This essay is a contribution from our symposium Toward a Just Political Economy. To receive a print copy and read the other essays, order here.

The Industrial Revolution of the late-18th and early-19th centuries radically changed the nature of work. and the human relations at issue in economic activity.   This change, let’s broadly term it liberal capitalism, replaced the prior arrangements of economies throughout the West—and, gradually, worldwide. Yet, despite its advancements in technology, increases in prosperity, and significant development of international trade, liberal capitalism exacerbated problems which traditional arrangements were able to temper. Unlike prior systems, it created significant alienation of labor, and was accompanied by cultural changes that gradually shifted interest from the common good to abstract growth and ever-higher returns. Labor unions arose in response to the excesses of liberal capitalism,  bargaining for the fair treatment of labor across an array of concerns. With earnest ambitions, however, these unions succumbed to some of the same temptations they were formed to combat. Namely, they developed a centralization of bargaining power, political leverage, and agenda-setting away from the laborers themselves. Unions, developing into self-interested monopolies and fundraisers themselves, degenerated. The hope for workers seeking fair labor adjudication became ineffective at best—destructive to class solidarity at worst. As time progresses, these institutions grow even more feeble in reducing wage disparity or protecting jobs, despite Rerum novarum political influence of the largest unions. It is time to imagine a new type of union, founded upon a conception of work with human dignity. The core of such an institution is best found within—indeed, necessarily ordered toward—Catholic social teaching.

Late liberalism has seen the most serious upsurge in income disparity since the Industrial Revolution. While, in the developing world, incomes have been increasing during this period, it is also clear that periods of stagnation in growth grow longer, and that disparities continually increased. This has happened despite the clear existence of a labor movement in the West.

In some liberal countries, like postwar Germany and the Nordic states, labor movements have created social democracies that do some positive work toward improving social welfare, often in a manner conducive to the Common Good. In the United States particularly, the strength of labor movements has waxed and waned. When unions build movements and make wins in this country, they tend to quickly return to being relatively ineffectual, liberal institutions: politically useful to the Democratic Party, but failing to spread fully across industries and trades or make substantial improvements in working class issues. Across the board, unions in liberal countries have failed to promote moral development and preserve the family, and have often been hijacked or led from the start by people hostile to religion and natural societies.

Meanwhile, the last century saw revolutions forcefully rejecting the liberal capitalist labor paradigm. The ensuing revolutionary systems have fared no better. Varied forms of communism, the replacements in countries like Russia, China, and Cuba, destroyed solidarity, the natural society of the family, and many other social bonds and obligations. In conceiving of labor as alienated under liberal capitalism, they made a shrewd observation, and located a flaw on which to build a corrective system. But the socialist corrective had much of the same problems as liberal capitalism did: its mindset was fundamentally materialist. It had replaced material profit and utility with a striving for material equality. It failed to even attempt to modify the economic and political structure in order to create a symbiotic relationship between capital and labor.

What is Work

In the Summa Theologiæ’s discussion of the moral concept of “Just Price,” St. Thomas Aquinas draws up a thorough framework for discerning the justice of economic exchanges. Here, drawing on the first book of Aristotle’s Politics, he defines a “tradesman” as “one whose business consists in the exchange of things.”1 Properly understood, this means both that work is natural and that commerce is a process “whereby one commodity is exchanged for another, or money taken in exchange for a commodity, in order to satisfy the needs of life.”

In doing so, the tradesman used what later would be defined as capital, assuming he is an independent tradesman. Work, then, though not defined exactly in the discussion of just price, could be properly understood as the process of creating the commodity which the tradesman attempts to sell, it is a primary element of his business, or the means by which he goes about it.

Before this, Aquinas states that “it is contrary to justice to sell goods at a higher price than their worth, or to buy them for less than their value, as shown above.” Adding that “if you sell a thing for a higher price than you paid for it, you must either have bought it for less than its value, or sell it for more than its value.”2 Since commercial interaction sustains life and plays a natural role in political communities, it must take place. But the price must be just: a tradesman cannot charge the buyer more than the intrinsic value of a commodity.

During Aquinas’s time, it was often the case that the craftsman was accountable for most all factors of production. To hold each other accountable, and to excel their crafts, craftsmen organized in guilds. Guilds were organizations of workers prior to the industrial era which regulated the quality of various crafts. They were organized into ranks of apprentices, journeymen, and masters, with masters placed at the top of the hierarchy with the responsibility of governing the conduct of the trade. Aquinas is mostly concerned with people who perform labor using their own capital attempting to defraud consumers in the pursuit of usurious profit. While guilds acted as societies with their own set of constraints on quality and price-setting during Aquinas’s time, they were able to behave usuriously because of their collectivized profit motives and authority to control prices.

