I remember as a factory worker at Briggs & Stratton in Milwaukee being well aware of the concept and the reality of being an alienated worker.
Karl Marx originated the notion of alienation in reference to workers. The term ‘alienated’ described the situation of the worker in the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. (1) The exploited position of workers was mitigated somewhat in the 20th century by the emergence of labor unions, but the term was used by theologian Gregory Baum in explaining the situation of workers as noted by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1981 Encyclical, Laborem Exercens. (2)
A worker’s identity is connected to his/her activity as an agent of production. Economically forced activity that is harmful to the worker is personal activity that negates a worker’s own identity. For example, work that harms the environment, work that is undervalued and is in a life struggle competition with other workers and work that denies a creative voice, are all inhuman. In so far as it is spiritually destructive, work is an evil and causes resentment, anger, and crime.
St. John Paul II in Laborem Exercens says that “labor is prior to capital.” (#12) Labor is prior to capital in that labor produces capital and is the purpose of capital. Although Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln made the same assertion in a speech in Milwaukee in 1859, you never hear such a statement in current political rhetoric. Also the controversial claim made by the sainted Pope in Laborem Exercens that “labor unions are indispensable” (#20) gains little liberal or conservative political traction.
Since the 1990’s income inequality has constantly increased yet power for unions is ignored by a political structure dominated by capital interests. In so far as labor is separate from capital it follows that workers would be alienated. Laborem Exercens says that private property is a basic right but, “The right to private property is subordinated to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.” (#14) Is there any possibility for industrial peace or peace in general unless it is recognized the all are owners of capital – owners with a voice and a right to the abundance produced?
The undocumented workers in the U.S.A. are a clear example of alienated workers. They have no voice. If the try to form a union or join a union the employer can retaliate by reporting them to the I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Service) I.C.E. designates the undocumented as “aliens” and when in process of proceedings for deportation provides an alien number.
The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of the Holy Family migrating to Egypt in order to avoid King Herod’s massacre of the Innocents. (Mt. 2) Did Jesus, Mary, and Joseph have alien numbers in Egypt? Perhaps Joseph worked for a brick manufacturer who liked the cheap labor and protected him from the ‘Egyptian Immigration Service.’
(1) Lobkowicz, Nicholas, Theory and Practice, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame – London 1967, p. 294
(2) Baum, Gregory, The Priority of Labor, Paulist Press, New York, 1982, p. 48