3 May 2018
Construction workers lift wet concrete onto the roof of a new development in Kottayam, India. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
CNEWA works in many places where unemployment, long working hours and insufficient wages are endemic. The reasons for these conditions are varied: lack of opportunity, poor or no education, a culture of exploitation. CNEWA supports schools, vocation programs and job training to help people find work that promotes the common good of society and the good of families. This is accomplished by creating a situation in which workers can find dignity in their work and a just wage, which allows them and their families to enjoy the fruits of their work.
Work and human dignity are subjects long at the heart of Catholic social teaching — and they are subjects that gain renewed attention every year around “May Day,” marked on 1 May. On the Catholic liturgical calendar, this is also the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Both of these observances are relatively recent.
The 19th century — with the technological advantages of the Industrial Revolution, the social disruption of large numbers of people moving to cities to find work and other forces — witnessed the rise of what we call, for lack of a better term, “the workers movement.”
Of course, there had always been workers — often slaves or semi-free serfs — but the conditions of the 19th century provided conditions different from what had been before. Dangerous and oppressive working conditions were common. One need only recall the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York on 25 March 1911. In that fire 146 people — some as young as 14 — died because the employers had locked them in to prevent them taking unpermitted breaks. The Haymarket Riots on 4 May 1886 started as peaceful demonstrations of workers asking for an eight-hour workday. It ended up with several workers and police being killed by bombs and other violence.
Conditions like this prevailed both in the United States and Europe. In response to the Haymarket Riots, a “pan-national” organization of socialist and communist parties in Europe called for a day or remembrance. The first day of May became Labor Day or International Workers Day through most of Europe. Even today 1 May is a holiday in many countries in Europe. (In 1955, Pope Pius XII adopted this date for the feast of St. Joseph the Worker — in part, in response to holidays being observed in communist countries.)
In the United States, a similar movement was taking place. Labor Day, the first Monday in September, was proposed as a holiday in 1882 and became a Federal holiday in 1894. Although neither of these days solved all or even most of the problems workers were enduring, at least it gave the concerns of workers a forum where they could be expressed.
At the same time, labor unions were beginning to evolve in the face of at times extremely violent opposition from management. This inevitably involved the church.
Legal and moral questions were being asked about the relationships and responsibilities that existed between workers and employers. While some religious people looked upon the situation as the way it had always been — and, therefore, part of God’s plan — some in the Catholic Church thought differently.
Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore (1834-1921) was an advocate for justice for American workers. Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (14 September 1891) which was a major stage in the development of Catholic Social teaching regarding the rights of worker and the relationship of mutual responsibility between workers and employers, labor and management. Pope John Paul II brought Catholic sociall teaching further with the encyclical “Laborem Exercens” (14 September 1981 — the 90th anniversary of “Rerum Novarum”). In his encyclical, the pope stressed the importance and dignity of work for human beings. Work, he explained, is part of the human vocation as custodians of Creation. Since work is essential to the well-being of society, workers have a right to just wages. By “just wages/recompense,” the pope is clear that he is not talking about mere subsistence wages that “allow” a family to live — if at all — from pay check to pay check. Workers, he wrote, have the right to share in the benefits of creation, which they are providing through their work and efforts.
Pope Francis last year expressed this idea beautifully.
As Catholic News Agency reported:
According to Christian tradition, [work] is more than a mere doing; it is, above all, a mission,” the pope said.
“We collaborate with the creative work of God when, through our work, we cultivate and preserve creation; we participate, in the Spirit of Jesus, in his redemptive mission, when by our activity we give sustenance to our families and respond to the needs of our neighbor.”
Jesus of Nazareth, who spent most of his life working as a carpenter, “invites us to follow in his footsteps through work,” he continued. This way, in the words of St. Ambrose, “every worker is the hand of Christ who continues to create and to do good.”
CNEWA seeks to give that idea meaning and purpose through our own work in some of the most troubled corners of the world — carrying that mission to others and, we hope, making the Gospel come alive among those we serve.
Tags: Economic hardships Pope John Paul II Employment