Pope Francis said unions play an “essential role for the common good” when he met with representatives from the annual conference of Italian organized labor.
Photo used under a Creative Commons license courtesy Wikimedia Commons Agencia Brasi.  

Speaking to representatives from Italian organized labor, Pope Francis blessed the work of labor unions.

Meeting at the Vatican during their annual conference, Pope Francis compared the work of unions to the biblical prophets and called on them to expand their “essential function” to all people.

“There is no good society without a good union,” he said in his June 28 address to the Confederazione Italiana Sindicati Lavatori, a coalition of labor unions similar to the AFL-CIO.

The pope criticized capitalism as it exists today for losing sight of “the social nature of the economy.” People need meaningful work, the pope said, to become fully human, but they also need rest. Denial of both opportunity and leisure were, he said, inhumane.

“Labor is the most common form of cooperation that humanity has generated in its history. Every day, millions of people cooperate simply by working,” he said. “[But] a person is not only formed by labor, because we do not always work and we must not work always.”

He particularly criticized child labor, endemic unemployment and the massive retirement packages handed out to CEOs.

“[O]ne should be neither too poor nor too rich: golden pensions are no less an offense to labor than pensions that are too low, as they ensure that that inequalities during the time of work become permanent,” he said.

As the pope spoke, unions across the world are facing headwinds. In the U.S., as in Europe, membership is shrinking –excluding, interestingly, Italy, where it has grown in the last five years.

The pope said organized labor had two major issues to “face and defeat if it is to continue to perform its essential role for the common good.”

First, he said, comparing labor to biblical prophets, labor must “give a voice to those who have none, denounce those who would ‘sell the needy for a pair of sandals’, unmask the powerful who trample the rights of the most vulnerable workers, defend the cause of the foreigner, the least, the discarded.”

Second, he called on labor to expand its mission from protecting its own members to become advocates for people excluded from work, most especially the young, women and migrants.

“The union does not carry out its essential function of social innovation if it watches over only those who are inside,” he said. “This must be done, but it is half of your work. Your vocation is also to protect those who do not yet have rights, those excluded from work who are also excluded from rights and democracy.”

The pope’s message echoed those of his predecessors.                                      

In 2009, for example, Pope Benedict XVI released a vivid defense of unions called Charity in Truth, writing “the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and farsighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.”

Pope Francis then closed his address by blessing the meeting, and asking for the members to pray for him.