Justice as Participation: Building Back Better by Supporting Workers and Rebuilding Democracy

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Meghan Clark writes:

On February 28, President Joe Biden released an unprecedented pro-union video message unequivocally supporting workers’ right to unionize and collectively bargain. “The choice to join a union is up to the workers—full stop,” Biden reiterated that the law guarantees this without interference from employers. It is not the first time that the president has vocally supported unions, but the vocal support for an ongoing labor organizing effort is noteworthy. As a Catholic moral theologian, for me it represented a moment of hope, that Catholic social thought’s commitment to economic justice might more strongly influence domestic U.S. policy, especially on the dignity of work and workers.

From its beginning in 1891, modern Catholic social thought (CST) has been crystal clear in the support of workers’ rights to associate, to form unions, and to collectively bargain. CST bases its support for unions on two fundamental insights. First, that workers are at a structural disadvantage compared to capital or management within capitalism. And second, work is inextricably tied to human dignity, as Gaudium et Spes notes: “For when people work, they not only alter things and society, they develop themselves as well. They learn much, they cultivate their resources, they go outside of themselves and beyond themselves” (no. 35). It is the combination of dignity and justice that undergirds what John Paul II called “the priority of labor over capital” (Laborem Exercens, no. 12). While everyone plays an important role in building a healthy economy, Catholicism calls for evaluating economic policies or systems from the perspective of workers not “job creators.” This is deeply counter to the dominant political rhetoric in American politics for the last 40 years….

 In Catholic social thought, unions and worker associations are a positive good, not just a tool to oppose unjust discrimination and oppression. The right of workers to participate in the decision-making process concerning their workplace is important even when such workers are well paid. If when talking about his faith, Biden included his support for the dignity of work, that might help other Catholics see the connection….

Incorporating Catholic social thought’s emphasis on justice as participation into his domestic policy agenda would allow Biden to focus policy priorities on the dignity of work, voting rights, and  building a more inclusive economy and democracy. If this happens, Joe Biden would certainly be acting upon his Catholic faith. Recently, Pope Francis extended this call even further, urging, “To help our society to ‘build back better,’ inclusion of the vulnerable must also entail efforts to promote their active participation.” From worker rights to voting rights and beyond, justice as participation can provide a strong but challenging foundation for building our post-COVID civil, political, and economic society in which no one is excluded.