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Given the current state of the US economic recovery, the “great resignation” (in which 4 billion Americans quit their jobs this year), and the need for more employees in numerous industries, it’s not difficult to understand the profound shift in power from employers to employees. For years, employers have enjoyed an adequate labor supply to grow their businesses, and generally speaking, have not had to concern themselves with labor organizing efforts. Now, competition for labor is fierce driving wages up, benefit offerings up, and it is blowing wind in the sails of workers believing now is the time to unionize.
Is it possible that what appears to be momentum behind the labor movement is really a misunderstanding?
Allow me to explain. The rights of workers to organize are protected by law in the United States. This right is also affirmed by the Catholic church to protect the dignity of workers and the pursuit of justice; giving each person his/her due simply because they are created in the likeness and image of God. In his foundational Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII stated this:
. . among these may be enumerated societies for mutual help . . . The most important of all are workingmen’s unions, for these virtually include all the rest. [. . .] We have spoken of them more than once, yet it will be well to explain 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 (Nos. 48-49).
More is written about the favor of labor unions, though cautions are offered if the unions do not provide and make a priority the spiritual growth of its members; even suggesting “otherwise, they would lose wholly their special character, and end by becoming little better than those societies which take no account whatever of religion” (No. 57). This significant responsibility for spiritual growth of employees is abdicated to labor unions because “the public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion” (NO. 3).
While offering this antidote, Pope Leo, provides much more insight into what is intended to be by nature, and not to be misunderstood:
The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration [socialism] is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth (No. 19; emphasis added).
Pope Leo did not stop here. He provides instruction for both employers and employees of their responsibilities to one another.
Is it possible we as business leaders and employees have confused the right to organize with the desire and need to do so? Is it possible to reclaim justice in business, giving each person his or her due as one created in the likeness and image of God, thereby rendering the desire or need to organize moot? As Pope Leo XIII illuminated over a century ago, what is too often viewed as a victory for labor, is a loss for humanity and Christian love.
Employees are not simply means to end. They are ends in-and-of themselves. Either business leaders own this responsibility, or we can expect more misunderstood victories for labor.