Why Unions? DC Area Workers Speak, Catholics Respond

Why Unions? Area Workers Speak Out

Workers and the Church in the Washington DC Area


  • Clayton Sinyai, Catholic Labor Network
  • Tenae Stover, LSG Sky Chefs Cook at National Airport and UNITE HERE Local 23 Bargaining Committee Member
  • Jesus Salazar, EMI Custodial Services and SEIU Local 32BJ Contract Action Team
  • John Carr, Georgetown Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life

Recently, Washington DC custodians represented by the union SEIU 32BJ won major improvements in their wages and working conditions when they settled a new contract for servicing DC-area commercial office buildings. Meanwhile, airline food service workers across the country, including at Washington National Airport, have joined the union UNITE HERE and are fighting for a living wage and affordable health care. Join us Wednesday January 22, 5pm, at Georgetown University to hear from the workers themselves about their work and their unions. Afterward, commentary from Clayton Sinyai of the Catholic Labor Network and John Carr of the Georgetown Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life will reflect on how the workers’ testimony reflects Catholic Social Teaching on work and the economy.

Wednesday, January 22
Georgetown University
Mortara Building
3600 N Street, NW
Washington, DC 20057

Catholic Charities Delegation Tours DC Sheet Metal Workers’ Training Center

The construction sector was the original “gig economy” where every job was temporary, lasting the duration of a building project. But construction unions figured out more than a century ago how turn these temporary jobs into family-supporting careers. Unions and contractors agreed to pool resources to train and maintain a skilled workforce, dispatched on request from a hiring hall. It’s still a great path to the middle class, and that’s why a delegation from the Archdiocese of Washington’s Catholic Charities recently visited the Sheet Metal Workers’ training center for a tour.

Carlos Gutierrez, Bridget Maley, and Melida Chacon toured the facility, from the welding lab outfitted with Local Exhaust Ventilation to protect students from exposure to welding fumes to the AutoCAD (Computer Aided Design) computer lab. They also learned how the union recruits apprentices and provides health insurance coverage and pension benefits for those entering the trade.

Construction unions bargain agreements with an entire group of construction companies at a time who commit to use union labor, calling the hiring hall for additional workers when necessary. For each hour they employ a union construction worker they make a per capita contribution to a series of trust funds – one to run the training program, another to purchase health insurance for employees, and yet another into a pension fund for the workers’ retirement. Each trust fund is managed by a joint board of contractor and union representatives. With this system, every contractor has access to workers when needed, while workers can move from one employer to another with portable benefits.

Applicants take a written test and interview for available openings (each construction trade has its own calendar). The trust fund will be investing tens of thousands of dollars per apprentice to train them, so they want to be sure that incoming candidates are committed and have good prospects of completion. Those accepted will spend a few weeks per year in the classroom, while spending the bulk of their time on the job working under the supervision of experienced tradesmen and tradeswomen. Rather than accumulating student debt, the apprentices earn while they learn, paid on a scale that climbs toward the full rate as they accumulate experience.

The trades are interested in diversifying their ranks, actively seeking to recruit more women and people of color. They look forward to working with Catholic Charities to identify candidates for tomorrow’s construction workforce.

Catholic Labor Network Delegation Visits JFK Airport Food Service Workers

Regular readers of this newsletter know that across the country, airline food service workers – who are among the lowest paid workers in the airline industry – have organized in unions and are campaigning for a living wage and affordable health care. A few weeks ago, Fr. Gene Pocernich of the Association of US Catholic Priests, Dr. Meghan Clark of St. John’s University, and I visited with workers in Queens who prepare meals for flights departing from New York City’s JFK airport to learn why they had voted to strike.

We talked to Jose Dias, Margarita Segura, and Genara Vargas in their union hall, the UNITE HERE Local 100 office. They work for a contractor called LSG Sky Chefs, which services major airlines such as Delta, United, and American. All three were immigrants from the Dominican Republic. They were proud of the work they do, but told us that the hours were long and, like the airlines, the kitchens operated seven days a week.

In many cities, Sky Chefs workers earn only $8 or $9 dollars per hour, less than $20,000 per year for a full-time worker. The JFK workers counted themselves fortunate that the union and community group effort known as the “fight for $15” had won a $15 minimum wage in the city and the airport, though few would count $15 per hour/$30,000 per year a princely sum in the Big Apple! Housing ate up much of their wages. As a result, like more than 95% of their colleagues, they could not afford the high premiums for family health care coverage.

