I was initially taken aback, some years ago, when an elderly Catholic
unionist in Lithgow stated: “I learnt my practical Christianity through
the union, for the union cared more for the poor and vulnerable than
many Church organisations.”
And there was truth in what he said, for initially unions saw themselves as protecting the poor and vulnerable workers, those seeking work, immigrants and those suffering because of war and disorder in their own countries.
Because workers’ rights, like all rights, are based on the nature of the human person and on his transcendent dignity, the Catholic Church was never reticent to list these rights in the hope they would be recognised in juridical systems.
In so doing, the Church recognised the fundamental role played by labour unions which “grew up from the struggle of the workers – workers in general but especially the industrial workers – to protect their just rights vis-a-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production.” (Laborem Exercens, 20)
In her teaching the Church insists that unions are not a reflection of the “class” structure of society but should be promoters of the struggle for social justice, for the rights of workers.
In addition, unions must act as representatives working for “the proper arrangement of economic life and of educating the social consciences of workers so that they will feel that they have an active role in the whole task of economic and social development and in the attainment of the universal common good.” (Gaudium et Spes, 68)
The Church contends that unions have a duty to exercise influence in the political arena, making it sensitive to labour problems and demanding respect for workers’ rights.
However, unions should not have the character of ‘political parties’ struggling for power and they should not be forced to submit to the decisions of political parties nor be too closely linked to them and used as an instrument for other purposes.
In view of the aforesaid, and this month’s federal election, we might well put some of our more prominent unions under the microscope. After all, the goal of all organised labour is to contribute to the common good of all Australians.
No doubt any such efforts would be challenged and questioned. But workers are entitled to unions which are being treated fairly. In turn, unionists’ rights can be placed at risk because of a lack of freedom of speech in assembly or coercion by union leaders.
And there are many issues to fight for: some legislators still believe that health care is a privilege, not a human right; that the right to life is an option; that the rights of the poor are subject to the choice of the rich.
Union membership can also offer great opportunities for self-sacrifice, helping people, like Jesus, to be a ‘servant of all’, laying down one’s wishes, needs and desires for the sake of others is our measure for living the Gospel.
The unions might well have a second look at the plight of immigrants; after all, Australia was built on immigrant labour. And they still come to Australia to seek a better life for their families; and don’t unions have a right to affirm their right to work?
That is precisely why we need the leadership of organised labour: for the poor and the vulnerable; for those who seek to organise in the name of human rights; families who have been deprived of both dignity and justice.
In some cities each year there is a Labor Day Mass – something we could think about. It provides the opportunity for members to show their commitment also to their faith, where they can come to join together on this day to show that they participate in projects which are good for the community – not just good for their jobs.
They can take the opportunity to praise God for giving work and ask for God’s help in finding and keeping good jobs. They could pray, on this occasion, for union members who have lost their lives, an opportunity to say we haven’t forgotten about those who have fallen on the job.
Kevin Manning is Emeritus Bishop of Parramatta
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