“Masters and wealthy owners,” Pope Leo XIII wrote in his encyclical on labor in 1891, “must be mindful of their duty.”
That duty, he wrote in “Rerum Novarum” (“On the Condition of Labor”) is not, as the current governor of Illinois seems to believe, to meekly accept whatever crumbs fall from the table of the rich and the powerful, but to form their own organizations to fight for decent wages, reasonable hours, mandated breaks, safety standards and a humane work environment.
“It is the duty of the state to respect and cherish them, and if need be, to defend them from attack,” Pope Leo wrote, during a time of vicious anti-union activities, even more extreme than our own.
It is heartening to see his approach embraced by Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich, who went to bat for Illinois’ besieged labor unions this week.
“History has shown that a society with a healthy, effective and responsible labor movement is a better place than one where other powerful economic interests have their way and the voices and rights of workers are diminished,” Cupich told a gathering at the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local 130 on the West Side Thursday. “The church is duty-bound to challenge such efforts, by raising questions based on long-standing principles.”
Cupich’s comments fit nicely in with the general trend of Catholic clergy embracing the downtrodden, emphasized lately under the inspired leadership of Pope Francis, who arrives for his first visit to the United States this week.
The question is not, as Gov. Bruce Rauner seems to consider it, whether Illinois would be a more welcoming work environment if laborers were stripped of their rights. It certainly would, just as it’s cheaper to manufacture goods using near slaves in China than it is to produce something in Chicago. Nor does supporting unions suggest that they are right in all regards and never have corruption and excesses of their own.
The question, as Cupich so clearly stated it, is whether it is moral to make people live like that, and whether our government will set itself against the interests of workers as a matter of policy.
“We have to ask,” Cupich said, “do these measures undermine the capacity of unions to organize? Do such laws protect the weak and the vulnerable? Do they promote the dignity of work, the rights of workers? Do they promote a more just society?”
That is a big “No.” Rauner is attempting to hold the budget hostage until he is given the weapons he wants to unleash against unions. I have been in a union for most of my career at the Sun-Times, and have seen firsthand how it counterbalances, slightly, the power and control that rests with the owners. Without it, wages drop, security is gone, and workers find themselves at the whim of owners.
I’m not in the habit of speaking for God, but if the archbishop wants to point out that undermining unions is immoral and contrary to the will of the Divine, a denial of the love that He feels for His creation, I certainly won’t contradict him either.
This is sadly nothing new. Read the following about unions and ask yourself: Blase Cupich in 2015 or Pope Leo in 1891?
“It is the duty of the state to respect and cherish them, and if need be, to defend them from attack. It is notorious that a very different course has been followed, more especially in our own times. In many places the state authorities have laid violent hands on these communities, and committed manifold injustice against them; it has placed them under control of the civil law, taken away their rights as corporate bodies.”
That would be Pope Leo, 124 years ago. This is an old fight, one that has to be fought anew in every generation, and it’s good to see the men in black on the right side once again.
Follow Neil Steinberg on Twitter: @NeilSteinberg