Fr. Gene observed,

I was moved to see that there so many workers struggling in this work, mostly immigrants, yet maintaining hope and a trust in God. Catholic Social Teaching, going back to Pope Leo Xlll’s encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, has constantly affirmed the dignity of labor – and challenged employers to provide decent working conditions and an opportunity to be involved in the decisionmaking processes around work life. It’s pleasing to see that membership in the UNITE HERE union has empowered these workers to stand up to injustice.

Today, Delta, United and American Airlines are performing strongly, earning billions of dollars per year. They can afford to take responsibility for ensuring their contract employees earn family-supporting wages and have access to affordable family health care coverage. The Catholic Labor Network will continue to organize support for these workers until they win a fair settlement.

For more information visit Airport Strike Alert.


Airline Food Service Workers Speak Out at Georgetown January 22

John Carr, Georgetown, to offer Catholic Social Teaching commentary

Would you like to hear firsthand from the airport food service workers on their campaign? If you are in the Washington DC area, you are in luck! On January 22 at 5pm, the Catholic Labor Network will host a panel of DMV workers who are organizing to fight for living wages, affordable access to health care, and decent working conditions – including Tenae Stover, a UNITE HERE Local 23 activist working in the kitchens at Washington National Airport. Afterward, John Carr (Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, Georgetown University) will offer reflections on the workers’ presentations based on Catholic Social Teaching. The event will be held in the Mortara Building at 3600 N St., NW in Washington DC. For more information or to RSVP, email clayton@catholiclabor.org.

In trade negotiations, American unions stand up for Mexican workers

Both the Church and the US labor movement have expressed concern that today’s global economy and trade relationships allow the owners of capital to escape obligations to workers and the poor. So the Catholic Labor Network is pleased to learn that — under pressure from the AFL-CIO — the renegotiation of NAFTA has yielded new protections for workers, especially in Mexico.

A decade ago Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2009 Encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, explained the challenge globalization poses for workers and the poor:

The global market has stimulated first and foremost, on the part of rich countries, a search for areas in which to outsource production at low cost with a view to reducing the prices of many goods, increasing purchasing power and thus accelerating the rate of development in terms of greater availability of consumer goods for the domestic market. Consequently, the market has prompted new forms of competition between States as they seek to attract foreign businesses to set up production centres, by means of a variety of instruments, including favourable fiscal regimes and deregulation of the labour market… The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum[60], for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level [25].

It’s gratifying to note that during negotiations the labor unions of the United States did not prioritize tariffs, or quotas on imports. Rather, they were determined to defend the right of Mexican workers to organize freely in unions of their choosing. Too often in the past, Mexican workers have been represented by paper “unions” dominated by the employer or political bosses; the USMCA includes new mechanisms to ensure that workers’ freedom to choose their representatives is respected.

Under NAFTA, large manufacturers pit North America’s workers against one another by threatening to relocate production if concessions are not granted, creating a race to the bottom. USMCA has taken an important step forward for workers in all three countries, a much-needed expression of solidarity in challenging times.

Catholic Labor Network recognized as Association of the Faithful

Fr. Sinclair Oubre, JCL

The Archdiocese of Washington has recognized the Catholic Labor Network as an Association of the Faithful under Church law. So, what does that mean?

The Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, was the product of the document of Vatican II. The theology contained in the concilliar documents like the Lumen Gentium, Guadium et Spes, and Sacrosanctum Concilium formed the foundation for the norms and prescripts of the new code.

One of the lesser known, but no less important Vatican II documents was Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. In paragraph 2, the Council Fathers wrote:

They (the laity) exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, their temporal activity openly bears witness to Christ and promotes the salvation of men. Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ.

Recognizing that laity had a share in the evangelization and sanctification of the world, Saint Pope John Paul II promulgated canons that recognized and promoted the laity’s apostolic work in the world.

Canon 298 §1 defines the duty of these associations of Catholics who have been recognized by a competent ecclesiastical authority, “In the Church there are associations… in these associations the Christian faithful…strive in a common endeavor to foster a more perfect life, to promote public worship or Christian doctrine, or to exercise other works of the apostolate such as initiatives of evangelization, works of piety or charity, and those which animate the temporal order with a Christian spirit.”