In contrast, the modern economy substitutes the individual tradesman for capitalists or managers who, with money changing hands at every step of the process, separate production from consumption with countless layers of exchange and delegation. Despite the resurgence of small business in some industries, it is rare for a single tradesman—let alone just two or three—to negotiate trade from producer to consumer. The small craft industries of Aquinas’s time couldn’t have foreseen a future where productive labor was so thoroughly separated from price-setters. Now, there is a new problem of management-labor relations, wherein management of a company buys labor from would-be individual tradesmen, or “workers.” to produce a commodity. They, of course, are would-be tradesmen because they don’t have autonomous control of the capital needed to complete their labor

This new model of commerce accompanied the increasing advance of industry, and the useful division of productive labor was accompanied by socially problematic institutions and modes of life. Conflicts and injustice in these relationships have become significant offenses against social justice and natural justice, in a similar way to usury perpetrated against consumers.

Solutions to Injustice

Offenses perpetrated against workers during the 19th and early 20th centuries fueled a significant backlash against the people—that is, capitalists—who directed labor. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Jacob Riis’s pioneering photojournalistic work How The Other Half Lives showed more genteel Americans the squalor in which their country’s poor lived. These works clarified the severity of the class situation in America, which was hardly better than that in other countries. They motivated some reform, improving working conditions and the lot of labor. They also accelerated the political progress of socialist movements which had emerged earlier in the century. Marxist class-conflict analysis was initially effective at organizing unions. It began to build appeal among sectors of the working class. After all, it did provide what was lacking in mainstream politics: a solution to issues of injustice and identification of perpetrators of those same injustices. It offered agency and a radically different, collectivist paradigm under which workers were freed of the issue of top-down oppression.

Marxism sometimes championed avarice toward elites more than a thirst for justice. Such a reaction to a radical wealth disparity and the failure of capitalists to offer humane conditions is understandable. After all, conditions were terrible: Riis’s and Sinclair’s work makes the picture all too clear. Something needed to be done to correct these issues, and system change seemed necessary to deal with injustice on such a profound level. However, the Marxist antidote to the problems of the late-19th and early-20th centuries were far from just. With their promised breakdown of gruesome treatment would necessarily come,

Conflicts between workers and their managers, grim conditions on job sites, and political terrors prompted Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking encyclical Rerum novarum. Here, he both condemned socialism and called for a new model  of labor relations. Leo XIII pointed out that the socialist agenda for land use and property abolition were “emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.”3 Leo condemns Marxism for perverting outrage at injustice to destroy a natural institution, property, which is necessary for the sustenance of life. In fact, the encyclical firmly declares that the elimination of private property is contrary to justice because human beings are more than animals, and that by virtue of their capacities of reason they require property for use in the long term.Rerum novarum also provided substantive answers to questions about the dignity of labor and about labor unionization. The document demands that employees should be allowed to negotiate with corporate management the terms of their conditions and payment. It also suggests that Natural Law demands that workers are paid a wage which can sustain the necessities of life: “wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.”4 It also makes clear that a worker must be able to support his spouse and children.

It also explicitly supports agreements made between workers and employers based on the terms of work itself, rather than conditions being unilaterally imposed by workers or by capital. A labor arrangement that stresses solidarity between the employed and the employer, as advocated by Rerum novarum, is the practical manifestation of economic justice and the preferable state of affairs.

Good for Society

Rerum novarum continues, in the spirit of the solidarity between worker and employer, to clarify that additional organizations may be necessary in conjunction with the workplace at large. Leo alludes to benevolent associations and funds that care for widows of deceased workers, but Leo summarily upheld “workingmen’s unions” as the most important private societies for these purposes. Workingmen’s unions ought to be separated from the revolutionary unions of the time in light of Leo’s connection of just unions to the guild tradition’s concern for integrity of work. But Leo adds that “such unions should be suited to the requirements of this our age—an age of wider education, of different habits, and of far more numerous requirements in daily life.”

If the victories of such a union are good, such as just compensation and safe and healthy labor conditions, they are private societies geared toward a positive end—the temporal welfare of their members, and in many ways, their private good. When the object of a private society, such as a union is good, they are to be permitted absolutely. Leo XIII asserted, even, that such societies could protect natural rights.

