Friday: Working towards the Common Good

David McLoughlin explores legislation for workers’ rights and our vocation to image God’s creative love in all our relationships, including our place of work.

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24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis 1:24-26 (ESV))

Mary’s Song of Praise: The Magnificat

46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned home.
(Luke 1:46-56 (ESV))

As I set down these thoughts, the Retained EU Law Revocation and Reform Bill gets its second reading in Parliament. It has as its focus some 2,400 EU laws that remain as UK statutes after Brexit. Among the workers’ rights that these statutes guarantee, are the following: paid holidays; limits on working hours; equal treatment for agency and part-time workers; parents’ rights to take time off to care for children; written contractual terms and conditions; rights to paid time-off for ante-natal appointments for pregnant workers; and guarantees for safety at work. These rights have emerged from decades of relevant case law precedents which witness to their value and need. They were hard won by the sustained collective work of Trade Unions and Workers Associations for years before becoming enshrined in law. Their disappearance would leave many workers unprotected and vulnerable.

The vision of a world of work where all are respected and have certain inalienable rights finds a biblical foundation in the opening vision of the book of Genesis. At the heart of the Creation of the Cosmos and of the planet Earth is the creation of the human creature: “Male and female he created them, in the image and likeness of God he created them.” Adam the earthling and Eve the mother of life, and all who come after them, are invited to share the divine creative dominion, the “tenacious solidarity “of God with the creation (Walter Breuggemann).

We are perhaps more aware of the need for this stewarding and caring role than many recent generations, where the emphasis was often on human control, domination and progress, often with disastrous consequences on working conditions. But the earlier vision was never lost. In the writings of Irenaeus in the early Church, in the theme of Tikkun Olan –  the desire to heal or repair the world in Jewish mysticism, in the Franciscan reverence for all life, this wider sense of human love for creation was kept open and promoted.

At the end of the Christian Scriptures, this imaging of God is picked up again. But now not simply to mirror the first Adam and Eve but rather to live in the pattern of the Second Adam – the wounded and risen Jesus. He is clearly marked by the history of the struggle to heal the earth and restore our humanity.  His risen body with its visible wounds bears witness to this struggle now imprinted into the very life of God. God has entered the darkness of unjustified suffering and death in radical solidarity with all those who have ever lived and struggled for the rights of the oppressed. In the resurrection and the pouring out of the Spirit, God promises to be as near to us in the darkest places as much as in those of light, never to leave us.

This is already anticipated at the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel 1:39-56. Two pregnant working women who are cousins – one young, one mature, meet in mutual support. Then in spontaneous song they sum up the age-old struggle of God’s holy people for basic justice and rights. Mary and Elizabeth remind their hearers of God’s tenacious solidarity with all the sons and daughters of Eve. In this vision, even the poorest and most oppressed are raised up alongside the powerful who are brought down to share the same living space with them. Note the emancipated poor do not become the oppressors of their previous oppressors, as in so many revolutions. They, the former wealthy, now share a common goodly space with the liberated and emancipated poor where new life can freely flourish for all.

 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly…

Together, the once poor and the once rich and proud, now enjoy the same dignity promised to all the disciples of the second Adam.

53 he has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has come to the aid of his child Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Mary and Elizabeth’s song evokes the hopes and desires of all oppressed peoples for a change for the better, a restoration of a shared space in which all can flourish. This prophetic song which continues to inspire those who struggle for justice and the common good, has been prayed and pondered over for centuries. Gandhi read it and said he was changed forever. On the last day of British rule in India in 1947, he asked that it be read as the flag of British imperial rule was finally lowered. The Magnificat’s vision has found new expressions more recently in developing Catholic Social Teaching.

Back in 1891 the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum addressed working conditions at the height of the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution. It’s author Pope Leo XIII, saw the greatest danger in the reduction of the human person, called to image the living God, to a commodity within the new mechanistic system of factory production. He wrote:

A small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon
the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better
than that of slavery itself.” (RN par.3)

He emphasized that the Church, employers and workers should work together to build a just society.

Paul VI in Populorum Progressio (1967) widened the focus from the dignity of each individual worker to human solidarity among all those who share our planet. The fruits of God’s good creation are for the good of all. Ideally this should involve the personal empowerment of the poor, participation in leadership and planning in the workplace, and the collective identification of, and challenge to, poverty and oppression in all its forms.