By Archbishop Wilton Gregory establishing the Catholic Labor Network as a Private Association of the Christian Faithful, he recognized that the CLN has a role in “the penetrating and perfecting the temporal order, in promoting a more perfect life, in promoting the Catholic Social Teaching related to worker and workers, in promoting initiatives of evangelization, and in performing works of piety and charity.

Now, when the Catholic Labor Network promotes Catholic Social Teaching relating to work, the cause of sainthood for Servants of God Dorothy Day and Brother Marinus, and collective bargaining among workers, it is doing so no long as a collection of Catholics committed to these activities, but as a recognized Private Association of the Faithful, who have an explicit place in the mission of our Catholic Church.

Letter recognizing CLN as Association of the Christian Faithful

Christmas Shopping II

The Working Catholic: Christmas Shopping Part II
by Bill Droel

Clothes were once made in the U.S.  Yes, labor abuses occurred in our domestic production–in cotton plantations, mills and factories. Conditions greatly improved, however, with the labor laws and reforms introduced by President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) and his Labor Secretary Frances Perkins (1880-1965).
Through the post-World War II years, New York City’s Garment District “had more apparel factories than anywhere else in the world,” Dana Thomas, a fashion expert based in Paris, writes in Fashionapolis (Penguin, 2019). From there production expanded to Bronx, Brooklyn, Rochester and Chicago; and in the 1970s to NYC’s Chinatown and to Los Angeles.
Starting in about 1980 two trends converged to create the apparel industry as we have it today. First, President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) encouraged free trade deals. It soon became more profitable for clothing companies to import from countries where wages are low and building standards are nearly nonexistent. Second, fast fashion became the new concept. U.S. consumers, even those with money, crave cheap clothes—everything from socks to formal wear. Consumers shop “off-the-rack” or expect “next day delivery” from retail outlets where wages are relatively low.

How many clothing items per U.S. shopper? Jessica Iredale writes about blue jeans for Wall St. Journal (12/1/19). “Staying on trend can be an exhausting, not to mention expensive exercise in denim acrobatics,” she says. She has 18 pairs in her closet and a few more in storage bins under her bed. Of these, Iredale has three “in regular rotation.” The others are mostly out of fashion. By one estimate, the average number per U.S. adult (women plus men) is seven pairs in the closet. That adult regularly goes to the alley or resale shop because that adult buys four new pairs per year. Each shopper (including those shopping for their children) buys 68 garments per year.

There are varying degrees of exploitation involved in the overseas production of each garment. The most harrowing production is in Bangladesh, Thomas details. There are thousands of apparel factories there, employing 40million workers. The doors are locked at many of those plants in order to keep workers from leaving during the day. The world learned of this inhumane practice in April 2013 when the Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 1,134 workers and injuring another 2,500. The Rana Plaza tragedy “is the impetus” for every subsequent improvement in Bangladesh manufacturing, says Thomas.
Thomas summarizes the reforms that occurred and didn’t occur after the Rana Plaza collapse. IndustriAll Global (54 bio Route des Acacias, Geneva, Switzerland; www.industriall-union.org) developed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety (www.bangladeshaccord.org). About 200 fashion lines and retail outlets signed up. Teams of engineers, including leaders from Canada, made the rounds of Bangladesh factories. The Accord participants were mostly European firms. The U.S. firms, spearheaded by Walmart, started the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, similar to the Accord. However, the U.S. Alliance is voluntary and uses in-house inspectors. Human rights activists believe it is deficient.

President Donald Trump is interested in the U.S. trade deficit. The apparel industry which thrives on free trade and on consumers’ desire for fast fashion annually accounts for $77billion of the trade deficit, according to Thomas. Might Trump find ways to bring clothing manufacturing back to the U.S.?
His original MAGA hat was “assembled in the U.S.A.” (The hats could not say “made in the U.S.A.”) The MAGA hat is now a knockoff, selling for $6.99 from 16 importers. All the other items in Trump’s failed clothing line were foreign made, including in some sweatshops. White House advisor Ivanka Kushner’s apparel items, a line which went under in July 2018, were imported from China, Indonesia and Bangladesh. The Kushner subcontractors employed women toiling in sweatshops. Thomas begins her book with details about Melania Trump’s cynical jacket, worn on a 2018 visit to a detention center. It cost $39 from a Spanish manufacturer (unless our government overpaid for the item).

