Origin of Collective Bargaining
March 31, 2011
By Joseph Vangieri
Rerum Novarum is subtitled “On the Conditions of Labor”. In this document, Leo set out the Catholic Church’s response to the social conflict that had risen in the wake of industrialization and that had led to the rise of socialism. The Pope taught that the role of the State is to promote social justice through the protection of rights, while the Church must speak out on social issues in order to teach correct social principles and ensure class harmony. He restated the
Church’s long standing teaching regarding the crucial importance of private property rights, but recognized, in one of the best known passages of the encyclical, that the free operation of market forces must be tempered by moral considerations:
“Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well behaved wage earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.”
Rerum Novarum is remarkable for its vivid depiction of the plight of the nineteenth century urban poor and for its condemnation of unrestricted capitalism. Among the remedies it prescribed were the formation of trade unions and the introduction of collective bargaining, particularly as an alternative to state intervention.
The encyclical declared private property a fundamental principle of natural law. Rerum Novarum thus dramatically adapted Thomistic ideas about property, as the Pope attempted to shift the class alliances of the church, aligning with its erstwhile opponent, the bourgeoisie, in the face of the perceived threat of socialism.
Rerum Novarum also recognized that the poor have a special status in consideration of social issues: the modern Catholic principle of the “preferential option for the poor” and the notion that God is on the side of the poor found their first expression in this document.