From his native Poland to the ends of the earth, John Paul insisted that work is not a burden or penalty, but “expresses the human vocation to service and solidarity” (March 19, 1997). He long maintained that “Human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question” (Laborem Exercens #3).
In his powerful encyclical On Human Work, John Paul II reaffirmed the right to employment, to just wages and to choose to join a union. He called for a priority of labor over capital. He taught us:
· “The obligation to earn one's bread by the sweat of one's brow also presumes the right to do so. A society in which this right is systematically denied, in which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment, cannot be justified from an ethical point of view, nor can the society attain social peace” (Centesimus Annus #43).
· “A just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly. It is not the only means of checking, but it is a particularly important one and, in a sense, the key means” (LE # 19).
· Workers have “the right to establish professional associations,” and trade unions have “the Church's defense and approval” (CA #7). “The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive” (CA #15). Unions have a role, “not only in negotiating contracts, but also as 'places' where workers can express themselves. They serve the development of an authentic culture of work and help workers to share in a fully human way in the life of their place of employment” (CA #15). “The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type [Unions] are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies” (LE #20).
In his vision, unions help workers not simply “get more” for their work, but “be more,” more effective voices on their own behalf, more active participants in economic life and greater contributors to the common good of society.
Pope John Paul looked at economic life from the bottom-up. How do economic choices touch the “least of these” (Matthew 25: 31-46)? In an age of growing globalization, Pope John Paul insisted that all economic life should be measured by how it protects the lives, dignity and rights of workers and the vulnerable. At a time when workers were often treated as commodities, he stood up for their dignity and rights in the shipyards of Poland, the maquiladoras of America, the sweatshops of the Far East and the villages of Africa.