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Laborem Exercens

(Article published in the May 2, 2007 issue of Manila Standard Today)    

It was Father José A. Cruz, S.J. who introduced me to Ateneo De Manila’s worthy son, Juan C. Tan, who took me in at the Federation of Free Workers (FFW), which gave me memories, vivid until now, of May 1, Labor Day.

At mid-morning, from various assembly points, men and women from various member unions, marched the streets of Metro Manila to meet up with their brothers and sisters in the labor movement at Plaza Lawton, or the Araneta Coliseum, or the Rizal Memorial.  The Marcos years was then on the wane and chants of “Ibagsak” and “Lansagin” were common currency. 

 But instead of walking with banners of screaming red or of funeral black, or of both, we with the FFW, strode forth under flags, not less large nor less proudly waving in the wind, of Mary’s white and blue.  On that day when, with the rest of those in the labor movement, we walked in solidarity, we nevertheless talked with singularity.

 We would have none of  the “class struggle” syntax, our grammar was about the struggle of everyone, whether owner or worker. We talked the walk for due recognition, from every man and every state, of what labor or work really was, along the lines taught by the Jesuit Fathers (“Fr. Hogan” was a secret handshake and a form of  semi-salute).  In 1981, the lines we traced were articulated in Laborem Exercens.

Laborem Exercens is an encyclical written by John Paul II on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the famous encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, the first of several documents that would situate the church on the side of the poor and the “working class”.  Rerum Novarum, among other things, called on those who were beneficiaries of a system that exploited the poor to institute the needed changes.

 In a way, Leo XIII’s encylical resonated with the aspiration of Ignatius who focused his companion’s efforts on the education of the sons of the aristocrats.  They figured that the levers of power that would eventually be in their pupils’ hands would, with the proper seeds planted in their young hearts, move to benefit the less privileged.  Juan C. Tan, better known as “Johnny Tan”, was a good soil on which such seed was planted; he formed the Federation of Free Workers.

 The name of choice, “Johnny Tan”, I suppose unintentionally told the world who he was: here was an aristocrat (don’t they use to call their favored sons “Johnny”?) on the side of the worker. “Tan” in those good old days was not yet conjoined with “Lucio” and was the common surname of the man in the street who made his living by trading on his sweat. A “traitor to his class”, Larry Henares calls him in adulation.

 Laborem Exercens gave papal expression to many of Johnny’s thoughts, a lot of them on many occasions we chewed on with whiskey, water, wine, in whatever combination, while relaxing in the evenings of  labor workshops or conferences, here and abroad.  At the very beginning, the reader sees that it intends to push Rerum Novarum’s envelop when it changes the terminology of discourse from “labor” to “work”. Doing so avoided the confining polemics that successfully but incorrectly  restricted “labor” to being the antithesis of “capitalists.”

 Then, it dives right into its central insight from the rich line in the very first pages of the first book of the bible.  Man hears his Creator tell him, “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). Bold I supplied to divert attention from “fruitful and multiply” which is presently read as an exercise presently advocated subliminally, to the chagrin of population control advocates, by glitzy lifestyle magazines.

 To “subdue” is full of transitive energy; it does not mean to conform or blend with, much less to follow. It means to dominate, to transform, to put in the service of.  It is an act akin to the divine action at the beginning of creation when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” (images in Jewish thought of disorder and chaos), and “a wind from God swept over the face of the earth” (Gen. 1:3), ushering in a new era. It means to assert superiority over.

 The mandate to man is thus, according to Laborens Exercens, to conduct himself, in the likeness of his creator, to bring “the earth” (meaning not only the physical universe but more specifically everything that is in a state of disorder and chaos) to its knees in his service as the pinnacle of creation.  That activity, Laborem Exercens argues, is work.

 The worth of work, therefore, comes from a two dimensional, objective and subjective, source. To the extent work operates on the “earth”, it is rightly assessed in terms of the standards and processes of that objective realm. But, by the fact that work emanates from one who is made in the image of the creator and is conducted pursuant to the creator’s mandate, it has an intrinsic subjective value, independent of the valuation from the “earth”.  Of work’s two factors of worth, the value that comes from the nature of the subject doing the work, says Laborem Exercens, enjoys priority.  This view, in fact the specific terminology “priority of labor” has found its way in our Constitution. 

 From this central insight, Laborem Exercens, makes prophetic witness on specific conditions in the modern situation.  There are too many to mention; I have chosen only three.

 First, the idea that work is a divine mandate to a creature in the likeness of the divine obviously militates against the view of many that “work” is purely a “merchandise” that is to be dealt with and priced exclusively by the process of the “market”.

 Secondly, that idea of work as the fulfillment of divine mandate, was not, says Laborem Exercens, cancelled or withdrawn when, for his disobedience, man was told, “in the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread.”  The words of Genesis, 3.19, simply “refer to the sometimes heavy toil that from then onwards has accompanied human work; but they do not alter the fact that work is the means whereby man achieves that ‘dominion’ which is proper to him over the visible world, by ‘subjecting’ the earth.”

 Finally, certainly included in that “heavy toil” is the lot of migrant workers, such as our OFWs.  For them, Laborem Exercens has this instruction to all involved: “…every possible effort should be made to ensure that it [emigration in search for work] may bring benefit to the emigrant’s personal, family and social life, both for the country to which he goes and the country which he leaves….The most important thing is that the person working away from his native land, whether as a permanent immigrant or as a seasonal worker, should not be placed at a disadvantage in comparison with the other workers in that society in the matter of working rights.  Emigration in search of work must in no way become an opportunity for financial or social exploitation.” The injunction is addressed no doubt to both the host and the sending countries.

 Much still remains to be done, no doubt, for the realization of  Laborem Exercens’ vision. But, if I were a candidate for office this coming elections, I certainly would make Laborem Exercens a pillar of my platform. No candidacy can in any way be hurt by having Johnny Tan cheering for him from a seat within earshot of a carpenter from Nazareth and his mentor-father named Joseph.