4.4.3 Christian action for workers’ rights

Back to 4.4.2

Unit 4 Contents


A question that commentators and critics have frequently raised about CST, perhaps especially in relation to working life, is whether what it says on the place of conflict in social and political life is adequate.  I have mentioned this a few times already in this unit (especially on 4.3.4).

The reading from Lamoureux did too: in relation to wage levels and other aspects of working conditions (for example), “an ethic that gives priority to labor over capital must acknowledge and address the tension that exists between this harmonious ideal and conflictual reality” (p. 407).

In the context of Rerum Novarum, the issue arose like this.  Pope Leo XIII was deeply opposed to Marxist socialism.  In Marxism, class conflict is a basic part of the whole worldview.  Therefore Leo was extremely cautious about advocating forms of social engagement by Christians which might mean they became caught up in socialist class struggle which, Leo believed, would not at all contribute to the common good.   Hence, you will recall, his argument for distinctly Catholic trades unions (4.2.7).

Pope John Paul II addressed the same issue, making use of the concept of ‘solidarity’.  This enabled him to find a ‘both/and’ solution to the problem.  Movements of ‘solidarity’ can stand against any and all forms of injustice and exploitation, but in a way that fundamentally is committed to social unity and the common good (4.3.4).  John Paul rejected the Marxist understanding of class struggle as clearly as Leo XIII had done.

But this raises an extremely interesting question.  What forms of organization and activism are really most suited to campaigning for workers’ rights on the basis of solidarity, rather than class conflict?

Here the precedent of the Solidarity union in Poland is fascinating – because it was more than a traditional trade union and represented very clearly an anti-Marxist worldview, one that rejected class conflict.  While very specific workplace issues provoked Lech Wałęsa and others to form it, it soon became a broader kind of movement – and as such proved to be a catalyst for massive, unexpected, and mainly peaceful change across eastern and central Europe between 1980 and 1991.  (In Unit 8 we shall look further at the events that brought down the European Communist regimes in 1989-91.)

While there are obvious differences, the Solidarity movement has some similarities with Citizens UK, whose campaign for a Living Wage we looked at near the start of this unit (4.1.4).  Citizens UK is a movement formed on the basis of a quite specific model of campaigning for justice, which is called ‘community organizing’.

Most basically, ‘community organizing’ involves the establishment of a broad-based movement in a city or town.  Most of the members are local community bodies – very often churches, mosques and synagogues – rather than individuals.  A community organizing movement doesn’t have a pre-set agenda of issues to tackle, but its agenda takes shape as relationships develop among people in its various member bodies.  Out of this, the kinds of issues and challenges that people are facing just bubble up.  They become obvious, because they are people’s real concerns – like the inadequacy of the minimum wage for people living in London.  These then become the focus of campaigning.

Some people see community organizing as a way of putting CST into practice.  In a moment you will be asked to do the final reading for this unit which is from a very good book called Faithful Citizens that argues for this view.  Its subtitle presents it as A Practical Guide to Catholic Social Teaching and Community Organising.

But it will be very worthwhile first to spend a few minutes looking at how Citizens UK describe themselves – and at their latest action in campaigning for the Living Wage (at the time of writing it is to pressure Arsenal FC to pay it).


‘Reading’ (15-20 mins)

(i) Citizens UK, ‘About’

This includes a five-minute video.

(ii) Citizens UK, ‘Living wage campaign’ – latest statements


Clearly, the main difference between the Solidarity movement in Poland and Citizens UK is that the former was basically a workers’ union whereas the latter is set up to be a broad-based movement.  However they have in common that the agenda each has is not a narrow one of collective self-interest, nor is either movement based at all on a Marxist or socialist premise of class conflict.  Rather, both are deliberately committed to the common good.

In this connection, one of the features of Citizens UK and of the method of ‘community organizing’ in general is that those they campaign against, e.g. large employers, are always seen as potential allies.  In relation to the Living Wage Campaign, if a large employer, such as a bank agrees to pay it, Citizens UK goes out of their way to praise them in public, inviting them to their own ‘citizens’ assemblies’ in order to do so.  The reading in a moment brings this out.

But what the Solidarity union and Citizens UK as a ‘community organizing’ body also have in common is, very explicitly, a recognition that methods of adversarial campaigning – which therefore involve public conflict – are necessary if injustice and exploitation are to be challenged effectively.  This is a crucial point because, to the extent that both these kinds of body give ways of pursuing CST’s agenda, they have enabled CST to move beyond the difficulty of how to accept a place for social conflict without promoting either class struggle or social disorder.

These paragraphs are enough to introduce the final reading.  This is an account of the campaign for a Living Wage in London from Faithful Citizens, in which Austen Ivereigh argues that the ‘community organizing’ method of social action fits extremely well with CST.  You have seen Ivereigh on screen, as he speaks in the video on the Citizens UK website that you looked at just now (he is at 1:41).

See this reading as a prompt for assessing how all that RN and LE have to say about working life should be pursued in practice.


Reading (23pp)

Austen Ivereigh, ‘A just wage is a living wage’

This is chapter 5 from Ivereigh, Faithful Citizens: A Practical Guide to Catholic Social Teaching and Community Organising (London: DLT, 2010)



Concluding reflection

How could you become involved in campaigning for the Living Wage or other action that can contribute to making real CST’s vision for working life?



End of 4.4.3

Go to 4.4.4 Review and discussion of Unit 4

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