A reflection by Msgr Gerard Burns for the feast of St Joseph the Worker.
At this moment of disruption to local and world systems of trade, work,
livelihoods and finances we come to 1 May (May Day), a date significant in the world
of work (May Day) and in the life of the Church as the feast of St Joseph the Worker.
In ancient and medieval Europe 1 May was marked as a spring festival, a
renewal of life as plants and crops begin to flower after winter. In the
development of modern industrial capitalism it became a day to mark the
importance of the worker and his/her family in the process of production.
Labour’s May Day originates in significant industrial action in Chicago in
Early industrial capitalism was noted for long working hours, child and
sweated labour, poor pay and conditions. The idea that a day should be split
into 8 hour divisions for human health (work 8, sleep 8, recreate 8) was
proposed in early 19th century England by Robert Owen. It was taken up by
Samuel Parnell, a carpenter newly arrived in Wellington in 1840.
In the late 19th century organized labour in the USA strongly pushed for
the 8 hour day. This culminated in the killing of some workers in Chicago in
May 1887, hence May Day as a workers’ day.
In 1955 Pius XII made May 1 the feast of St Joseph the Worker,
indicating that the world of work was not foreign to the concerns of the
Gospel. Pius the XI had declared Joseph to be a member of the working-class,
emphasising his material contribution to his family as well as Jesus being born
into the experience of earning a living.
Of course 1955 was the height of the Cold War, and Pius XII was wanting
to offer an alternative to what Church officials saw as atheistic and
materialistic philosophies of work and life being offered by communist
governments and thinkers. However the times have changed and each year this day
offers us the chance to look anew at the situation of work and workers.
It wasn’t long after the establishment of May Day in the USA that Leo XIII
wrote his famous encyclical Rerum Novarum (issued May 15, 1891) speaking
of the rights of workers to organize and the importance of a just wage. In
early 20th century Europe Fr Joseph Cardijn started his Young Christian Workers
movement to support and train young factory workers about how to ensure a just
work-place starting from a faith position.
Quadragesimo Anno of 1931 took up the question of social organization
and a just wage as Mussolini started to organize Italy as a fascist state. The
late 1940s saw the ‘worker-priest’ movement in France as a way of the official
Church being close to the working-class. In the early 1980s in Poland the
Solidarity trade union challenged the Polish government in a way that had not
happened previously. And in 1981 John Paul II’s encyclical on the dignity of
work – Laborens Exercens – was published.
More recently Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (2009), a
reflection following the Global Financial Crash, spoke again of the market
economy, solidarity and the international role of trade unions. In recent years
Pope Francis has connected frequently to those working in the informal sector
(World Meeting of Popular Movements) about Land, Labour and Lodging (Tierra,
Trabajo, Techo in Spanish).
Most recently he wrote to this movement and included a reference to the
possibility of a universal basic income, something being discussed in various
parts of the world including Aotearoa. Will the Covid-19 lockdowns around the
world lead to different and/or better working practices: better for workers,
families and Papatuānuku, Mother Earth? The answer from Catholic Social
Teaching would be: organize for that!
Published in WelCom May 2020