US Bishops Labor Day Statement – Echos of Ozanam

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US Bishop’s Annual Labor Day statement

Among the many insightful things contained this year’s powerful Labor Day statement, the following passages caught my interest as echoes of Ozanam.

“Unions must retain and recover their prophetic voice, which ‘regards the very nature itself of the union, its truest vocation. The union is an expression of the prophetic profile of society,'” (This echos Pope Francis very strong statements “The union movement has its great seasons when it is prophetic.”


Unions should “resist the temptation of becoming too similar to the institutions and powers that it should instead criticize.”


“Unions are especially valuable when they speak on behalf of the poor, the immigrant, and the person returning from prison.”

As David Gregory has pointed out in a thoughtful article, Frederic Ozanam, drawing on Catholic natural law and jurisprudence, pioneered the concept of the natural wage. He also called for voluntary labor unions. Ozanam’ s work on the natural wage became the conceptual platform for the minimum wage law and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which were enacted by the Roosevelt administration during the New Deal.  More contemporaneously, the legacy of Ozanam’ s natural wage principle is visible in the living wage initiatives that have been successfully implemented into law in many municipalities throughout the United States.

Ozanam’ s concepts of free, dignified labor, of the natural wage, and of voluntary unions helped set the stage for the great Catholic social encyclicals  on the rights of workers, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (On Labor) in 1891. Some years ago I was surprised to learn

An active member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Giuseppe Toniolo, professor of political economy at the University of Paris, became the leading Italian authority on Catholic social teaching, and was consulted for technical assistance by Pope Leo XIII as he drafted Rerum Novarum.Thus, it is certainly fair to say that Ozanam developed some of the key precepts of fair wages and labor unions that were more fully elucidated in Rerum Novarum. (David Gregory).

Workers’ Rights to Form Unions

Ozanam’ s socio-political-economic vision was markedly opposed to the laissez-faire markets that concentrated wealth, oppressed workers, and exacerbated poverty. He believed that enhancing workers’ rights to decent wages and to organize into unions were legitimate, affirmative instruments that could alleviate poverty.

He personally witnessed searing examples of desperate mobs in action during the 1830 and 1848 insurrections, and he was well aware of the violence of the mobs during the French Revolution. Rather than being reflexively repulsed, Ozanam appreciated that the masses were capable of galvanized social action for the collective good through, for example, the collective action of the voluntary labor union.

He wrote, in 1840, that more than 60,000 workers in Lyon were completely demoralized. The French upper classes stubbornly refused to recognize, let alone address, “the basic problem of employment for the workers.”

In 1983 Speaking to representatives of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul gathered in Rome in 1983 for the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Society, Pope John Paul II wrote of Blessed Frederic:

He strove to draw French Catholics of his time beyond partisan political disputes to fresh visions of a renewed nation, more firmly incorporating the principles of human rights, equity, solidarity and social justice.

Do we today strive to go beyond partisan political disputes to fresh vision based on principles of Catholic Social Teaching?

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