Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis) raised the spirits of millions of union members around the world when he said, “Trade unions have been an essential force for social change, without which a semblance of a decent and humane society is impossible under Capitalism.”
Resorting to incendiary, unambiguous words like “essential” and “impossible” and “semblance” makes it pretty damn clear where Pope Francis stands in regard to organized labor and the plight of working men and women. Saying what he did about “Capitalism,” this Pope would have fit right in with the IWW and early ILWU. Indeed, the great Harry Bridges himself couldn’t have expressed the thought any more eloquently.
While today, religion, labor unions and moral crusades aren’t likely to be mentioned in the same sentence, that wasn’t always the case. At age 79, Pope Francis is old enough to recall the role the Roman Catholic Church played in the launching of Cesar Chavez’s revolutionary United Farm Workers (UFW) union, in California, back in the 1960s.
Not only was Chavez deeply religious and an ardent Catholic, he intentionally and systematically utilized the Church of Rome—its ethical teachings combined with the non-violent pacifism of Mahatma Gandhi—as the moral template for the formation of his union. And coupled with the “moral imperative” reflected in the civil rights and anti-war movements (which were going on simultaneously), the UFW was propelled forward.
It’s not inaccurate to say that no American labor union in history, before or since, was more dependent upon, more connected to or more grateful for, the teachings of Jesus Christ than the UFW. In truth, Cesar Chavez (born in Yuma, Arizona, in 1927) saw the Mexican-American farm workers’ labor movement as a “moral and spiritual uplifting” rather than a purely economic “money grab.”
All of which makes the current state of organized labor that much more painful. In addition to membership roles having declined precipitously, the public’s respect and admiration for union members and union leaders alike is, arguably, lower than it’s been in memory.
Indeed, the notion of an American union presenting itself not only as (per Pope Francis) necessary for Capitalism to function “humanely,” but as the “driving moral force” of a nation’s economy seems almost ludicrous.
Perhaps we’ve all become too cynical and relativistic to put things in “moral” terms. Maybe we’re too “jaded.” Anyone old enough to recall JFK’s inspirational speech—the one that included the phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”—has to cringe in embarrassment at how sappy that sounds by today’s standards. Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric long ago supplanted JFK’s cornball idealism.
Even union members have become demoralized. That’s partly due to what they see as organized labor’s inability to get the Democratic Party to stand up and fight for it (despite hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions), and partly due, fairly or unfairly, to what they perceive as labor’s bloated, greedy and self-indulgent national leadership.
What labor most needs is an injection of Old Time Religion. It needs to abandon the economic axis and embrace the moral axis. Labor needs to follow the Pope’s lead and focus the issue on morality. It needs to remind everyone that if Jesus Christ returned to earth, he would want workers to make a living wage and do their jobs with dignity.