The rights of workers, like all other rights, are based on the nature of the human person and on his transcendent dignity. These rights, according to the Church’s social Magisterium include: the right to a just wage; the right to rest; the right “to a working environment and to manufacturing processes which are not harmful to the workers’ physical health or to their moral integrity”; the right that one’s personality in the workplace should be safeguarded “without suffering any affront to one’s conscience or personal dignity”; the right to appropriate subsidies that are necessary for the subsistence of unemployed workers and their families; the right to a pension and to insurance for old age, sickness, and in case of work-related accident; the right to social security connected with maternity, and the right to assemble and form associations. These rights are often infringed, as is confirmed by the sad fact of workers who are underpaid and without protection or adequate representation. It often happens that work conditions for men, women and children, especially in developing countries, are so inhumane that they are an offense to their dignity and compromise their health.
Remuneration is the most important means for achieving justice in work relationships. The “just wage” is the legitimate fruit of work. They commit grave injustice who refuse to pay a just wage or who do not give it in due time and in proportion to the work done (Lv 19:13; Dt. 24:14-15; Jas 5:4). A salary is the instrument that permits the labourer to gain access to the goods of the earth.
Remuneration for labour is to be such that man may be furnished the means to cultivate worthily his own material, social, cultural and spiritual life and that of his dependents, in view of the function and productiveness of each one, the conditions of the factory or workshop, and the common good. The simple agreement between employee and employer with regard to the amount of pay to be received is not sufficient for the agreed-upon salary to qualify as a “just wage” because a just wage “must not be below the level of subsistence” of the worker; natural justice precedes and is above the freedom of the contract. The economic well-being of a country is not measured exclusively by the quantity of goods it produces but also by taking into account the manner in which they are produced and the level of equity in the distribution of income, which should allow everyone access to what is necessary for their personal development and perfection. An equitable distribution of income is to be sought on the basis of criteria not merely of commutative justice but also of social justice that is, considering beyond the objective value of the work rendered, the human dignity of the subjects who perform it. Authentic economic well-being is pursued also by means of suitable social policies for the redistribution of income which, taking general conditions into account, look at merit as well as at the need of each citizen.
The Church’s social doctrine recognizes the legitimacy of striking when it cannot be avoided or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit, when every other method for the resolution of dispute has been ineffectual. Striking, one of the most difficult victories won by labour union associations, may be defined as the collective and concerted refusal on the part of workers to continue rendering their services, for the purpose of obtaining by means of such pressure exerted on their employers, the State or on public opinion either better working conditions or an improvement in their social status. Striking “as a kind of ultimatum” must always be a peaceful method for making demands and fighting for one’s rights; it becomes “morally unacceptable when accompanied by violence or when objectives are included that are not directly linked with working conditions or are contrary to the common good”.
The Church’s thinking on the question of strikes is summed up in the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World article 68, and in Pope Paul VI’s apostolic letter “Octogesima Adveniens” of 14th May, 1971, paragraph 14.
Vatican II makes it clear that the normal way in which disputes between employers and employees are to be settled, is by discussion, negotiation and conciliation. Both the conciliar document and Pope Paul VI are insistent that strikes are a last resort means to be used only when there is no other way of securing the workers’ legitimate rights and just demands.
Such a position is in keeping with many recent Church documents on social matters. Their constant plea is for increasing worker participation in regulating the affairs of the enterprise in which they work, since their own future and that of their children depend upon the decisions that are made (Vatican II, “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” 68). In this way the enterprise becomes a community of persons in which the human dignity of every one concerned is respected by making him true sharer in what is being done (Paul VI, “Populorum Progressio” 28). Naturally such an atmosphere is one in which differences of interest can be settled by a dialogue worthy of intelligent human beings. Even where such ideal conditions are not present, however the round table or conciliation court are to be the normal ways of settling disputes.
In stressing that strikes may only be used as a last resort measure to secure legitimate rights and just demands, the Church shows that she is aware that striking power can be misused. It can he abused when a particular group employs it for selfish advantages that overburden the economy and damage the rest of society (“Octogesima Adveniens” 14). Demands by any group of workers have always to be measured against the common good of the society now (Vatican II, “The church in the Modern World” 67) and that of future generations (70), as well as the welfare of people beyond the borders of one’s own country (63 – 64). If industrial workers enforce their superior bargaining power by striking, which they can do due to their superior organization, then agricultural workers can easily sink into the situation of a deprived class in society (63 – 66).
It is up to the state to keep a balance among the various interests in society (“Octogesima Adveniens” 46). The state can, therefore, not allow any group to use strikes to improve its position at the expense of other peoples’ needs. Furthermore, when public services which are necessary for the country’s welfare are concerned, the government may lay down limits beyond which strike action may not be taken (“Octogesima Adveniens” 14). The criterion in this instance too is the overall welfare of the whole society.
– Prof. Michael Ogunu