On short notice it will be difficult to buy completely clean clothes during this holy season. A donation to a human rights group is appropriate. I recommend International Labor Rights Forum (1634 I St. NW #1000, Washington, DC 20006; www.laborrights.org) and Worker Rights Consortium (5 Thomas Cr. NW #500, Washington, DC 20005; www.workersrights.org).

Social justice is a relatively new virtue in that it once was not possible to do anything about wrongdoing that occurred in remote locations or in complex systems. Today social justice, though difficult, is possible. Action on behalf of justly-made clothes is possible and, thanks to conscientious students, many consumers and a few sophisticated groups, there is momentum behind justice in the clothing industry.

Droel edits a newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Marco Rubio Discovers Catholic Social Teaching

Senator Marco Rubio made quite an impression this month with a speech at Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business – one that questioned the wisdom of the market and invoked Catholic Social Teaching as a corrective. “On the political right, where I come from,” he explained, “we’ve become defenders of the right of business to make a profit…but we have neglected the rights of workers to share in the benefits they create for their employer.” The Catholic internet (and the CLN facebook page) went crazy in response, probably because it’s so vanishingly rare to hear thoughtful discussions of Catholic Social Teaching in mainstream venues.

Rubio’s talk is emblematic of the turmoil in America’s conservative movement right now. American conservatives, unlike those in most of the world, have taken it as an article of faith that free markets are efficient and ethical in their distribution of goods and opportunities. But after Donald Trump won the presidency on a message that global free trade favors elites and robs working families, that faith has been shaken. A growing number of conservative thinkers are floating alternative principles of social organization in place of free markets, some good (e.g. Catholic Social Teaching) and others not-so-good (e.g. blood and soil nationalism). The conservatives’ clash of ideas has been especially prominent in the conservative Catholic magazine First Things, where Rubio first published these thoughts.

Rubio has drawn a lot of skepticism from progressive Catholics, who don’t want to hear about his ideas until he endorses the PRO Act. But I think he deserves some credit for getting people talking about CST, and especially for doing it at the CUA Busch Business School, whose scholars generally idealize the market while trying to reconcile it with the Catholic faith (usually by crediting the free market with all good economic outcomes and blaming distortions of the market for all evil ones). I have to side with John Gehring’s assessment in Commonweal:

Rubio deserves some credit for criticizing a profit-only corporate mentality and acknowledging that markets alone are not enough to serve the common good. But he neglected to mention unions or a living wage even once—scandalous omissions for a speech taking a Catholic approach to the dignity of work. This was, however, consistent with Rubio’s legislative record of opposing increases to the minimum wage, supporting so-called “right-to-work” laws, and working to pass tax cuts that benefit corporations and the rich—all priorities more in line with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce than Catholic social teaching.

For other takes on Rubio’s talk, check out…

Airline Food Service Workers: One Job Should Be Enough!

Across the country, workers picket airports calling for living wage and affordable health care

Fr. Gene Pocernich joins food service workers at Chicago O’Hare airport

Some 20,000 workers across the United States toil in kitchens preparing food and beverages for the nation’s major airlines, but fewer than 5% can afford the family health care insurance offered by their employers. That’s one reason workers rallied and picketed at more than a dozen major airports on November 26, just before the Thanksgiving travel rush. They shouldn’t have to get two jobs to provide health insurance for their families.

Read more

Building Futures in Washington DC

In many cities in the United States, the building trades unions are experiencing an acute shortage of candidates, particularly women and minorities, for their apprenticeship schools.  For low-income workers, entering a union apprenticeship program can be life changing for them and their family. These trades offer excellent wages, healthcare, retirement and most importantly a stable job for low-income workers that experience insecurity and gripping poverty that is extremely difficult to overcome.

In Washington DC, a program run by the local AFL-CIO labor council has been working to solve this problem by training and placing low-income DC residents in apprenticeship programs and construction jobs. The six-week program trains participants in the basic skills they need to start a construction career such as OSHA and construction math while also offering the soft skills needed to get a job such as interviewing and resume writing. Woven throughout the classroom time are opportunities to visit and experience DC area union apprenticeship programs to give students a sense of the different trades available to them. To help students overcome the barriers to full time employment that are endemic in the poorest neighborhoods of the city, Building Futures offers wrap around social services to insure students are ready to go to work at the end of the six weeks.

