The Dignity of Labour in a Dramatically Changing Work Environment

Rocco Buttiglione | PASS Academician

The Dignity of Labour in a Dramatically Changing Work Environment

Labour is an act of man

With the expression “dignity of labour” we mean the fact that labour is an act of man. This means that man should be able to experience his humanity in his labor. Through labor he should grow in humanity, he should become more man. Labor has a double facet: it changes the environment around us and makes the things of this world subservient to human needs but it changes also the person of the worker, for better or for worse.[1]

As a rule man does not work alone. He works together with others and for others. These others are his fellow workers, the members of his family for whom he works, the entrepreneurs who lead the company in which he works, the customers who make use of the products of his work, those who invest their savings in his company and those who produce the goods he will buy with the salary of his work. In different forms and with varying degrees of proximity all these men participate in a common endeavor with the purpose of making a good life possible for themselves and for their dear ones. Each social group has particular interests that are often opposed to one another but they have also a common interest to preserve the system of social cooperation that guarantees the reproduction of the life of society as a whole and of each one of its members. The system is not always just and the underprivileged have a right and in a certain sense also a duty to lay claim to a larger proportion of the social wealth. The social parts in conflict must however take care not to disrupt the functioning of the social whole. Pope Francis formulates this principle in a poignant way: “Unity prevails over conflict”.[2] There is however an absolute limit: the system is radically wrong if there are men whose basic needs do not find satisfaction in it. These men are not interested in the functioning of a system that does not produce and reproduce their life but only their marginalization and exclusion. The option for the poor is at the same time an option for justice and an option for peace. We have outlined the way in which we arrive at the notion of general interest. It is not just a sum of different social interests. It is rather a composition of those interests that guarantees, in the last instance, that nobody will be excluded.[3] The preferential option for the poor is then a methodological component part of the definition of the general interest.

The concept of common good does not coincide, however, with the notion of general interest. It demands us to enlarge and broaden our horizon. It considers not only the objective but also the subjective side of labor. It does not only demand that the fruits of labor are justly distributed. It requires that each worker in the multifarious relations that constitute his or her working environment feels his or her humanity respected and recognized. Through this respect and this recognition a workers’ community based on solidarity is constituted.

Solidarity is the practical recognition of the dignity of each worker expressed through reciprocal help and support in the performance of common tasks.

The Workers Movement

In the Middle Ages the Workers’ Community found its expression in the Guilds of Arts and Crafts. In the age of industrialization thousands and thousands of workers toiled side by side on the assembly line in enormous factories as large as middle-sized cities. The form of organization corresponding to this stage of industrial development was the Trade Union and the Cooperative Movement. Both were expression of a great Workers Movement that protested against the inhuman living conditions of large masses and struggled to conquer fundamental Human and Workers Rights. These struggles have been a fundamental component of what we now consider our western democratic model.


In the 20th Century the Workers’ Movement was largely influenced by Marxist ideas. The Marxists believed that the industrial revolution would simplify the working process reducing the importance of professional skills and creating a large mass of proletarians who, living together in the factory and in the large boroughs of the big cities, would be compelled by the pressure of the material circumstances of their existence to create a collective consciousness forged in the social and political struggle. In time all workers were supposed to become similar to the industrial workers of the large factories: that was the model of the proletarian and that was, to a large extent, the model of the organization of the Trade Unions. The solidarity of the Workers was supposed to be an effect of their living conditions, and was founded on a purely materialistic motivation, on the impossibility for each worker to improve his/her situation through his or her own individual action.[4]

What did not work in Marxism

Marxism collapsed as a political system in 1989. In a certain sense it had begun to collapse before and continued to collapse after that fateful day. The structure of the working process has changed dramatically. Only a comparatively small percentage of workers now work in the industrial sector and the model of the proletarian has almost disappeared. The vast majority of workers are now in the tertiary sector. They work in small companies, often connected with one another in networks that can assume an enormous extent. The working unit is in general small, many work in their own home, many fend for themselves. Their destiny depends upon their own initiative more than on collective action. The importance of individual knowledge invested in the productive process has grown enormously. The place of the homogeneous proletariat has been taken by an enormous number of highly differentiated individuals.[5]

Shall the Market mediate all social interactions?

The collapse of Marxism and changes in the economic structures of our societies have led many to think that all human interactions can now be successfully mediated by the Market and, therefore, we do not stand in need of Trade Unions or of a Workers’ Movement or even, more at large, of family, solidarity and community.[6] As a matter of fact the Unions have seen their membership massively decrease and their social prestige strongly diminished.

We still stand in need of a Workers’ Community

This paper proposes the thesis that Trade Unions organized around the archetype of the proletarian have really become obsolete but the workers of the world of today and tomorrow still stand in need of solidarity and the idea of a Workers’ Community and of a Workers’ Movement maintains its actuality and its force also in the new epoch we are entering into.

