Pope Francis' Union Message

Pope Francis delivered an address to the Confederation of Trade Unions in Italy (CISL), and his message is a compelling one. It can be read in its entirety here. For me, there were at least four important points.

Pope Francis greets workers as he arrives at the ILVA steel plant during his May 27 pastoral visit in Genoa, Italy. (CNS photo/Giorgio Perottino, Reuters)

1. We should not think about labor without understanding, and having due regard for, the human being that labors. Here, Francis is expressing three interconnected ideas. The first is one of the central organizing principles of the labor movement: labor is not a commodity, and when it is treated as a commodity, enormous social harm follows. The second, highly relevant as we think about the future of work and the potential for technological unemployment, is that human flourishing requires meaningful work. The third, though, also critical to our thinking about the future, is that work cannot entirely define human life, and “rest” is also critical. The Pope put it this way:

Person and labour are two words that can and must stay together. Because if we think and talk about labour without the person, labour ends up becoming something inhumane, which by forgetting the person forgets and loses itself. But if we think of the person without work, we are saying something partial, incomplete, because the person is fully realized when he or she becomes a worker: because the individual becomes a person when he or she opens up to others, to social life, when he or she thrives in work. . . . Certainly, the person is not only formed by labour … We must also think of a healthy culture of idleness, of knowing how to rest. This is not laziness, it is a human need.

2. Unions ought to embody the world they wish to create, and they ought to fight for a world that is different than the one we currently inhabit. Francis calls this the prophetic role of unions. In far more prosaic terms, we might understand it as a critique of business unionism. In his words:

The union is an expression of the prophetic profile of society. The union is born and reborn every time that, like the biblical prophets, it gives a voice to those who have none, denounces those who would “sell the needy for a pair of sandals” (cf. Amos 2: 6), unmasks the powerful who trample the rights of the most vulnerable workers, defends the cause of the foreigner, the least, the discarded. As shown by the great tradition of the CISL, the union movement has its great seasons when it is prophecy. But in our advanced capitalist societies, the union risks losing its prophetic nature, and becoming too similar to the institutions and powers that it should instead criticize. The union, with the passing of time, has ended up resembling politics, or rather, political parties, their language, their style.

3. Unions must do more than defend their own members. Indeed they must “innovate” – that’s Francis’ word – by reaching the unemployed and those that “do not yet have rights.”

4. Finally, and most broadly: “There is no good society without a good union, and there is no good union that is not reborn every day in the peripheries, that does not transform the discarded stones of the economy into its cornerstones.”


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