Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion, which is reportedly one of Pope Francis’ favorite works of art, unites a crucifix with imagery of one of the greatest abuses against human dignity in recent history: the treatment of European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s.  Christ is identified in the painting as Jewish, wearing a prayer shawl on the cross, and the scenes around the cross are ones of Nazi oppression: synagogues being burned; refugees being forced to flee, a village being pillaged, and so on. One interpretation of the painting is that bringing modern evils into the setting of the Cross strikingly reveals how Christ’s suffering and death was for people of every time, and any injustice committed against a person— whatever his nationality— is committed also against Christ.

This powerful backdrop of twentieth century infringements on human rights and the much more powerful backdrop of Christ’s crucifixion are ones that St. John Paul II was intimately familiar with, and which inevitably informed his writings, such as Laborem Exercens. The encyclical explores not just the meaning of work and the conflict between labor and capital, but also the rights of workers, which flow from their fundamental human rights, and how these rights may not be violated.  

Christ’s suffering and death was for all people, human workers of every time.  Click To Tweet

Worker Rights and Human Rights

St. John Paul II begins his discussion of worker rights in Laborem Exercens by pointing out that work is more than an obligation, it is a source of rights, and respect for basic human rights is necessary for peace. The opposite of such respect for human rights, and the opposite of peace, is intensely rendered in Chagall’s White Crucifixion.

That work is the source of rights is embedded in a leadership principle that Howard Behar puts this way: “The Person Who Sweeps the Floor Should Choose the Broom.” Behar says, “People are not ‘assets,’ they are human beings who have the capacity to achieve results beyond what is thought possible.” This is why, as much as is feasible, everyone affected by a decision should be able to participate in the decision-making process. Unfortunately, notes Behar, “companies are so bogged down with management and organizational layers that decisions directly affecting the day-to-day of an individual’s job are often made without his input.”

While worker rights are part of the “broader context” of “fundamental rights of the person,” worker rights have a specific character that has to do with work, says St. John Paul II. Each right that the worker has bears a corresponding responsibility. The worker has rights and responsibilities in relation to God (Who has commanded work), in relation to his own family, and in relation to the human family in general, whose good and preservation necessitate it. The rights and responsibilities we deal with most directly and frequently as workers, however, are ones in relation to employers.

Direct and Indirect Employers

St. John Paul II goes on to distinguish between direct employers— the specific people or organizations a worker enters into a contract with— and indirect employers—which include the other determining factors that shape the person’s work and relationship with capital.

Indirect employers include even the principles of conduct laid down by employers and institutions, according to St. John Paul II. He says, “a policy is correct when the objective rights of the worker are fully respected.” Obviously the anti-Jewish policies in Germany during World War II fail to fall into this category, but what are some present-day examples of policies that do not respect the objective rights of workers?

Employment in General

Seeing as clearly as he did the importance of work, St. John Paul II wrote rigorously in Laborem Exercens in defense of the person’s right to work. Ideally, there should be suitable employment for all who are capable of work, he said.  Unemployment is in all cases “an evil” with severe social repercussions; it “can become a real social disaster.”

As a human society, we need to prudently plan and organize for work to be sustainable, and we need to have a realistic notion of progress that sees work as a source of man’s identity. “A test of this progress,” St. John Paul II says, “will be the increasingly mature recognition of the purpose of work and increasingly universal respect for the rights inherent in work in conformity with the dignity of man, the subject of work.”

Prudent planning, meanwhile, includes needing to develop right proportions of work on land versus work in factories versus work in scientific development, and so on. It would be prudent to reflect on how we are doing on that balance at present. When St. John Paul II looked around in 1981, this is what he saw: “While conspicuous natural resources remain unused, there are huge numbers of people who are unemployed or under-employed and countless multitudes of people suffering from hunger.”

Wages, Societal Benefits

Besides having a right to work, workers have rights to fair wages and societal benefits. A central feature in establishing a just relationship between worker and employer, St. John Paul II says, is having a just wage in return for work.  He says, “A just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly.”

Whether or not there is a just wage also hugely impacts the family, St. John Paul II points out, especially the role of the mother. The mother’s mission is especially tied to taking care of her children; it is wrong when mothers are forced to abandon the “primary goals of the mission of the mother” for paid work.

A just wage is a central factor in worker rights, but there are other important ones too. Medical assistance should be readily available, for instance, and workers have a right to insurance for accidents at work. Moreover, workers actually have a right to rest.

Of Special Note

Workers also have a right of association in labor or trade unions, which should not be an instrument for fighting against others but rather a force that can work for good: for “social order and solidarity.” St. John Paul II was not naïve, and he points out the dangers of unions going wrong, but this does not negate the rights of workers to assemble and the fact that, in the proper conditions and within just limits, strikes can be legitimate.

St. John Paul II also points to agricultural work as an area of “fundamental importance” that merits our attention. This very necessary work is also very difficult, and often agricultural workers are exploited in underserved communities. This requires that we be especially attentive to this sector and strive for immediate changes to further just conditions, he suggests.

The Pope makes another extremely pertinent point for the modern world when he talks about the rights of workers in relation to the disabled. He makes it quite clear that the disabled are “fully human subjects with sacred rights” who should be helped to participate in work according to their capacities.

Finally, St. John Paul II addresses the reality that people migrate in search of a better life and better work circumstances. Workers indeed have a right to seek better conditions, but there are difficulties involved, and such migration is a loss to the country left. Still, immigrants should never be placed at a disadvantage in finding work. The fundamental principle applies here as in every situation: There is a priority of person over production, of labor over capital.

Putting Worker Rights into Practice

More than seventy-five years have passed since Marc Chagall painted his White Crucifixion and more than twenty-five years have passed since St. John Paul II wrote Laboren Exercens. What human rights issues are most pressing in our places of work today?  How can we work to better respect the human nature of workers?

In Blue Ocean Shift, W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne mention three places we might consider starting in building our workplaces to better respect humanness. Their first recommendation is “atomization,” which essentially means breaking down a task or challenge to the smallest level possible. This enacts doable change, bringing confidence as employees are empowered and “feel their creative competence expand.” Next, Kim and Mauborgne suggest implementing firsthand discovery. Ideally, employees should be given the tools to draw conclusions and find answers themselves rather than be taught rules to blindly accept. Through firsthand discoveries, according to Kim and Mauborgne, workers’ “creativity and understanding of what matters expand, as does their ownership of the results.” Finally, Kim and Mauborgne’s third requirement for more human workplaces is fair process, which they divide into employee engagement, honest explanation, and clear expectations.

Kim and Mauborgne’s recommendations are one way to evaluate your workplace’s respect for humanness and worker rights. Here’s a Laborem Exercens challenge for today: Pinpoint one area where your workplace can improve in respecting the dignity and rights of workers. What is a doable action-step you can take to improve this area?