Understanding the YCW


YCW Began Long Ago...

The YCW began in Europe but a very different Europe from the Europe of today. The First World War had just ended and everything was in a bit of a mess. Buildings were in ruins. People who had been soldiers were returning home. Life had to start again.

It is important to remember that this was also the period that history books call the ‘Industrial Revolution.’ James Watt had only recently invented the steam engine and people were learning quickly how this could be used for manufacturing goods in factories.

What a change this was! People used to work in small workshops using only handheld tools. When they made something, they had to sell it themselves. But now there were machines. These machines could work so quickly and they never had to sleep. Workers did not own the goods they made. Instead they were paid wages for their labour. Owners of small workshops found that they could not compete with these new factories. So, the workshops closed down and the owners went to work in the factories. With the war over and everybody coming home, there was a great demand for new products. It was a great opportunity for those with money to start up newer and bigger factories.

Perhaps the people most hurt by this situation were the young workers. They had grown up in a world of war and fighting. Now they had to find work in a cut-throat world of competition. With little education and no training in a trade they had to accept whatever jobs were available And so, from their homes in villages and provinces they came to the cities to find work in the factories

The factory owners made great use of this cheap labour. The hours of work were very long, the wages were very low, and living and working conditions were very bad. It was little wonder that many workers soon lost any sense of their dignity as persons, or of responsibility for looking out for the welfare of others

A young Catholic priest called Joseph Cardijn was very aware of all this. He had grown up in a working-class family and so knew well the problems of workers. Also, he had become very interested and concerned about young workers in particular Even before the war he had begun to get them to unite and face their problems Now he began in earnest to start the YCW movement

Where Cardijn came from

Imagine for a moment the background of Cardijn. He was born into a worker family, his father was coachman for a large house, his mother a domestic worker. Later his father became a seller of coal, delivering coal in a hand truck from railway trucks to homes. His mother set up a small coffee shop in the front room of their home.

He had two elder sisters, Jeanne and Marie, and two younger brothers, Victor and Charles. His parents expected that he would leave school when he was fourteen. He would then go to work in a factory and help his parents with his wages. But Cardijn had decided that he wanted to be a priest.

That decision changed his life. In later years he would often talk about it and reflect on what might have been if he had gone instead to work in the factory. In his first holiday home from the seminary he saw the changes in his old school friends who were now working in factories. It seemed to him that they had lost their ideals and even their humanity, they had become bitter and cynical. Because he was studying to be a priest, they looked on him as the enemy.

“How could this change be explained, I kept on asking myself. It isn’t that there is anything intrinsically evil in the working class itself. Anyway it is no better class than many others. I realised that it was caused by the environment of their work. This was my first revelation about the real facts of young workers’ lives.

“From that moment onwards I was haunted, haunted for life by the call: to save the working class. I could see that endless procession of young people, thirteen or fourteen years old, forced to leave school to work in corrupt conditions. After a few months of this they were unrecognisable. They were being fed an entirely false idea of work, of girls, of dates, of love, of marriage.”

How he began the YCW

Cardijn became a priest in 1906. He spent a year doing further studies at university. Then he taught at a school for five years. In 1913 he went to work in a parish and began to organise young workers there. But the war came in 1914 and interrupted that work.

When the war was over Cardijn was put in charge of all social work in Brussels. His first thoughts were for the young workers. How would he help them with their problems? There were many possible methods that he could use:
  • He could organise a social action group of educated influential adults to study the terrible problems of working youth. This group could then mount a campaign to pressure employers to improve working conditions and stop child labour.
  • He could organise a service and education organisation for young workers. This organisation could provide personal development courses, further education and facilities to allow workers to relax and find entertainment in a Christian atmosphere.

  • He could organise a Catholic youth club for young workers. This organisation could provide religious and moral training and help young workers to become integrated into the life of the parish in its various works.
Cardijn did not choose any of these methods. It is important to reflect on this if you want to understand the YCW well. It was not that he did not think of these methods. He thought about them but decided that they were not sufficient to tackle the problem of working youth. Cardijn rejected these three methods for two reasons:

         They did not tackle the root causes of the problem.
         They did not respect sufficiently the dignity, abilities or vocation of the young workers.

