Going back to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things” (1891), the Church recognised the inequality of the lone worker with just his or her labour to sell versus the overwhelming power of the employer or owner of the means of production.
In order to even out this inequality the existence of trade unions was vindicated.
More recently Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem Excercens – “On Human Work” (1981), asserted that the interests of labour must always take precedent over those of capital.
The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church states that unions are “a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life.”
Indeed, Pope John Paul II seemed to suggest the scope and role of unions’ activity needed to expand to meet the demands of the new globalised workplace. “Today unions are called to act in new ways, widening the scope of their activity of solidarity so that protection is afforded not only to the traditional categories of workers, but also to workers with non-standard or limited-time contracts, employees whose jobs are threatened by business mergers that occur with ever increasing frequency, even at international level: to those who do not have a job, to immigrants, seasonal workers and those who, because they have not had professional updating, have been dismissed from the labour market and cannot be readmitted without proper training.”
The Church in this respect very much read the signs of the times, namely that trade unions are as important now as at any time in the past.
One trade union leader who strongly supports the Church’s social teaching on trade unions is Billy Hayes, the General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union. He argues that unions are about “social solidarity and everyone having their say.”
Mr Hayes says he has not seen any religion yet that says selfishness is a good thing, yet the form of globalised market capitalism being pursued at present goes in that very direction.
Despite Pope John Paul II’s assertion that unions will become more relevant as work patterns become more insecure, membership in Britain has come down substantially since the 1960s and 70s, almost halving from 13 million to 6.5 million (28 per cent of the working population). This has come about partly through the reshaping of the economy. Traditional areas of work like manufacturing have been devastated due to a combination of neo-liberal government policies and the process of globalisation.
The past Conservative Governments of Margaret Thatcher also played a key role in the demise of unions, setting out to smash them via a combination of using the law, media and unemployment.
Privatisation of public services has also hit unions hard. Most were reliant on the big nationally owned industries like coal and steel. Today, many of the biggest unions still have a nationally owned industry at their epicentre, so there is Unison for the NHS and the Communication Workers Union for Royal Mail. It is far more difficult to organise inside often-hostile private sector employers.
While trade union membership has declined over the years, the pressure on worker’s job security, pay and conditions has continued to grow. Flexible work practices have come in with the globalised market. Pay has been squeezed, so the 1970s dream of a 25-hour week for all, with more leisure time for study and family never became a reality.
Instead, workers have ended up working longer hours for less pay, with families often paying the price. Pensions are now under threat with the retirement age going up. It has been a structural adjustment in capitalism to ensure that ever-greater profits continue to flow to employers or owners. The weakening of trade union collective power has been a significant part of this process.
Today, in the midst of the global recession, the world could be on the edge of another structural adjustment as workers are asked to make more sacrifices “for the good of the company” – this will mean more job insecurity, less pay and in many cases job losses.
In response to these developments, there have been campaigns like that for the living wage in London. This came from members of the community based London Citizens organisation complaining that their family life was practically non-existent due to having to do two or three low paid jobs a week to stay above the poverty line. Research funded by the trade union Unison in 2001 came up with an average hourly rate that was required for families to live above the poverty line. Banks, NHS trusts, the London Mayor and other commercial employers were lobbied to accept the rate, which now stands at £7.60 an hour. Several accepted and became living wage employers. The London Mayor now sets a living wage rate every year. It is estimated this campaign has put £20 million back in the pockets of low paid workers since 2001.
CST also strongly supports the concept of the corporate responsibility of employers for workers within the context of the common good. So the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that: “business owners and management must not limit themselves to taking into account only the economic objectives of the company, the criteria for economic efficiency and the proper care of “capital” as the sum of the means of production. It is also their precise duty to respect concretely the human dignity of those who work in the company.”
Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus – “The One Hundredth Year” (1991), states that these workers constitute “the firm’s most valuable asset.”
Former Labour Mp John Battle stresses the importance of solidarity between workers on an international scale, something most clearly seen in unions. He believes the sense of international solidarity between workers needs to be built up. “The trade unions have an important role to develop solidarity. It means regaining a sense of the importance of community, trade unions are vital to this,” said Mr Battle. “The Church has the capacity to be global and local at the same time. There must be solidarity globally and locally”
The injustice of the relationship of an individual worker alone facing the powerful employer has been set out in social teaching going as far back as Rerum Novarum. The Church also teaches that wealth is to be shared, not taken by one group of people for their own gratification. The inequality remains the same and representation is as vital now as ever.
Paul Donovan, Journalist