On November 15, 2016, Georgetown University workers, students, staff, faculty, and clergy gathered in the spiritual heart of campus to celebrate the 125th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum.
Pope Leo XIII’s pivotal 19th century encyclical laid the foundation for Catholic teaching on labor and the dignity of work. More than a century later, these principles remain profoundly relevant to our society and our campus community on the Hilltop. These are the opening remarks offered by KI Executive Director and Georgetown University Professor of History, Joseph A. McCartin.
Exactly 125 years ago, in 1891, the industrializing world was going through a traumatic transformation that should seem familiar to us today: new technologies were transforming work; people were being uprooted by economic process from the lands of their birth and their traditional ways of life and drawn to the centers of the new economy, fleeing the collapsing worlds their parents had known and seeking new and better ones; millions of immigrants, emigrants, and migrants were crossing borders and seeking new homes; cities were growing and their problems were multiplying; tensions were emerging as cultures clashed; xenophobia was ignited (in the US it took the form of the American Protective Association, which sought to ban Catholic immigrants to this country); inequality was surging as some reaped enormous, unprecedented, and obscene profits from the new economy while others suffered egregious exploitation. Almost everywhere, including here in the United States, traditional politics was failing to come to grips with these changes and the anxieties they were unleashing. The US in those years saw the emergence of a powerful Populist movement, whose leaders criticized both mainstream parties as inadequate to the task of taming industrialism and the disruptive changes it was wreaking. A range of radicalisms beckoned to followers here and abroad – Marxian socialism, Bakunin-ite anarchism, Henry George’s Single Tax, Edward Bellamy’s Nationalism. The world was roiling.
It was into the chaotic present of that troubled moment that Pope Leo XIII stepped with words intended to call the world to a higher ground, a papal encyclical called Rerum Novarum. In English the title could be translated as “New Things” (or perhaps “Revolutionary Change”). The new things that Leo wrote about were the mixed fruits of industrialism: increased wealth on the one hand, and growing oppression and inequality on the other. The encyclical went on to argue that industrialism could be a good thing for humanity, but only if it was harnessed to serve the common good. Leo condemned unbridled materialism in no uncertain terms; and, while he criticized Marxian socialism, he strongly defended the rights of the poor and of workers. He called for protection of the workers’ rights to organize unions and bargain collectively with their employers.
With this encyclical Leo launched what in time became known as Catholic Social Teaching. Rooted in the Gospels of Jesus and the traditional teachings of the church, Catholic Social Teaching adapted these ancient teachings about justice to the social situation of the industrializing world. Out of this teaching grew concepts of what we now call “social justice.” This teaching above all recognized the dignity of the worker and rested on the unshakable assertion that the economy existed to serve humanity; humans did not exist to serve the economy. This teaching was elaborated over the course of the 20th century by other popes, bishops, priests, nuns, and lay people. It played a crucial role in shaping the outlook of the Catholics who went on to play a leadership role in the American union movement from Philip Murray of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s, to Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers in the 1960s, to Mary Kay Henry of the SEIU in our own day.
Catholic social teaching found an echo in the teachings of the other Abrahamic faith traditions: in the Social Gospel of Protestant Christians; in the notion of Tikkun olam (healing a broken world) or the vision of Yahweh as the deliverer of an enslaved and oppressed people, which is so central to Judaism; and in Islam’s deep concerns for fairness to the worker. In the end what Leo said in Rerum Novarum was not all that different from what the Prophet Muhammed said in the Holy Quran: “Your servants/workers are your brothers whom God the most High has placed under your authority. Therefore, a person who has a brother under his authority, should feed him out of that which he eats himself and should dress him with the same kind of clothes which he wears himself; he should not assign work to him which is beyond his capacity, and if you do so, then help him in his work.”
On those occasions when they have spoken to their deepest truths, these three great Abrahamic faith traditions have offered a moral bulwark against exploitation and for the care and respect of the worker.
Today we meet to honor an important moment in the history of faith-driven commandments for justice and solidarity. We meet to mark the 125 anniversary of Pope Leo’s powerful statement.
There is no doubt that we meet in troubled times. As it was 125 years ago, the world is again roiling. As 125 years ago we are in desperate need of clear moral voices that can draw on our deepest traditions and bring them to bear on the problems of our time in ways that honor our common humanity, that bring healing to a wounded world, that bring justice. And so we gather this afternoon.
Today we will hear from many voice from our community: workers, teachers, students, organizers, and clergy. And that is as it should be. Pronouncements from papal chairs have their place. Wise teachings from those who have earned seats of authority in our most hallowed institutions have much to teach us. But we should never forget that it rests on all of us to preserve and carry on the deepest values that such teachings seek to clarify. Those are entrusted to us. Powerful authorities will come and go; the good and bad, the worthy and the unworthy will alternate in the seats of power. We cannot entrust to those who hold such seats alone the role of leading. We must all take up that burden. If we are to carry on the best of our traditions, we must all be leaders. It is in a very deep way, on us.
And so in that spirit, we open these reflections.
Before we turn to the program, a word of thanks is in order to a few people. First to Prof. Rosemary Sokas, whose idea this was in the first place. We are deeply grateful to her for her leadership on this campus and her lifelong work dedicated to workplace safety, to respect for the lives, bodies, minds and souls of people who work. Second, I would also like to thank the staff of the Kalmanovitz Initiative, Jessica Fernanda Chilin, who has emerged as one of our community’s most important voices on issues of justice for immigrant people, and the indefatigable Alex Taliadoros, whose tireless, and I do mean tireless, work made this event possible. Alex above all made this event made this happen. I would also like to offer a word of thanks to our cosponsors:
- Population Health Initiative at the Georgetown School of Nursing & Health Studies
- Catholic Chaplaincy and Campus Ministry
- The Initiative on Catholic Social Through and Public Life
- The Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service
- The Catholic Student Fellowship
- The Georgetown Solidarity Committee
This year marks the 125th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s pivotal 19th century encyclical that laid the foundation for Catholic teaching on labor and the dignity of work. More than a century later, these principles remain profoundly relevant to our society and our campus community on the Hilltop.