Laborem Exercens and a new vision of work

In the beginning of the encyclical Laborem Exercens, St. John Paul II gives us a new definition of work and, correspondingly, a new definition of worker. Work is “any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances… Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons”.[7] In the common usage workers were the hired hands and their model was the industrial worker. St. John Paul II, on the contrary, addresses all men who work, hired labour as well as independent workers or housewives whose activity is not considered in the statistics of the Gross National Product. This corresponds strictly to the characteristics of the contemporary world. Work has become more heterogeneous rather than homogeneous, in many cases it is difficult to properly differentiate between hired and independent labour, new professions are born one day and wither away after a while…

Solidarity is not the consequence of a homogeneous working environment

A consequence of this growing segmentation of the job market is the enfeeblement of solidarity among workers. Workers who do not know each other, who easily move from one Company to another, who no longer experience being part of a mass but feel isolated and estranged from one another, have an inclination to fend for themselves rather than seek collective action to improve their situation. Marx imagined that the working and living conditions of the proletarians would exercise a kind of material compulsion to solidarity. This is no longer the case.

The new forms of organization of labour prompted by technological change tend to divide workers. If their unity was dependent upon the sociological and material element of the factory, now this element has lost a large part of its relevance.

Globalization also divides and opposes the workers among themselves.

The present stage of globalization begins with the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade that facilitated the movements of capital beyond state borders. Huge masses of capital have moved from the wealthy to the poor countries looking for cheap labour. Many jobs migrated from rich to poor countries. Globally, the results have been positive: a large part of mankind that used to be poor or extremely poor has attained levels of modest well being.[8] There are however also the losers of globalization.

Some areas that used to be rich are now less well off and they resent their loss of income and status. The poor of the rich countries feel a certain resentment against the poor of the poor countries and in particular against the immigrants accused of “stealing” their jobs because they accept to work more hours for less pay.[9] The knowledge revolution that is taking place in the more affluent countries creates new and high quality well-paid jobs. These, however, do not balance the loss of jobs in the traditional sectors either quantitatively or qualitatively. It is difficult to retrain a former steel worker into a highly specialized computer operator. This is key to understanding the new populist movements that have radically altered the traditional political landscapes of many countries. They want to reintroduce customs barriers and recreate commercial blocks similar to those whose rivalries have led us already to two world wars. The implementation of these policies, however, is difficult. The value chain, that is, the process through which a good and its value are created, is very long and crosses international borders several times. Goods produced in the Unites States may easily incorporate components produced in Mexico and several other countries and this holds true also for each of the component parts. Really effective commercial blocks would utterly disorganize the international division of labour with consequences that, in the end, would damage the very interests that policy allegedly wants to defend. The frustration of the poor people of the rich countries and of the impoverished middle classes is however a reality that must be considered.

Because of the extended value chain we have described, workers of different countries participate in the production of the same good. They are not, however, paid and treated in the same way.

The production process is extremely complicated and those who control and exploit this complexity harvest the better part of the final results, while the vast majority of workers only have limited participation or are thoroughly excluded.

Solidarity on the threshold of the new age

Just on the threshold of the new age the Solidarity movement in Poland anticipated some fundamental features of a possible new stage in the history of the Workers’ Movement.

It addressed not only proletarians but all human beings who work, It reconciled intellectuals with manual workers. It reconciled independent workers with dependent ones. It reappropriated to the Workers’ Community the culture of complexity and the moment of entrepreneurship,

It did not take solidarity for granted, as an effect of the material living conditions of the workers. It fostered solidarity on the basis of culture and shared values. For most participants the root of those values was in the Christian communion. This stood, of course. in direct contradiction with the communist ideology’s materialist attitude but also with the hedonism of our consumerist society; it stressed the fact that the Community of Workers reconstitutes the unity of workers, intellectuals and entrepreneurship and creates a subjectivity capable of leading the production process and assuming responsibility for the Nation.[10]

The most important element is perhaps the awareness of the fact that solidarity cannot be founded only on material interest but implies participation in the humanity of the other and recognising the transcendent dignity of the human person.[11]

The globalization of solidarity and the new Popular Movements

The Solidarity Movement was conceived on a national basis. The great wave of globalization, however, created a wholly new set of problems and made purely national solutions unfeasible. Perhaps what we need today is a new Solidarity Movement on a world basis or, in other words, a generalization of a Solidarity Movement at world level. Popular Movements have been growing throughout the world in recent years. They have addressed the issue of globalization. In the beginning and, in part, even now, they have opposed to globalization the dream of an impossible return to the past. With time, however, they have grown and have moved to the issue of controlling globalization and balancing the globalization of the economy with a globalization of the Spirit and the globalization of the markets with a globalization of political responsibility.