How Cardijn solved this problem

Cardijn believed that the solution to this problem must lie in the hands of the young workers themselves. The best and most important forms of dignity, freedom, liberation and participation are not things given to us by others. They are gifts that we possess only by using and exercising them. He said: “No one can do this for young workers – just as no-one can do their eating for them.”

That is why the YCW he founded is not primarily an organisation, or a meeting, or a pious association, or even an education program. The YCW is a movement – a community of young workers, that is organised and run by themselves. In this immunity they form each other, support each other, help each other, love each other and together build a new world.

They have meetings, they run education programs, they discuss their faith and beliefs and they organise services. All these things are run by themselves and start from the situations they are facing in their daily life. But, the most important part of the YCW is that members take action, daily action in their lives. They do not let life happen to them; they make it happen. These actions form them as leaders and build a new person and a new world.

That is why the YCW has been so very successful. It has mobilised hundreds of thousands of young workers. It has been called the most significant movement of the Catholic Church in this century. Onlookers watching its many activities, the dedication and sacrifices of its leaders and the transformation it brings to young workers’ lives call it “the school-house not made with bricks.”

Do We Still Need YCW?

Every organisation has a purpose

The YCW is best known for its famous methodology, summarised by the words ‘See-Judge-Act.’ This method of education and formation has been copied and adapted by all sorts of groups all over the world. A consequence of this is that many know the YCW only because of its methodology. They do not know the reason why the YCW was formed or what is its essential direction or orientation.

Every organisation is started for a reason. For example. Imagine the case of a man who loves the beauty of trees and knows about their value in cleaning the air and producing oxygen. Then one day he sees a row of magnificent trees destroyed, bulldozed and carted away in trucks, in order to make the street wider for motor cars. It seems to him that individuals are selfishly demolishing what really belongs to the whole community. So, he starts an organisation to defend the trees.

The YCW also was started for a reason. Its founder, Joseph Cardijn, had a great vision and enthusiasm – not about trees but about people and especially people as workers. His ideas about the dignity and significance of human work were radically different from what he could see happening at that time. He formed the YCW to confront that contradiction.

Let us look a little more closely at that contradiction; the contrast between the ideal of what human work should be and the misery and pain that it often is.

What work could be ...

From the objective point of view, human work has transformed the world. The first humans lived as hunters and gatherers wandering over the earth. But they progressed to become farmers and herders. Living in small communities they began to divide tasks and to specialise in skills. They learnt to use wood, stone and eventually iron for their tools. They invented ways to read and write. They formed governments and made laws.

And then came the invention of the first steam engine and the industrial revolution, after the steam engine came the petrol engine and then the electric engine. Entrepreneurs utilized these inventions to mechanise manufacturing and to revolutionise transport by train, car and then aeroplane. Electronics, radio, TV followed to again change the face of civilisation.

Such activity is something of enormous significance in human history. It is an activity that likens humans to God the Creator.

From the subjective point of view also, human work is an essential part of a meaningful life. Everybody needs money to survive – and more money to be able to live decently. But acquiring money is not the only reason for working. Most workers expect more from their work than simply material benefits.

For example, we crave the self-respect that comes from being self-supporting and the fulfillment that comes from being able to support those we love. We long for opportunities to express personal ability, to show creativity and initiative. At work we can cooperate and share companionship with co-workers. Work gives a structure to our day and our life. It gives a feeling of competence. It enhances self-esteem. Work is crucial to our whole identity as a person. “Without work, all life goes rotten,” wrote Albert Camus.

When we look at work in this way, we can see what human work could and should be.

But there is a contradiction...

Cardijn saw that what really was happening was in terrible contradiction to this vision. What was happening was the appalling misery of the life of the workers in the early days of the industrial revolution; workers forced to leave home and migrate to industrial cities, living in dirty crowded slums, working long days in unsafe and difficult conditions, with no dignity and no rights, living and working like slaves.

