Reflecting widespread Catholic concerns regarding social injustices that sprang from the industrial revolution, Pope Leo XIII laid out the Church’s position on labor unions in his landmark 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum[a]. For the first time in history, a pope went on record against labor exploitation, in order “to save the poor workers from the cruelty of grasping speculators, who use human beings as mere instruments for making money.”[b]  The pope solemnly rejected a then-dominant economic tenet, namely that labor is a mere commodity to be treated no differently than any item in any other market. Leo scolded the industrial managers and factory owners of his era for forgetting the very purpose of the economy: providing for the genuine human needs of all.

Pope Leo affirmed the foundation of all ethical thought in the preservation of human dignity. As efficient and beneficial as competitive markets may be, labor markets must be regulated to safeguard human wellbeing, since work supplies the very livelihood of most people, and is not just another commodity to be bought and sold at prevailing prices.  From these principles Leo developed specific rights belonging to workers—rights typical of union advocacy: reasonable hours, rest periods, health safeguards, and humane working conditions; special provisions regarding the labor of women and children, including minimum age requirements; of a wage sufficient to support a worker who is “thrifty and upright” and, by implication, his or her family; and the right to form workers’ associations—unions.[c]

Eighty years later, in Laborem Exercens[d], Saint Pope John Paul II focused on work as “the essential key, to the whole social question” [3].  John Paul argued that, through the Genesis work-mandate “to subdue the earth”, humans image their Creator and share God’s creative action.  This insight into work “implies a more equitable redistribution not only of income and wealth, but also of work itself in such a way that there may be employment for all.”[e] Thus, the Pope reaffirmed worker and union rights, urging “worker solidarity” for social justice, an essential mission of the “church of the poor” [8].

Pope John Paul also called for: “suitable employment for all who are capable of it,” and, when unavailable, unemployment benefits provided by employers or, upon their failure, the state [18]; just remuneration for work by a family head sufficient “for establishing and properly maintaining a family and for providing security for its future” [19], including a family wage or social measures such as family allowances for child-raising mothers; provision of health care, coverage of work accidents, inexpensive or free medical assistance for workers and families, old age pensions and insurance, and appropriate vacations and holidays [19]. Trade and professional unions are necessary, he maintained, and retain the right to organize, act politically, and to strike “within just limits” [20].

More recently, in Caritas in Veritate[f],  Pope Benedict reiterated certain traditional particulars about human work: that it be freely chosen; no discrimination; enable a family to meet their needs and the educational needs of children; no child labor; allow organization of workers (unions) and their voices to be heard; and support a decent retirement [63].  He underscored the importance of labor unions and their need to be open to defending the rights of others besides their own members and the interests of “workers in developing countries where social rights are often violated” [64]. Recognizing that union rights and negotiating capacity often are now more limited by governments and economic forces—increasing the powerlessness of citizens in the public sector and the economy—the pope wrote that the traditional promotion of workers’ associations must “be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level” [25].

These affirmations of the church’s support for labor unions have been confirmed by Pope Francis on numerous occasions, including at his various addresses to the three World Meetings of Popular Movements that he has convened since his papal election in 2013. Joining his predecessors Leo XIII, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, Francis has endorsed organized labor as an indispensable mechanism for protecting the rights of workers, especially in our current era of globalization and widespread exploitation, when worker protections are so endangered.

[a] Pope Leo XIII, encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor), May 15, 1891.

[b] Op. cit., no. 33.

[c] Rerum Novarum, nos. 29-38.

[d] Pope Saint John Paul II, encyclical letter Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), September 14, 1981. Numbers in brackets refer to numbers in the document texts.

[e] Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, Guidelines for the Study and Teaching of the Church’s Social Doctrine in the Formation of Priests, December 30, 1988, in Origins, Vol. 19, No. 11, August 3, 1989, pp. 169-92, No. 26.

[f] Pope Benedict XVI, encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), June 29, 2009.