On June 28, Pope Francis addressed Italy’s CISL /Confederation of Trade Unions, an umbrella organization of labor unions much like America’s AFL-CIO. The pope had much to share, especially for those of us called to pursue justice in the labor movement. The Holy Father observed that today’s market economy is anti-union precisely because it has cast off ethical and social responsibilities.
The capitalism of our time does not understand the value of the labor union, because it has forgotten the social nature of the economy, of the company. This is one of the greatest sins. Market economy: no. We say social market economy, as Saint John Paul II taught us.
Because of this, Francis told his listeners, labor unions have a prophetic role to play in announcing justice to a broken world:
The labor union is expression of the prophetic profile of society. The labor union is born and reborn every time that, as the biblical prophets, it gives voice to those that do not have it, it denounces [the fact of] the poor one “sold for a pair of sandals” (Cf. Amos 2:6), unmasks the powerful that trample the rights of the most frail workers, defends the cause of the stranger, of the last, of the “rejected.”
But the Holy Father warned that when unions focus exclusively on the welfare of their existing members, they forfeit that prophetic role. Instead, they must also extend their solidarity to the excluded and marginalized:
In our advanced, capitalistic societies, the labor union risks losing its prophetic nature and becoming too similar to the institutions and the powers that, instead, it should criticize… Prophets are watchmen, who watch from their lookout. A labor union must also watch on the walls of the city of work, as a watchman that guards and protects those inside the city of work, but that also guards and protects those outside the walls…. Your vocation is also to protect those who still do not have rights, the excluded from work who are also excluded from rights and from democracy.
Pope Francis concluded with two striking claims: there is no good society without labor unions, and there is no good labor union that does not exhibit solidarity with the poor and excluded:
There is no good society without a good labor union, and there is no good labor union that is not reborn every day in the peripheries, which does not transform the rejected stones of the economy into corner stones. “Syndicato” [i.e. labor union] is a beautiful word that comes from the Greek “dike,” namely justice, and “syn,” together: syn-dike, “justice together.” There is no justice together if it is not together with the excluded of today.