The YCW was born from that contradiction

The YCW was born as a movement of young workers for young workers. Its work is centred on the period Monday to Saturday. It is a movement of lay people concerned with lay life. Its action is worker action in worker life. Its aim is to fight to achieve for every worker the dignity and fulfillment that is their right in their daily work. If you want to achieve a successful YCW, it is essential that you understand this.

But is YCW still relevant today?

Two hundred years have passed since the beginning of the industrial revolution. We live today in a vastly changed world. Is the YCW still relevant? Is there still a contradiction between Cardijn’s vision of work and the way work is being organised? What does the working week mean in the life of the young workers of Asia and the Pacific today?

For a fortunate few, work life is a real fulfillment. The workplace is a co-operative of friends and workmates. They are continually learning new skills. Work gives them the means to participate and contribute to society, and it rewards them with wages sufficient to live decently

For the vast majority of young workers in Asia-Pacific, however; the working week is not so interesting or rewarding.

The unemployed say...

“For me the working week means another six days of standing around idly, searching in vain for decent, secure employment, and accepting wretched jobs for paltry payment. It means an isolated life on the edge of society, banned from contributing or participating, and cursed by lack of esteem and the financial inability to live like others.”

A migrant worker says...

“I was forced to leave my village and later my country in order to find work. This means I am now far from my husband and three little children I work as a domestic worker. It is a lonely and isolated job that I do only because I must make some money so that my family can live and get an education.”

An informal sector worker explains...

“I used to clean shoes when I first came as a child to this city. Now I have a rickshaw and pedal passengers around the city. There are many of us informal sector workers in this city – selling cigarettes, delivering milk on bicycles, running small stalls, pedalling rickshaws or cleaning shoes.”

“Back home, in the province, many young workers are daily wage workers on agricultural estates. They plant the rice, weed it and harvest it. They are rubber tappers, pickers of tea leaves and timber workers. Others work in small factories or workshops – making tools, cracking cashew nuts, making soap, spinning cotton, weaving mats. Most workers in this sector have to fight every day to earn enough money just to survive.”

The case of child workers...

Countless children who should be attending school and playing with their friends are forced to work. There are 44 million child workers in India alone. Many are bonded labourers, as young as four years old, sold as slaves by their parents. They work up to 18 hours a day and are paid nothing but two bowls of plain rice. Others work in restaurants, small workshops or as agricultural workers.

And in industrialised countries...

“Many young workers in my country work in factories, offices, shops and business enterprises. Technology and automation are affecting their work life. Much work has become de–skilled. Many lose jobs and many face insecure employment. New techniques of management add worry, busyness and competition to work. Workers become individualistic. Often work specialisation makes work boring, repetitive and meaningless.”

These are common realities faced every day in our region. For many young workers ‘work’ is a bad word – a negative reality. It signifies hardships and hunger, worry and insecurity, oppression and injustice. Is this the vision we hope young workers will have of human work?

The last 200 years or so have been years of exciting and, rapid development of science and technology. Swayed by these triumphs we have built a system of production that ravishes nature and mutilates workers. The problems of pollution and depletion of non-renewable resources are daily more evident. The shocking poverty and misery of workers in third world countries is obvious for those with eyes to see.

What is not so clear is the price that is also being paid in the erosion of non-physical values. A materialist world places little value on spiritual values. The question, “What does work do to the worker?” is almost never asked. Yet it could be argued that this is the most important question. The present organisation of work, demanding mass migration of workers, for example, is destroying families, communities and cultures. Is this an acceptable price to pay?

There are millions of young workers in the Asia-Pacific region suffering poverty and want. There are millions more who are controlled and oppressed in ways that make it difficult for them to live the deepest meaning of their lives. Pope John Paul has said that the central cause of all this unhappiness is centred in the way we have organised work.

These are the challenges of the YCW. These matters are the subject and the essence of what the YCW is about. The real purpose of the YCW is to organise young workers to face these situations and to solve their problems.