The Failure of Secular Labor Movements

For some time, American labor unions seemed to be improving living and working standards in the United States. For the first half of the 20th century and for a few decades after, unionization was on the rise across all sectors. But this fell to 20% in 1983 and collapsed to around 10% in 2018.5 At the same time, since the late 1960’s the American middle class has been shrinking, with income disparities between rich and poor rising.6

Those lamenting the decline in American unionization have cast blame in several directions. No doubt, it is somewhat attributable to government action unfriendly to workers, and often favored by capitalists. 1947’s Taft-Hartley Act rolled back a substantial number of the protections workers had spent the first half of that century fighting for. More recently, the Right-To-Work movement has been used as a sword at the state level to bludgeon organizers and the case of Hostess’s 2012 closing comes to mind, where in the midst of a slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008, workers adamantly refused to come to work by a company imposed deadline. The company was unable to operate, and had to shut down. The producer of confections like Tasty Cakes and Twinkies was eviscerated by workers who had less interest in their company and making it through a trying time in solidarity with their leadership than they did in greedily pursuing benefits that no company could afford to increase at that time. Though some companies, like General Motors, were able to work with their unions in a solidaristic manner to avert the disaster of the Great Recession, far too many stories were like Hostess’s, and ended in productive companies being dashed to pieces. Even if active unions are a rarity these days, we are far gone from a real sense of the union as a beneficial society with obligations to the Common Good as well as their own private goods. Rather, they’ve been retooled along principles of economic struggle.

As much as political alliances and corporate bodies uninterested in social solidarity, the protection of the Natural Rights of the worker have propelled this phenomenon, the unions in the United States have done the same. A harmonious relationship between the management and the workers hasn’t been sought after.

The Path of Christians in Secular Unions

Some issues in secular unions, such as overzealous demands reaching beyond the safety of workers and reasonable standards of living is in part due to these organizations’ current alienation from the Church. More broadly, this follows a decline in religiosity under late liberalism—consumption and wealth have become the new gods. They’re idolized both by union busting companies and company busting unions like the one at Hostess.

Yet, the unions can still defend against injustice and can be recalibrated toward Christian principles. It would be wise for any Catholic organizer to take the words of Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno to heart. Here, he states that Catholic workers must be allowed by their unions’ activities to follow the laws of the Church on justice. This, seemingly, would preclude destructive demands directed toward management during a recession, as well as prohibitions against wearing of religious medals at work.

In that same encyclical, Pius recommends that “side by side with these unions there should always be associations zealously engaged in imbuing and forming their members in the teaching of religion and morality so that they in turn may be able to permeate the unions with that good spirit which should direct them in all their activity.”7 When this is done, rather than being combatants, unions will be conducive to the Common Good: “as a result, the religious associations will bear good fruit even beyond the circle of their own membership.”8 This could take the form of discussion groups on encyclicals dealing with the reciprocal moral obligations of labor and capital, reading about the Christian Labor Movement, and even organization of circles to pray and discuss work during break times or after the closing bell.

Workers should strongly consider, as well, looking toward Saint Josemaria Escriva’s spiritual practice of “Sanctification of Work.” The offering up of work to God’s glory would certainly go some ways toward improving the Christian character of the work itself, and would likely impact organizing attitudes and norms for dealing with those in authority. Hopefully, over time, such movements would evangelize society at large, making it integrally Christian. More immediately, however, they would move labor to a Christian perspective of unionization, embodying the sense that work is but a means to an end—not the end itself.

Work, ultimately ordered to Christ, serves to strengthen the individual, family, and community. It is but a necessary means to a happy life. Work is dignified because it enables families and communities to be self-reliant. Those who perform fruitful labor are not chattels of generous or arbitrary tempers of those in power, but are in control of themselves, subject to God and the laws, rather than arbitrary forces: at least to an extent.

Further, Christians believe that mankind was created in the image and likeness of God. God’s first act known to us, of course, was creation. Genesis relates that shortly after man is created, “God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth.” After family, therefore, productive work and mastery of natural resources and gifts is the greatest order God gives to man. And though toil, the difficulty in work that sometimes rises to the level of pain is a condition of human nature since the fall, and is a consequence of man’s sinful and fallible nature, this doesn’t change the fact that work is a divinely ordained exercise of dominion over all things. John Paul II considers this at length in Laborem exercens, and concludes that toil and anguish is a condition of all work: “It is familiar to all workers and, since work is a universal calling, it is familiar to everyone.”9

While theologians and Catholic economists historically have considered this most literally in the areas of trade, John Paul II addresses modernity’s colossal base of industry. He wrote there that:

Industry in its turn will always consist in linking the earth’s riches—whether nature’s living resources, or the products of agriculture, or the mineral or chemical resources—with man’s work, whether physical or intellectual. This is also in a sense true in the sphere of what are called service industries, and also in the sphere of research, pure or applied.10

Whatever work one may do, it is dignified, and plays a crucial part in a universal vocation of humanity to exercise dominion over all things.

Unions, also, restore dignity to this work. Alienation under liberal capitalism easily presents an image of capital as the basis of all production, rather than work. Consequently, in our time and within any recent memory, the bulk of economic initiative has redounded to the capitalists and managers. Unions, when properly Catholic social teaching, can play a role to correct this imbalance and restore work’s proper dignity. They give workers economic agency balancing capital’s. When done properly, they rightly order productive relations.

