Much before the labor movement in America acquired legitimacy and power, the theoretical infrastructure was being laid down by an unlikely source.
We are talking about the nineteenth century, a time in which the terms “social justice” or “collective bargaining” were not in vogue – certainly not among the intelligentsia, or what today we would call the pundits and commentators.
This was an era much before the appearance of labor leaders like Joe Hill (born Joel Emmanuel Hagglund) and also much before Marx and Engels began to speak of workers’ rights and pushing for class struggles and other radical ways of bringing about fairness in the workplace. It was more than a half century before the united nations of the world proclaimed, in 1948, the charter of human rights.
It was more than seven decades before an American judge, in Washington, D.C., proclaimed a principle under which a contract freely entered into by two parties could be broken by a branch of government and remade to reflect a more equitable allocation of rights and obligations. In American jurisprudence, until about 1960, the right of private property was considered so sacred that it was inconceivable for anyone except a rabble-rouser or an anarchist to suggest that it could be limited or scaled back by government in order to provide some measure of welfare to the poor or the workers.
They were assisted, in many instances, by charitable organizations, such as churches and other “eleemosynary” institutions, but not by government. In effect, the system of private enterprise was divided clearly between capital and labor; and capital hired labor as needed, paying for it as little as the market would bear — much in the same way as consumers pay for products as cheaply as they can be found in the market.
It all began to change in 1891. In a document called an “encyclical,” Pope Leo XIII shattered the myth of the absolute right of capital to set wages, pronouncing a higher “dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man.” “Wages,” argued the Pope, “ought not be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.” And then the kicker: If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workmen accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.”
The encyclical was called Rerum Novarum and subtitled “On the Conditions of the Working Classes.” Almost fifty years later, according to Jonathan Alter (in his recently published book, The Defining Moment”), an aide to Franklin Roosevelt suggested he read the famous encyclical. He apparently did, and soon was proclaiming his own version of a philosophical foundation for social justice as a basic human right.
He made it one of the Four Great Freedoms, and called it “Freedom from Want.” Historians credit one, Frances Perkins for its inclusion with the more traditional listing, the trio that included: “Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom from Fear” and “Freedom of Worship.”
And who was Frances Perkins? Why, she was the first woman member of the cabinet and held the title of Secretary of Labor.
Xavier Suarez is a former mayor for the city of Miami and is currently Miami-Dade County Commissioner for District 7. He has a Master’s Degree in Public Policy and Law Degree from Harvard University.