources from the wealthy to an undemocratic political class. Instead, he promoted worker ownership of capital as an ideal to strive for, even if he knew the mechanisms of such ownership were problematic under existing economic systems.

And at its core, his thinking rejected the idea that labor should be treated as property hired by contract, but instead emphasized that labor had inherent rights in the workplace that no employer or state could contravene:

The experience of history teaches that [labor unions] are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies...They are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights or working people in accordance with their individual professions...One method used by unions in pursuing the just rights of their members is the strike or work stoppage, as a kind of ultimatum to the competent bodies, especially the employers. This method is recognized by Catholic social teaching as legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits. In this connection workers should be assured the right to strike, without being subjected to personal penal sanctions for taking part in a strike.
While John Paul II emphasized that all should strive for harmony, he was clear that when harmony broke down, the moral should side with workers as the bearers of the cause of justice.

While I don't agree with every emphasis of his words on labor, it is clear that those who speak in his name on one hand, then support the busting of unions the next are hypocrites of the top order.

Posted by Nathan at April 4, 2005 02:34 PM