Pope Francis, the labor movement’s best friend?

Published 6:12 PM EDT, Sun September 6, 2015

Story highlights

As we celebrate Labor Day, it's worth paying attention to Pope Francis' message about dignity of work

John Gehring: It's important to defend workers' right against the excesses of unfettered capitalism

Editor’s Note: John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. He is author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.” Follow him on Twitter: @gehringdc The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

Pope Francis will visit America soon and become the first pontiff in history to address Congress. As we celebrate Labor Day, it’s worth paying close attention to a Pope who reminds us that honoring the dignity of work is a cornerstone for any just society.

The spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics isn’t a politician or activist, but it’s not hard to imagine him rolling up his sleeves and joining the “Fight for 15” – a national movement winning pay increases for fast-food workers – or standing alongside federal contract employees on Capitol Hill who clean and cook for the nation’s powerful but earn poverty wages.

During a recent speech in Bolivia, the Pope sounded like a fiery union organizer.

John Gehring
John Gehring
John Gehring

“Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change,” Francis insisted, highlighting labor, along with access to affordable housing and land, as “sacred rights.” When he met with unemployed Italian workers in 2013, the Pope had stark words for business leaders dodging their ethical responsibilities. “Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at how to make a profit – that goes against God,” he said.

These are timely messages that need to be heard in the United States.

In the years after World War II, wages for most American workers grew. Strong unions and government policies helped create a vibrant middle class. The era was characterized by relative shared prosperity.

But by the middle of the 1970s, pathways to the American dream narrowed. Over the next 30 years, productivity remained high but workers watched their earnings stagnate, attacks on unions grow and retirement portfolios fizzle.

Public policies that served the common good gave way to privatization and anti-government ideologies that often benefited multinational companies more than struggling families. It’s not a coincidence that as the share of workers represented by a union declined dramatically, the gap between the wealthiest few and everyone else became a huge chasm.

A recent study from Glassdoor Economic Research found that the average CEO compensation at 26 companies on the S&P stock index is now more than 500 times their average workers’ pay. While the unemployment rate is falling and the economy is showing signs of growth, take-home pay is dropping for the nation’s lowest-paid workers.

And for all the lofty rhetoric from politicians, the United States is the only developed country without guaranteed paid family leave for workers who need to care for a newborn, a sick spouse or dying parent.

Only 12% of U.S. workers have access to paid family medical leave through their employees. At least 43 million working Americans don’t even have a single paid sick day.

While Pope Francis won’t come to Congress with a 10-point policy agenda, his emphasis on the dignity of labor and the need to challenge what he calls “an economy of exclusion” should be a wake-up call.

Some U.S. conservative pundits and politicians insist the Pope is naive – a socialist who doesn’t understand American-style capitalism.

These critics conveniently ignore the fact that for more than a century, bedrock Catholic social teaching has affirmed workers’ right to organize and recognized the limits of unfettered markets.

While powerful GOP Catholics, including Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan, oppose a modest increase to the federal minimum wage, the Catholic Church has supported a living wage since the late 19th century, when Pope Leo XIII stood in solidarity with workers during a time when the savage inequalities of the Industrial Revolution left laborers routinely exploited.

The Reagan administration effectively declared war on organized labor. The Catholic Church stood strong. “No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself,” the U.S. bishops wrote in a powerful 1986 national pastoral letter. “Therefore we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing.”

The once strong ties between the labor movement and the Catholic Church frayed in recent decades. A generation of bishops, many forged with memories of growing up in union families and steeped in Catholic-labor solidarity, were replaced by church leaders often more organized behind fighting same-sex marriage than speaking out for economic justice. In 2011, when a coalition of more than 200 faith leaders in Ohio united to oppose a law that significantly weakened collective bargaining for public workers, the state’s Catholic bishops took a neutral position and stayed quiet.

Will the times change in the Francis era? Will we see a “Francis effect” on church-labor ties?

A Pope who has called inequality “the root of social evil” and consistently defends workers against a profit-first mentality has emboldened Catholic leaders to put more institutional muscle behind the church’s ancient teachings about the common good.

Bishop Robert McElroy, tapped by the Pope to lead the Diocese of San Diego, has argued that the priorities Francis has placed at the center of his papacy “demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation.” He was one of several bishops, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who attended a June conference on workers’ rights and solidarity co-sponsored by the AFL-CIO and The Catholic University of America. The event turned heads in Washington and signals a rekindling of church-labor fires.

“For the labor movement, Pope Francis’ lessons of solidarity and inclusion are exactly what we need,” said Richard Trumka, the union’s president, which represents more than 50 unions and 12.5 million workers. He was speaking to an audience filled with Catholic clergy and progressive activists.

The status quo is hard to change. But a populist Pope with a common touch is pumping new energy into the Catholic Church. Along the way, he just might turn out to be the best friend the labor movement has seen in years.

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