A year later, across the world in Medellin, Colombia, the Bishops of Latin America made a formal commitment to stand with the poor in a non-violent struggle for justice. They put the Church’s resources at the service of grassroot movements for justice, helping the poorest to become “artizans of their own destiny.” (PP 65 & 38)

In this they were responding to one of the clearest of Jesus’ teachings on the radical solidarity of his disciples with all those in need and its consequences:

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are the members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

This “preferential option for the poor” at its very heart is more than the rejection of injustice and oppression. It reflects a mature awareness of the deep and fruitful gratuitousness of the core relationship that God our free creator offers to all human beings, members of one family. In South America and South Africa this option has already seen the witness of Martyrs. But many others have taken their first steps on the road to holiness by committing to work alongside, and for, the oppressed in their daily struggle to receive the recognition of the dignity that is theirs.

Listen, my beloved Brothers and Sisters,
Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith
and to be heirs of the Kingdom that he has promised
to those who love him?”  (James 2:5)

Part of the preferential option for the poor and the desire for a common good is a return to the Gospel idea that following Jesus makes a difference. It makes a difference to our view of who the living God is and where the image of that God can be found. The preferential option for the poor says that in the light of Christ, the image of God, is to be found above all in marginalised men and women. Why? Because our God is Trinitarian, relational. Wherever men and women are isolated, separate, and anonymous there the true image is being denied and hidden. Only when they are drawn into relation, into solidarity, will they discover their true nature and name as the beloved sons and daughters of God. Pope Francis suggests we follow the way of Christ to the margins to enable this to happen.

This term, the Common Good, is often used in Catholic Social Teaching and increasingly in wider political discourse. It denotes the central biblical perception that we can experience wellbeing only as we live in community with others. We are fully human together or not at all. This is something that the Trade Union movement at its best understands. Enlightened governments will then act towards the flourishing of the common good, and not for the selfish ends of those who rule; or for one class only, or merely to maximise economic growth or consumption for the few.

In sharing this vision with the wider world, the Church has put before the UN, the IMF and the World Bank, a richer understanding of development. Not just economic but also personal-psychological, spiritual, social and cultural development of families, whole communities and peoples. This understanding has been further enhanced by the concept of solidarity in the social writings of John Paul II especially Laborem Exercens (1981) and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987). In them he reflects the fruit of free human participation in the Genesis’ imaging of God. And then in the service that flows from this (SRS 29-30) with its active commitment to the full spectrum of human rights.

We started with legislation for rights but have found ourselves drawn into the very dynamic of God’s free creation and our vocation to image that same creative love in all our relationships, including that of the place of work. May it be so!

For discussion:

  • Mary’s Magnificat is prayed everyday by Priests, Religious and Monastics and devout laypeople all around the world. What difference might it make if they, and we became more aware of its social implications?
  • What forms might our imaging of God’s “radical solidarity” with Creation take in the world of work today?
  • How could we better organise our workplaces and work practices to develop a more dynamic sense of the “common good”?


Fr Daniel Groody, Gustavo Gutierrez: Spiritual Writings (Orbis Books, 2011)

Catholic Social Teaching:

Free online course on Catholic Social Teaching

Further Scripture texts and reading for reflection:

Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Psalm 139:14

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.

Colossians 3:10

… and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

2 Corinthians 4:4

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

2 Corinthians 3:18

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Romans 8:29

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

Reflection on a painting by Fleur Dorrell

Women’s Canteen at Phoenix Works, Bradford, 1918 (Art.IWM ART4434) by Flora Lion.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Flora Lion was a portrait painter who was given access to paint factory scenes in Leeds and Bradford during the First World War (1914-1918). Her artwork sought not only to depict the horrific realities of war, but also to highlight women’s contributions to the war effort. The interior of this canteen is filled with women munitions’ workers who sit, share news and queue for food and drink during a short but much-needed break. Creating a picture that is focused entirely on women packed into a room and at eye level enhances the sense of the single purpose of their work. There is a clear presupposition here that to help win the war was to fight for the ‘common good’.

While there are windows in the background we cannot see beyond because the main objective here is to keep going, to finish the job and go home. Immediately we notice that many of the women are tired of the long hours and relentless nature of factory working. The girl in blue to our centre right dangles her white mug as she reviews the day, while other groups appear resigned to fatigue with their weary expressions and slouching posture. The limited palette highlights the lack of energy in this room. War is not life-giving.

It’s not just the dangerous and monotonous type of work these women are doing that drains them. The Phoenix Works who ran this canteen had previously manufactured lamps, electrical instruments, small motors and dynamos for driving machinery. When the War started it began to make large motors and turbo-generators for the Admiralty and War Office. It also produced millions of shells and machine tools for sea planes and flying boats. These women are exhausted from the prolonged and unknown duration of war, the threat of invasion, the endless casualties and loss of loved ones, and the rationing which were just some aspects of the civilian war experience.