Pope Francis has seen in this situation an opportunity for evangelization and has entered into dialogue with these new movements.[12] The Catholic Church has been global since the beginning: a possible translation of katholikos is global. Dialogue with the new movements is not risk-free. They are often labelled as populist and sometimes they really are. The solutions they propose may be simplistic and they may lack the culture of complexity needed to find working solutions. The problems they raise, however, are real: in the existing model of globalization the common goods of humanity, the non-renewable resources, are wasted and we run the risk of leaving a devastated planet to future generations; capital has become global but political institutions have remained only local. They cannot protect basic human rights and the common good against the absolute prevalence of individual profit motivation; the defence of workers rights, in particular, has remained local.

A new agreement on Workers’ Rights

We urgently need dialogue between traditional Trade Unions and the new Popular Movements at the global level. The first goal of a common struggle could be a General Agreement on Wages and Labour to balance the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that created the existing model of globalization.

It took decades to negotiate the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and an equal amount of time may be needed to negotiate a General Agreement on Wages and Labour, but if we never start we will never finish. A first step could be a treaty for the protection of the rights of workers to freely associate in Trade Unions and a strengthening of the international solidarity of workers in order to confront Multinational Companies with Multinational Trade Unions. We cannot imagine that, all of a sudden, all workers of the world will receive the same salary for the same workload or enjoy the same rights. Given the existing imbalances in productivity and infrastructural equipment this would immediately create massive unemployment in the developing countries and push them back into a situation of extreme poverty. We can imagine, however, a progressive approach extending over the necessary amount of time. This would improve the living conditions of the poor in the poor countries but might also reduce the frustration of the middle classes and of the poor in the rich countries who lament the unfair competition on the world market of free labour with (practically) slave labour. A Popular Movement at the world level could avoid the war of the poor of the wealthy nations against the poor of the poor nations that is being waged now by various populist movements.

Perhaps what we really need now is a projection of the idea of Solidarity at the world level and a reconsideration of the idea of a World Community of Workers that makes their voice heard in the great political and economic decisions. If workers acquire the culture of complexity they become able to govern the economy or at least to participate in the government of the globalized economy.

To move from populist protest to Popular Movements we need to appropriate to the vast exploited masses the culture of complexity that allows them to see the vast network of interdependencies that constitutes the reality of our world. We need popular elites, that is, elites rooted in the Popular Movements and dedicated to the service of the People.

Solidarity and Communion

We have already mentioned the fact that a new stage in the history of the Workers’ Movement requires great solidarity. This solidarity cannot be taken for granted and is not produced by the material living conditions of the proletarians. This solidarity can only be the effect of a corresponding anthropology, of an anthropology that sees man at the same time as an individual and a community, that is, as inherently destined to be a member of a community. The proximity to the Christian vision of man who is made for communion with God and with other men thus becomes apparent. A new Workers’ Movement needs the values and anthropological structures that are an effect of faith and of education to faith. Solidarity is, in one sense, Communion in the social world.

There are some economists who are making a valuable effort to create an “economy of communion”[13] or a “civil economy”, that is an economy based on an anthropology that has a balanced vision of both these sides of the human being as the subject of economic action. We also need an attempt to consider the category of work and the praxis of the Workers’ Movement on the basis of a vision that considers the human person with equanimity, both in his or her individual and communitarian dimension.[14]


[1] Laborem Exercens 5 e 6.
[2] Evangelii Gaudium 226 and ff.
[3] Veritatis Splendor 98 and ff.
[4] Karl Marx Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, International Publishers Co. 2014.
[5] Anthony Giddens, The Class Structure of Advanced Societies, London Hutchinson 1973.
[6] Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press 1998.
[7] Laborem Exercens Blessing.
[8] Francisco H.G. Ferreira, Measuring and Monitoring World Poverty at the World Bank.
[9] Guillermo de la Dehesa, Winners and Losers of Globalization, Oxford 2006.
[10] Zbigniew Stawrowski, Solidarność znaczy więź, Cracow 2010.
[11] Rocco Buttiglione, L’uomo ed il lavoro, CSEO Forlì 1982.
[12] Guzmán Carriquiry Lecour, Gianni La Bella (eds.) La irrupción de los Movimientos Populares: Rerum Novarum de nuestro tiempo, Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2019. With an Introduction by Pope Francis.
[13] Luigino Bruni, Stefano Zamagni, Peter Lang, Civil Happiness: Economics and Human Flourishing in Historical Perspective, Routledge 2006.
[14] Karol Wojtyła, The Person: Subject and Community, in Person And Community, Selected Essays, Peter Lang 1993.