To those who believe in trades unions we would say that private property is a weapon of defence against the tyranny of employers; to those who do not, we would say that private property is a weapon of defence against the tyranny of trades unions. – G.K. Chesterton
As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s 2012 Labor Day statement “Placing Work and Workers at the Center of Economic Life”1 affirms, the importance of “national economic renewal that places working people and their families at the center of economic life” is the antidote to our unemployment problem. The documented burden upon the family during these crucial times force parents “to work second or third jobs,” and strain the limited resources of human services supplied by the Church. Contributing to our crisis, tensions between business owners and workers, who seek to profit from rather than serve the common good, have become a disappointing fixture of our present reality. Business owners look to their own interests first and view human labor as the cost of doing business.At times, overreaching labor policies tie the hands of business owners.
Forgetful that economic life should be at the service of man and is not an end of itself, these economic actors frequently choose to pursue unlimited rights for themselves through legislation or policies that do not harmonize their roles in the production process or benefit the common good. The dissatisfying solutions to the crisis proposed by our partisan leaders compound the problem, as they ignore any substantive discussions about the purposes of economic activity and whom the economy is meant to serve.
This gives us an opportunity to call upon the faithful to turn to the magisterial social teachings of the Church,2 which can illuminate these times and make the Gospel “resound in the complex worlds of production, labor, business, finance, trade, politics, law, culture, [and] social communications.”3
Work is not merely a “product” human beings sell to their employer.4 Indeed, work is not even necessarily synonymous with employment at all. The work of human hands is an instrumental aspect of life with a divine vocation and fundamental basis in human existence. Man has a right and duty to work, to dominate and subdue the earth within the confines of good stewardship, but “in the first place work is ‘for man’ and not man ‘for work.’”5
Unequivocally, the Church’s social teachings aim to secure harmony and fraternity between capital and labor as this relationship affects the general welfare of society. Capital needs labor to produce goods and labor needs capital to earn a wage. These wages should be sufficient for the laborer to provide for one’s family, own a little property, and live a frugal life.6 Reducing workers to conditions of poverty deprives them of an entitled fair return on their labor with detrimental consequences for their families. Because the family is the cornerstone of society and the household economy directly contributes to the well being of the broader community, the aims of the market and the state should follow the principal needs of the family, and by extension, the community will prosper.
When private and public interests—that is individual, businesses and governments—are not held accountable to the common good, they contribute to a climate of dispossession, that is, they diminish the opportunities of the poor to own the land, tools and other resources necessary for their families to flourish. Economies of dispossession lead to dependence upon finance capital, austerity measures or bailouts to keep the heart of the economy pumping. But these band-aids cannot sustain themselves over long periods of time. An economy unaccountable to the common good will ultimately lead to economic bubbles and depressions—which always devastate the poor first, and then the middle class.
One way families can thrive is by supporting the right of association among the working poor to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions. Another way is to encourage an economy of participation as a better social model. Leo XIII wrote that the law “should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.”7 Pius XI took it one step further and recommended the “partnership contract” so that “[w]orkers and other employees … become sharers in ownership or management or participate in some fashion in the profits received.”8
There are, of course, obstacles to economic participation. In an open letter to Congressman Paul Ryan, the founder of Oklahoma Worker Cooperative Network, Robert Waldrop, addressed the difficulties for greater participation in the economy:
It’s illegal to practice small-scale itinerant trades without ‘proper licenses’ which often have expensive prerequisites so that they function as barriers to market entry rather than protections for the public. These are trades like hair braiding, hair cutting, carpentry, plumbing, etc. The proliferation of coercive credentialing in general raises political barriers to finding and doing work and lowers compensation.
It is also against the law for poor people to practice trades out of their homes. In some places, garage sales are permitted only a handful of times per year. Unregulated transportation services (e.g., jitney services), writes Waldrop, “[place] serious political barriers to market entry”. Bureaucratic red tape prevents people from access to moderate rental properties, or property owners from offering free backyard rentals to the destitute, while government revenue from the working and middle classes help pay for upscale development. Laws forbid families from selling homemade preserves, vegetables and even baked goods while tax credits and other benefits increase for large-scale production of genetically modified foods.
More ownership, not less, is rarely explored today as a solution because we have accepted the separation of ownership and work as the gold standard of economic progress. A new civic economy enabling social mobility through ownership of the means of production can shift our wage labor economy into an economy of productive micro-enterprises and worker-owned businesses.
Through Her public policy voice and through pastoral initiatives, the Church can and should respond with measures to resolve the tensions created by unemployment. However, the Church should also look to Her past, to the social tradition’s call for widespread economic participation. Indeed, participation in the market perfectly illustrates the Catholic social principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, infusing, as Pope Paul VI wrote, “a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws and structures of the community in which [we] live.”9
- “All that is good and just in other systems is already in Catholic social doctrine.” Pius XII, text of a radio address delivered March 11, 1951 to the Catholic men of Spain, employers and workers.
- Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 70.
- Laborem Exercens, no. 7.
- Ibid., no. 6.
- “Many excellent results will follow from this; and, first of all, property will certainly become more equitably divided.” Pope Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, nos. 46-47.
- Ibid., no. 46.
- Quadragesimo Anno, no. 65.
- Populorum Progressio, no. 81.