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Pope John Paul II: Champion of Workers’ Rights

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney meets with Pope John Paul II in April 2000.
April 4—Working people around the world are mourning the death of Pope John Paul II, a strong champion of workers’ rights during his nearly 27-year reign. John Paul, 84, died April 2.

“Pope John Paul II espoused the notion of worker solidarity as a central dimension of the human condition and a necessary ingredient of a just society,” says AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who met with John Paul twice, most recently in April 2000.


More than anything, we remember and will rededicate ourselves in his memory to the optimism of what the bountiful love of the Creator can accomplish. His suffering is ended; ours is made tolerable by his teachings and his example.”


The pope is widely known for his role in the development of Solidarity, the Polish trade union that led the fight for workers’ rights and for freedom from Communism in that country. In addition, the pope reaffirmed the dignity of work and the rights of workers to join unions in three papal encyclicals, or statements.


The pontiff’s most powerful statement on workers came in 1981 in the encyclical Laborem Exercens—“On Human Work”—in which John Paul called for “ever new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers. This solidarity must be present whenever it is called for by the social degrading of the subject of work, by exploitation of the workers and by the growing areas of poverty and even hunger.”


The encyclical goes on to reaffirm the support of the Roman Catholic Church for a just wage, available and affordable health care, the right to a retirement pension and workers’ compensation for work-based injuries or illnesses.


To secure these rights, John Paul said workers must have the right of association, “that is, to form associations for the purpose of defending the vital interests of those employed in the various professions. These associations are called labor or trade unions....The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life.”


Pope’s Support Touched Workers Around the World

Pope John Paul also on several occasions stressed the need for economic globalization to “be attuned to the needs of man, and not that man be sacrificed for the sake of the system.” Speaking in 2001, he said globalization “does not assure fair distribution of goods among the citizens of various countries. In reality, the wealth produced often remains in the hands of only a few.”

Less than eight months after the Polish-born pope’s 1978 inauguration, the pontiff visited Poland, where he spoke openly and strongly in favor of human rights, and publicly embraced Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity.

During the visit, John Paul told a crowd of about a million people, “You are men. You have dignity. Don’t crawl on your bellies.”

In the 1980s, the AFL-CIO and affiliated unions helped support Solidarity by providing the organization with funds to purchase computers, copying machines, printing presses and other equipment. After the communist government fell in Poland and Solidarity swept the elections there, Walesa visited the federation’s 1989 convention and received the George Meany Human Rights Award, one of the union movement’s top honors.


Updated: April 04, 2005
 Copyright © 2005 AFL-CIO
 American Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organizations