If students are interested in a particular trade, the program helps them understand and navigate the apprenticeship application process and facilitates them entering the trade. For students that are not quite ready to commit to a trade, the program works with employers to place students in high wage jobs. Even after graduation and placement, students can always come back to the program for job placement assistance.


The Working Catholic: Christmas Shopping
by Bill Droel

Will your shopping for gifts this holy season include buying apparel? Be warned: It will be difficult to find clean clothes. Some are hopelessly stained with child labor, even slavery. Most have flaws like sweatshop wages, dangerous working conditions, wage theft, harassment and more.

In recent years some consumers have shown interest in healthier food. The slow food movement has even reached the menus within the biggest fast food chains. Now a slow fashion movement is budding. For example, you can purchase clean jeans from Blue Delta in Oxford, Mississippi. There is an Ivy League educated woman in Tennessee who is doing well growing and selling indigo domestically. About 700 cotton farms in South Carolina practice re-shoring; that is, growing stateside and supplying manufacturers here. Even a few well-known apparel brands are gradually turning away from sweatshops.
It is likely too late to get into slow fashion purchasing before Wednesday, December 25, 2019. However, Advent (also called the Journey Outward) is an appropriate time for solid reading on the topic of clothing.

In Beaten Down, Worked Up (Alfred Knopf, 2019) Steven Greenhouse gives two thorough chapters to the history of U.S. apparel manufacturing.
In the early 1900s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a premier manufacturer of affordable women’s blouses. It occupied the top three floors of New York City’s Asch Building (now known as Brown Building and owned by N.Y. University). In November 1909 the women there and in other factories staged a strike. Aided by Women’s Trade Union League and by International Ladies Garment Worker Union and for a time by a few wealthy women called Mink Coat Brigade, the Triangle workers held out for over two months. Their demands were modest: Managers must stop “yelling at them, threatening them or harassing them” plus a change in the pay system–from a set amount per day, no matter the number of hours to an hourly wage. When they settled, the Triangle workers got a small raise and a 52-hour week. They did not get the first goal of every worker action: sole and exclusive bargaining rights. Nor was workplace safety part of the outcome.
Beaten Down, Worked Up profiles Clara Lemlich Shavelson (1886-1982). She was 23-years old in those last weeks of 1909. She emerged as a leader of the garment workers. At a crowded union meeting held in Cooper Union she pushed her way to the front and shouted: “I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. I move that we go on a general strike.” Her activism continued through her life. She pioneered the tactic of consumer boycott and started tenants’ groups in her neighborhood. In her 80s Lemlich Shavelson lived in a senior facility. Sure enough, she organized the nurses and aides. With these working conditions “you’d be crazy not to join a union,” she told the workers.
Beaten Down, Worked Up goes on to detail a devastating fire at Triangle Company that occurred in March 1911. After just 18 minutes, 144 people were dead.
Before 1900, it might be noted, there was no such thing as fashion in our country; except among the elites in Virginia and elsewhere along the Atlantic coast who took cues from Europe. There was no “off the rack” shopping for working women and men (only standard issue uniforms or homemade clothes). Only with mass production of apparel and other products in the 20th century could working-class people have an interest in and be able to afford fashion. The Triangle Company, like many other shops, cut and assembled stylish shirts; the beginning of what today is called fast fashion. Of course, the main ingredient in the early 1900s as with nearly all garments today was cheap labor. An exploitative wage system was and is justified.
Beaten Down, Worked Up then profiles a witness to the Triangle Company tragedy: Frances Perkins (1880-1965), an Episcopalian. She was in a nearby café, on break from her position with National Consumers League (www.nclnet.org). Her friend was Florence Kelley (1859-1932), a Quaker and the first general secretary of Consumers League.
If you have ever drawn overtime pay, ever collected an unemployment check, ever benefited from Social Security, ever been thankful for safety features at your job site, it is because of the tireless efforts of Perkins. After her time with the Consumers League, she worked for New York State and then became the first woman cabinet member, serving through all of President Franklin Roosevelt’s terms. She was compelled to improve conditions for working families by the imprint of the horrible Triangle Company tragedy.

How is it that all our clothes come from Asia or Latin America? Might President Donald Trump revive apparel manufacturing in the U.S.? Is there something we can do about dirty clothing even during these short days before Christmas? To be continued with information drawn from Fashionapolis by Dana Thomas (Penguin, 2019).

Droel edits a print newsletter of faith and work for National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).