Rerum Novarum on Unions: A Right that is Under Assault by Roman Catholic Educational Leaders

Leo XIII’s, 1891 papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum constitutes a cautious but affirmative statement for workers’ rights. Rerum Novarum does not go far enough in my opinion due to its hostility to socialism and the need to have greater government-managed economic redistributive justice. Yet it goes far enough in the American context to suggest that Catholic organisations such as the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and the coterie of presidents and universities that are anti-labour at least reflect on whether the arguments of a separate religious identity-independent of state action-is consistent with this papal encyclical.

 Rerum Novarum is pronounced rerum noWarum and is Latin. The “v” is pronounced as a “w” in Latin. Three years of Latin in high school with Mr Degner and Mr Long did not go to waste!

Although fervently opposed to socialism, the Church condemned exploitation of labour in the strongest terms and supported the right of workers to form associations and unions. Catholic university presidents such as John Garvey, of censured Catholic University of America, and other institutions (Manhattan College, St. Xavier University, Carroll College, University of Great Falls) that are attempting to prevent either a total or partial unionisation of their workforce–teachers, staff etc.–should revisit their own commitment to the principles of the Church as enunciated in this major encyclical.  While I believe Roman Catholic universities are not churches and are not obligated to adhere to church doctrine in light of academic freedom and the inevitable diversity that exists in the modern world, nevertheless, one can find justification in this encyclical to affirm and even celebrate labour’s right to organise. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Emerson. Well, I will take the consistency, pardon me Ralph Waldo, in the name of worker justice and freedom.

It is interesting that the pope concedes that the State should step in if worker misery cannot be alleviated in the private sector. Those who claim the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has no jurisdiction over Roman Catholic universities in protecting and overseeing collective bargaining rights, would do well to read this portion of Leo’s encyclical:

36. Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers, or is threatened with harm, which can in no other way be met or prevented, the public authority must step in to deal with it…that justice should be held sacred and that no one should injure another with impunity…if employers laid burdens upon their workmen which were unjust, or degraded them with conditions repugnant to their dignity as human beings; finally, if health were endangered by excessive labor, or by work unsuited to sex or age – in such cases, there can be no question but that, within certain limits, it would be right to invoke the aid and authority of the law. The limits must be determined by the nature of the occasion which calls for the law’s interference – the principle being that the law must not undertake more, nor proceed further, than is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the mischief. {emphasis added}

Leo XIII on unions:

49. The most important of all are workingmen’s unions, for these virtually include all the rest. History attests what excellent results were brought about by the artificers’ guilds of olden times. They were the means of affording not only many advantages to the workmen, but in no small degree of promoting the advancement of art, as numerous monuments remain to bear witness. Such unions should be suited to the requirements of this our age – an age of wider education, of different habits, and of far more numerous requirements in daily life. It is gratifying to know that there are actually in existence not a few associations of this nature, consisting either of workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together, but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient. We have spoken of them more than once, yet it will be well to explain here how notably they are needed, to show that they exist of their own right, and what should be their organization and their mode of action.

The pope has more to say on the rights of workers to form associations (unions):

57. To sum up, then, We may lay it down as a general and lasting law that working men’s associations should be so organized and governed as to furnish the best and most suitable means for attaining what is aimed at, that is to say, for helping each individual member to better his condition to the utmost in body, soul, and property…

There is appropriate passion in its defence of worker dignity and rights to sustenance and decent wages. Note the reference again to state law as part of the protection that workers need:

20. Of these duties, the following bind the proletarian and the worker: fully and faithfully to perform the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon; never to injure the property, nor to outrage the person, of an employer; never to resort to violence in defending their own cause, nor to engage in riot or disorder; and to have nothing to do with men of evil principles, who work upon the people with artful promises of great results, and excite foolish hopes which usually end in useless regrets and grievous loss…Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age. His great and principal duty is to give every one what is just. Doubtless, before deciding whether wages are fair, many things have to be considered; but wealthy owners and all masters of labor should be mindful of this – that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine. To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven. “Behold, the hire of the laborers… which by fraud has been kept back by you, crieth; and the cry of them hath entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.”(6) Lastly, the rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing; and with all the greater reason because the laboring man is, as a rule, weak and unprotected, and because his slender means should in proportion to their scantiness be accounted sacred. Were these precepts carefully obeyed and followed out, would they not be sufficient of themselves to keep under all strife and all its causes?

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