CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 7 September 2019

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Right to strike and Catholic teaching

HONG KONG (SE): Does Catholic social teaching support the right to strike? A glance at the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004) reveals that the short answer to this question is simple and definitive. It is yes.

However, as with all things, a just strike is subjected to several conditions, the foremost of which is that a strike can only be recognised as legitimate “when it cannot be avoided, or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit.”

However, the Compendium adds that all other methods of resolution must be shown to have been ineffective. This is often a sticking point, as interpreting circumstances can involve politics, opinion and often manipulated information, as well as bias and self-interest.

In a rash of high profile strikes against government plans to cut pensions in England during November 2011, some judged that since talks were still ongoing, it could not be argued all avenues had been exhausted.

However, others argued that since the government had refused to make an appointment for a continuation of the talks, they could be regarded as not being ongoing and hence, the workers were entitled to strike.

The discussion on the legitimacy of strikes in the Compendium begins with the right to form unions in the first place. It calls them, “A positive influence for social order and solidarity and are therefore an indispensible element in social life” (No. 305).

The Compendium places the roots of unions in the right to free association basket, which it describes as the product of natural law, which cannot be abolished or curtailed by civil law, so any attempt to bust free association is a breach of both natural and divine law.

It then lists remuneration as being the most important means for achieving justice in work relationships, as wages are the legitimate fruit of labour.

It defines a fair wage as one that may furnish “the means to cultivate… material, social, cultural and spiritual life” of both the workers and their dependants (No. 302).

The principle that natural justice is to be held in higher authority than freedom of contract has led the Church to deny the principle of a minimum wage—or a wage that, even if freely negotiated—fails the higher standard of a just or living wage.

This raises serious moral questions about the minimum wage legislation in Hong Kong, as in setting the level the government specifically denied that it intended it to be a living wage, thus, at least implicitly, legalising the payment of a wage that does not furnish “the means to cultivate… material, social, cultural and spiritual life” of both the workers and their dependants.

The legislation is wide open to moral scrutiny.

However, Church teaching is unilaterally in support of the formation of unions, which have their roots in the mediaeval guild system of skilled craftsmen and merchants that mostly prospered in parts of Europe that were Catholic.

In addition, the Compendium states, “Relations within the world of work must be marked by cooperation; hatred and attempts to eliminate the other are completely unacceptable” (No. 306).

In other words, the idea of class warfare is just not on.

The history of strikes in recent years reflects that attempts by one side to eliminate the other are a rare occurrence, as both capital and labour share a common objective.

This was a source of contention during the coal mining strikes in the United Kingdom during the administration of the late prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Some argue that she wanted to kill off the workforce, as the mines were slated to close and did not want to pay redundancy packages.

However, normally employers are not willing to sell their investments down the drain and labour is not willing to destroy the source of its living.

Consequently, agreements are normally reached well before the point of no return, although the sporting contest of who can bear the most pain can be vicious at times.

During a coal mine strike in Australia in 1949, the New South Wales government criminalised any act of support from the public for striking workers or any of their dependants.

The Catholic Church, mostly through the heroic actions of some parish priests and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, opposed this vehemently, both in theory and in action. While some arrests were made, no one was ever convicted.

Nevertheless, the city of Sydney never lost power completely, the mining companies operate to this day, Sydney is a prosperous city and the whole affair became history with many lessons for posterity.

Also in 1949, the famed archbishop of New York in the United States of America (US), Francis Cardinal Spellman, used his seminarians to break a gravediggers’ strike.

This is viewed as a turning point in the attitude of the Catholic Church in the US towards unions, as up until then it had been a strong supporter, but Cardinal Spellman’s action demanded at least tacit support from bishops and laypeople who opposed him.

The Catholic Worker editorialises in its May 2010 issue that to this day, Catholic schools and hospitals in the US are known for their union breaking labour practices.

The Catholic champion of the workers, Dorothy Day, wrote to Cardinal Spellman at the time saying, “Of course you know that a group of our associates at the Catholic Worker Office in New York have been helping strikers both in providing food for their families and in picketing…”

She called the cardinal ill-advised for exercising “so overwhelmingly a show of force against a handful of poor working men.”

Day clashed with many bishops in her lifetime, but seems to have been rehabilitated, as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops put her cause for canonisation forward last year.

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