The question across the crowded table in the pub last month caught me by surprise. Mike, the friend of a workmate, leaned across and suddenly asked
me: “Are you, or have you ever been, a communist?”
I had met Mike previously, and he was aware of my active involvement in the trade union in my workplace. His question was made in the context of a friendly discussion. His question was not made as accusation, as have been other statements by managers also aware of my trade union activities, who have called me a communist.
But Mike’s question caused me to reflect on why I had only ever once been identified as a Catholic as the basis for my involvement in workplace trade union activity. Ironically it was a conservative union official, feeling threatened by the growing rank and file democracy and activity among the members of the union in our factory who, in an act of betrayal, privately said to my boss: “We know how to deal with communists, but we don’t know how to deal with these Catholics”.
It was Archbishop Dom Helder Camara of Recife in Brazil who once observed:
‘When I give the food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist’.
Neither my factory workmates nor I had to be communists to try to change the conditions that were causing workers to fall over on slippery concrete floors or to lose fingers in unguarded machinery, or to stand up against bullying and racist abuse from managers and supervisors. And we did not have to be communists to organise ourselves to get a just share of the wealth we were creating, or to be treated as workers with dignity and with individual and collective rights superior to those of capital.
The Catholic Church has a rich and unique history of championing and promoting the rights of workers. Pope Leo XIII set the agenda in 1891 with his Rerum Novarum – also known as the Workers’ Charter. Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus [The Hundredth Year] anniversary document stated in 1991: ‘It is right to struggle against an unjust economic system that does not uphold the priority of the human being over capital and land’.
Many other church documents promoting workers’ rights followed Rerum Novarum  including
Quadragesimo Anno [After Forty Years 1931],
Populorum Progressio [On The Development of Peoples 1967]
Octogesima Adveniens [A Call to Action 1971],
Justice in the World 
Laborem Exercens [On Human Work 1981],
Pacem in Terris [Peace on Earth 1963],
Economic Justice for All , Centesimus Annus [The Hundredth Year] and
Gaudium et Spes [The Church in the Modern World 1965].
The recent Wellington Catholic Centre course on Catholic Social Teaching may have given those of us who attended some important preparation – we should now be less surprised if we are ever asked about our social justice activities: ‘Are you, or have you ever been, a Catholic?’