Join us at 4pm on Tuesday, November 15, 2016 in Dahlgren Chapel as we reflect on the significance of Rerum Novarum and how we live out its values today. Workers, Students, Clergy, and Faculty will share their perspectives. A reception will follow on the first floor of Healy Hall.
This event is cohosted by the Population Health Initiative at the Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies, Catholic Chaplaincy at Georgetown, the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service, the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, the Georgetown Solidarity Committee, and the Georgetown Catholic Student Fellowship.
Questions and accommodation requests related to disability can be made by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. A good faith effort will be made to fulfill requests.
On November 5, 2015, Georgetown students, alumni, staff, faculty, and administrators gathered in Riggs Library to reflect and celebrate the way the university realizes its Catholic identity and Jesuit heritage to the men and women who sustain our campus: the Just Employment Policy (JEP). For the past ten years and counting, the policy has guaranteed a living wage, the right to freely associate and organize, freedom from harassment or retaliation, and access to community resources such as bus shuttles and ESL courses for all university employees and subcontracted workers on the Hilltop.
The Just Employment Policy is a product of the courage and collaborative spirit of several components of the Georgetown community: immigrant janitorial workers who risked their livelihood by speaking out about their working conditions; student activists who led a three-year campaign and launched a nine-day hunger strike to force the university to address these issues; clergy, faculty, and community allies who stood in solidarity with workers and students; and devoted, forward-thinking faculty members and administrators who brought stakeholders together to find a meaningful solution to the crisis. We were honored to host several of the individuals who helped establish the JEP at our celebration, as well as many of those who have upheld the policy since then and updated it to meet the demands of a growing campus.
Anyone who could not attend the event is welcome to relive our dialogue about the origins of the Just Employment Policy, its impact on the campus community, and the future of the Just Employment model.
Welcome and Introductory Remarks
Dr. Joseph A. McCartin and Provost Robert M. Groves
Origins of the Policy
Erik Smulson, VP for Public Affairs and Senior Advisor to the President
Virginia Leavell, Director for DC Action Lab
Fr. Raymond Kemp, Professor in the Georgetown Department of Theology
Moderator: Dr. Joseph A. McCartin, Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative
Impact on the Campus Community
Lisa Krim, Senior Advisor to the President for Faculty Relations
Donte Crestwell, Warehouse Receiver at Leo J. O’Donovan’s Dining Hall
Dr. Kerry Danner McDonald, Professor in the Georgetown Department of Theology
Caleb A. Weaver, Member of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee
Moderator: Nick Wertsch, Program Coordinator at the Kalmanovitz Initiative
Future of the Just Employment Policy
Dr. Robert Stumberg, Director of the Harrison Institute for Public Law
Chris Kerr, Executive Director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network
Natalie Yoon, National Organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops
Hannah Cook, Member of Students for Worker Justice at Loyola University of Chicago
Moderator: J. Callahan Watson, Director of Business Policy and Planning
Georgetown University students Esmi Huerta and Cassidy Jensen recently travelled to Pittsburgh, where they joined hundreds of students committed to worker justice advocacy for a conference organized by United Students Against Sweatshops. They reflected on the insights they gained at the gathering and how they hope to apply those insights in their future efforts on campus and beyond.
We’d like to thank the Kalmanovitz Initiative and our other sponsors for sending us to Pittsburgh, where the 2016 USAS National Conference was being held. United Students Against Sweatshops is a national organization of student groups that organize around domestic and international labor issues. At the conference we met student organizers from other campuses and learned about their campaigns. In addition to sharing strategies with other students we heard from labor organizers involved in national movement like the Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, OurWalmart, and Stop Staples.
Meeting with these winning organizers in this enthusiastic space provided insight into our own campaigns. Upon introduction we had to wrap up our campaigns into ten-second elevator pitches, which provided an interesting format through which to view our work. What exactly is at stake? How are we fighting? How can we do better?
The highlight of the conference was a 400+ person march through the University of Pittsburgh and the surrounding neighborhood. The army of anarchists, union members, grad students, adjunct professors, hospital workers, dining hall workers, and USAS members shut down the streets to advocate for economic justice and respect.
Through each was fighting around issues that were particular to their workplace, the action emphasized the connections between the struggles in all sectors of labor. Whether the oppressor is a company that denies healthcare, a university that increases student debt, or management that dissuades collective bargaining, no one is free until everyone is free.
What we take from these lessons is the necessity to tie together the struggles of our own campus workers. At Georgetown, students and workers are building solidarity together and advocating for better conditions.
We learned that large visible acts of solidarity bring to light issues that are otherwise invisible. They connect people who would otherwise never talk. Cassidy and I realized that we need to be more ambitious in our thinking as well as more strategic about what we’re working towards.
Instead of lamenting bureaucratic obstacles, we as organizers need to recognize the strength of what we do have: Workers and students who are invested in improving their lives and this world. Thank you to all of our partners who helped us attend this conference: Students of Color Alliance (SOCA), Corp Philanthropy, and the Center for Social Justice (CSJ)!
Esmi Huerta (SFS ’17) and Cassidy Jensen (COL ’18)