The other day, in discussing the history of organized labor, I mentioned that one of the best assets that the union movement had in its organizing efforts was the active support of the Roman Catholic Church.
Why was that support so consistent? There are a number of reasons, one of which is that throughout the bible, both the Old and New Testament, there are endless references to God’s love for the poor and the need for people of means to be helpful and supportive of poor people. Jesus himself said that throughout his public life and throughout its history the Church put caring for the poor, the needy vulnerable at the top of its list of priorities.
With Leo XIII’s wonderful encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 both bishops and priests across the world were given a bright lit green light to step up on the side of working people. There were important scriptural and theological reasons for the Church’s stand but there are other down to earth reasons as well.
The Catholic Church in the 19th century was a Church of immigrants. Our people were all recent arrivals, mostly from European countries, and they could see that the individual worker was very vulnerable when it came to setting wages and working conditions. Only by being united could they struggle for their share of the economic pie. This means that the vast majority of priests grew up in working class families. They saw their fathers long work days and low pay, poor working conditions and no job security. When union organizers came around and offered them a possible solution to their many difficulties it was only natural that their fathers would join and these priests, when they were seminarians and then young priests, would see the advantage that the union movement brought to the hard working people of the country.
At this time, the majority of the priests have grown up in middle or upper-income families. They are not anti-union but they did not have the personal experience of being affected by the union movement. The small army of “labor priests” quietly passed on and has not been replaced. There have been recent efforts to rekindle an interest in organized labors efforts but, regretfully, they have not met with great success. Most of today’s union leaders have little or no experience of working with the churches. Over time there has been a gradual, unintentional separation, I feel that this is a great mistake; more accurately, a tragedy.
Today there is still a substantial amount of injustice and even oppression in the work place. Hi-tech employees are doing very well but tens of thousands of regular white collar employees learned how insecure their jobs were starting in 2008. Their jobs were simply eliminated overnight. But it is the low skills and the immigrant who is often the victim suffering most in the work place. WAGE THEFT is a major problem for low-income, unskilled, undocumented people who work hard and long hours, and frequently are paid below the minimum wage, cheated on the total amount owed and threatened with being reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. So their only choice is to take the inadequate pay and disappear.
These cruel oppressors of the poorest among us, however, are forewarned. Throughout the bible, Yahweh threatens the oppressors of the poor and especially those who deny them the fruit of their labor.