Yet for some women this canteen would provide then with the first decent meal of the day, it was a lifeline. For others, it embodied the sisterhood of women working together outside the home. The two women standing just off centre demonstrate this confidence of women newly liberated by employment in a ‘man’s world’. During WWI thousands of women were recruited into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight in the war as well as new jobs in expanding munitions factories.  Due to the high demand for weapons with the war’s continuation, munitions factories became the largest single employer of women during 1918. Initial resistance to hiring women for what was perceived as ‘men’s work’, was soon outweighed by the introduction of conscription in 1916.  The government began coordinating the employment of women through several public campaigns and recruitment drives.

The roles that women could now take provided greater choice. They became railway guards and ticket collectors, bus and tram conductors, postal workers, police, firefighters, bank tellers and clerks. Some women worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, drove cart horses on farms, and worked in the civil service or factories. They received lower wages for doing exactly the same work as men, and sometimes doing it better. This experience led to some of the earliest demands for equal pay. A struggle which is still being fought today.

This injustice simply by virtue of gender rather than competence contradicts the fundamental biblical idea of men and women being created equally in the image of God.

By 1917 munitions factories, which primarily employed women workers such as in this painting, produced 80% of the weapons and shells used by the British Army. These woman were known as ‘canaries’ because they had to handle TNT (the chemical compound tri-nitrotoluene used as an explosive agent) which caused their skin to turn yellow. Every day they risked their lives working with poisonous substances without adequate protective clothing or robust safety measures. Around 400 women died from overexposure to TNT during WWI. Making women work in dangerous conditions and paying them less than men  already undermined the God-given dignity of women in the workplace, but a further injustice was perpetuated when the men came home.  Many women were sacked to create jobs for returning soldiers or kept on at lower rates. Not surprisingly, the first equal pay strike in the UK in 1917 was initiated, led and ultimately won by women bus and tram drivers.

As women gained a voice further demands for equal pay led to the War Cabinet setting up a committee to review women’s wages[1]. Sadly, the report maintained that while equal pay for equal work was a fair proposal, the authors believed that since women were obviously weaker ‘with special health problems’, their output couldn’t be equal to that of men’s and therefore, their productivity was guaranteed to be less. In the rare exception that a woman was judged equally productive, equal pay could only be granted during the war and not after.

It is rather curious that meanwhile, Phoenix Dynamo Manufacturing had a women’s football team which raised money for charities including wounded servicemen and the families of those killed in action. While women’s football has definitely progressed since then, it sharpens the contradictory attitudes towards women that are still evident today.

Flora Lion became recognised for her portraits and landscapes. In 1915 she married Ralph Amato, a journalist and artist. He took her surname which was most unusual for that time since he saw that she was more talented than him and instead, became her secretary and press officer. After the war Flora focussed on portraits which hang in the National Portrait Gallery. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement and in 1936 painted Flora Drummond, a leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

We might have hoped that women’s pay would have caught up by today yet, according to the TUC[2], the average woman works for free for nearly two months of the year compared with the average man. The gender pay gap for all employees is 15.4%. The gender pay gap persists even in female-dominated work such as education and social care because women are more likely to be in part-time jobs or in lower-paid roles. The biggest gap of 32% is in finance and insurance.

These inequalities don’t just apply to gender but also according to age and region. The pay gap is wider for older women than younger women and depends on where they live as to the types of work that are available. When we reflect on this painting from 1918 it is shocking that women are still fighting the same battles in the workplace more than 100 years later. Even if the Retained EU Law Revocation and Reform Bill is passed, there are still far more women across the world who have yet to benefit from any legislation protecting them and their children from multiple injustices in employment and at home. Yet these are the women on whom so many men, who perpetuate these inequalities, depend.


Creator God,

We give thanks for your tenacious solidarity with your Creation.
We bring before you the fruits of our minds, hearts and hands – our work.
The fruit is mixed: good and bad, fruitful and destructive.
Help us to realise the vision sung by Mary and Elizabeth
of a world where the rights of all your creatures are respected and sustained.

We ask for the gift of your Spirit’s presence:
to help us heal what is broken and wounded
to inspire us to work together in ever greater solidarity
to build that common good where all can flourish.

We ask this in the name of Jesus your Son, our brother,
whose risen body still shows the marks of work, creativity and suffering.

[1] Report of the War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry, Cmd 135, 1919, p.2.