Reimagining the Labor Union

The model of labor-management relations and the internal structure of the union need to be drastically reconceived. From Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum to works as recent as Saint Pope John Paul II’s Laborem exercens, the Magisterium has been clear that the union, ideally, develops organically from the Medieval guild, with an interest in dealing with labor-management relationships inherent in the modern economy. Similarly, they speak of the improvement of tradesmen’s skills in a manner which suggests that this pursuit of excellence isn’t only temporally rewarded, but will be spiritually privileged as well. These two messages suggest first, that when practicable, craft unionism is most in line with the Christian ideals of labor action. Such unions provide training, and even certify the competence of workers. Unions, properly organized, protect the integrity of work as much as they advocate the integrity of the worker before management. Some contend that technology is making these sorts of unions obsolete. This will be proven false as policy makers notice that skilled labor, and excellence in professions is more necessary in this current moment than it has been in decades.But, since craft unionism isn’t practicable in every industry, other reforms in labor organizations are necessary. The industrial union focuses on organizing the same industry, and also merits promotion. It is entirely possible for unions of that type to provide training, increase a sense of solidarity in work, and do more to uphold professional standards alongside keeping watch over working conditions.

Finally, unions will need to make a tough call and be willing to cede some of their collective bargaining strength so they may have a place at the table all the time, rather than only during contract renegotiations. Many countries have seen success with works councils. Such councils will help create a subsidiarity in companies, and will encourage unions to work collaboratively, and peacefully towards excelling the company, and will force management to work to create just conditions for workers and ones where flourishing is possible. A removal of combativeness from labor–management relations will likely make for more worker friendly companies, and more ability for workers to advocate for the integrity of their products and trade at the corporate level.


Ultimately, a new theory of work must emerge which focuses on the worker. The creative role of labor must be understood as Imago Dei before any meaningful reform can be made. This, of course, must be an antecedent to a new reimagination of economic activity not only as profit-seeking but—Pope Saint John Paul II clarified in Laborem exercens—as necessary for life and human dignity.. Catholic clergy and laypeople, as well as the thinkers and political students of the post-liberal school of thought, need to push forward for such a vision of work.  Catholics in the highest echelons of business must be particularly careful to conceive of their own managerial talents as creative, productive, and serving the common good. They also must recognize that their ownership must serve labor in order that dignified work may be done, with labor sharing in the harvest—not just in the cultivation.Building upon the Catholic tradition of work, stemming from the intellectual fruit of St. Thomas, the Pope Francis writes in Fratelli tutti:

In a genuinely developed society, work is an essential dimension of social life, for it is not only a means of earning one’s daily bread, but also of personal growth, the building of healthy relationships, self-expression and the exchange of gifts. Work gives us a sense of shared responsibility for the development of the world, and ultimately, for our life as a people.11

Consequently, a beneficial labor movement must truly realize that work, and economic activity broadly understood, is ultimately social—in essence, work in line with Catholic teaching.  Old, conflict-driven paradigms of unionization will not have a role in this order. Instead, labor organization will be directed toward the interests of laborers: a virtuous interest in the “shared responsibility for the development of the world” and “life as a people.” Consequently, liberal ideas about labor, even and sometimes particularly progressive ones need to be challenged in their assumptions and discarded where they fall short.  The new worker’s movement will need to build relationships with the owners of capital, demanding a construct of cooperation and mutual responsibilities. Only a symbiotic relationship between labor and capital can sustain labor or capital.

To this end, I would like to leave readers with an image of the proper relationship between a landowner and his laborers.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. [And] he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you.  Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? [Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matthew 20:1–15)

These changes won’t be easy, but doing what is right often isn’t easy. Building a new labor movement will require managers to give up some of their privileges, and workers to sacrifice combative tactics. But it is only concern directed toward the community for which the economy operates that will provide just compensation, meaningful work, and proper dividends.


1.  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ. 2.77.4

2.  Ibid.

3.  Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, 1891. Section 4

4.  Ibid, Section 45.

5.  U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. TED: The Economics Daily; Union membership rate 10.5 percent in 2018, down from 20.1 percent in 1983.  Washington, D.C. 2019.

6.  Katherine Schaeffer.  “6 Facts About Income Inequality.” Pew Research.  Washington D.C. 2020.

7.  Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno. Sec. 35.

8.  Ibid.

9.  John Paul II, Laborem exercens. Sec. 9.

10.  Ibid, Sec. 5.

11. Francis. Fratelli tutti.  Section 162.

Featured image: Dockworkers in Vlissingen in painting (1945) by Frans Naerbout via Wikimedia Commons.

Leo Thuman is a student at Case Western Reserve University. He also writes and does policy work. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.