Rerum Novarum: A Labor Day Retrospective

On the first Monday of September, Americans say goodbye to summer with picnics and parades, fireworks and festivals. Traditionally, it’s the last day for women to wear white. It signals the start of the NFL and college football seasons.  It’s Labor Day!

The first official Labor Day was celebrated on September 5, 1882, with a parade organized by the Central Labor Union of New York as a way to honor the economic and social contributions of workers.

President Obama is scheduled to speak in Detroit on Labor Day 2011.  With the bleak jobs report just released showing no increase in employment rates, it’s likely that the president will once again tout his programs for job creation—as he did on Labor Day 2010, when he announced a $50 billion long-term program to build roads, rails and runways.  In 2010, as in 2009, he fired at Republicans, blaming them for the economic downturn.  “These are the folks whose policies helped devastate our middle class and drive our economy into a ditch,” he asserted in 2010.  “And now they’re asking you for the keys back.”

Well, hold your horses, Mr. President.  That 2010 jobs program, and the economic stimulus program which preceded it, pumped millions of taxpayer-earned dollars into the economy, but failed to bring about the long-term recovery you promised.  Your attempts to scale back or eliminate regulations concerning workplace safety, environmental protection, endangered species, and hospitals have not produced the anticipated upsurge in spending.  Could it be that the Republicans got it right, and what we really need is a labor-friendly policy which will encourage small and large business ventures through tax incentives, patent protections, increased domestic oil protection, and reduced government spending?

More than 120 years ago, Pope Leo XIII had some ideas about Labor and the Rights of Workers which offer contemporary lessons for America.  In his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo laid the groundwork for the Church’s social teaching.

Pope Leo didn’t seem worried, as President Obama seems to be, that owners of corporate jets would suck up profits which should more fairly be given to the working men.  Rather, he saw a natural partnership between people of wealth and the workers they employed.  He wrote in Rerum Novarum:

The great mistake…is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict.  So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth.  Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic.  Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. 

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and archbishop-emeritus of Cape Coast (Ghana), has explained that the goals of a society, now as at the time of Rerum Novarum, are:

  • Pursuit of the common good, “which is not reduced to one’s nation but considered from a world standpoint”;
  • Awareness that this good cannot be limited to material goods but must include the  moral good of society;
  • Placing priority on people and families;
  • Respecting the free initiative of people; and
  • Aiding the neediest in society.

John Sweeney, president emeritus of the AFL-CIO, at a conference earlier this year at The Catholic University of America, called for a renewed emphasis on human dignity, as expressed in Rerum Novarum and later documents such as the U.S. Bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All.

“Let us remind our entire church,” Sweeney said, “that Rerum Novarum is not a cafeteria of suggestions and ideas from which we are free to pick and choose, but the modern expression of an unbroken line that stretches from the Book of Genesis, throughout the Old Testament, to the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ himself.”

Sweeney called for a renewed partnership between church and labor, “if the labor movement is to survive and perpetuate our mission of being what amounts to an action arm of Catholic social teaching.”

Rerum Novarum offers a template for the current economic crisis, by protecting the private sector from government intrusion while calling on business leaders to help the working classes when they are able, through equitable wages and humane working conditions.  The encyclical concludes:

Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God’s providence, for the benefit of others.

“He that hath a talent,” said St. Gregory the Great, “let him see that he hide it not; he that hath abundance, let him quicken himself to mercy and generosity; he that hath art and skill, let him do his best to share the use and the utility hereof with his neighbor.”

Happy Labor Day! 

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