The Kennedy Center is earning headlines, and not in the usual good way. The Center begged taxpayers for money to tide them over through the Covid-19 pandemic, and got a sweet $25 million injection in the stimulus package to cover their bills. Within hours of winning the money, Kennedy Center management spun around and told the National Symphony Orchestra members they are to be sent home without pay. The American Federation of Musicians (AFM), their union, says this is illegal and is defending their contract in court. I’ve heard a story much like this before and it ends badly for Kennedy Center management: see Matt 18:22-34 for details.
A recent article in Commonweal — “The Orthodox Church & Social Teaching” — just alerted me to a new social teaching document issued by the Greek Orthodox Church in America with the approval of Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople himself. FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church is heavy on economic justice, among other themes. See, for example, paragraph 37:
Against all such practices, the Orthodox Church will insist upon the high dignity of labor and upon the inviolable sanctity of each person, and that “The laborer is worthy of his hire” (1 Timothy 5:18). Moreover, no one should labor without respite: the Church insists that a just economy or business is one that insures not only the reasonable productivity and respectable pay of workers, but their opportunities for sufficient rest from work, for recreation, and for restoration of body and soul with their families, friends, and communities. It must require of every society with the means to do so that it protect its workers—both documented and undocumented—against abuse, humiliation, neglect, and cynical exploitation. It must ask of governments that they pass laws that make it possible for employers to provide jobs but not to treat labor as a mere commodity or business expense without any special moral status. Every advanced economy must, if it would be just, make it a matter of law and custom that those businesses that enjoy incorporation in nations that provide trustworthy legal systems, functioning financial institutions, and basic civil freedoms must be willing, as part of their social compact with those nations, to comply with laws and practices that provide workers with humane conditions and living wages, and that forbid complicity in corrupt systems of structural poverty in other nations. This entails laws that ensure that, even in establishing facilities in the developing world, such businesses must be held to the same standards of conduct toward labor that obtain in the developed world; and the ability of businesses to manufacture, market, and trade goods, or otherwise to participate in the global market, must be made contingent upon just labor practices. The Church must also call for laws that do not subject undocumented workers to the terror of legal penalty when seeking redress for abuses on the part of their employers. At the same time, the Church should encourage corporations to invest humanely in depressed parts of the world, and to try to provide opportunities where none previously existed; it asks only that such businesses must be held to standards of conduct that respect the inherent dignity of every human person, and that they make their investments in developing economies in order to improve the conditions of the poor rather than to profit from their poverty.
I would have thought this would be a natural place to note the role of labor unions, but of course, not everyone thinks like me. However, paragraph 63 notes the right to organize in the context of inalienable civil rights of the human person:
Then there are those civil rights that must be regarded as the universal and inalienable possessions of all persons: the right to vote for or against those exercising political power, equal access for all persons to political representation, freedom of association, freedom of religion, the right of peaceful assembly and protest, freedom of workers to form unions…
This language in my mind recalls Gaudium et Spes, whose paragraph 68 observes:
Among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people. These should be able truly to represent them and to contribute to the organizing of economic life in the right way. Included is the right of freely taking part in the activity of these unions without risk of reprisal.
It’s beautiful to see our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox communion reaffirming their commitment to economic justice and the right to organize in a period when both are under threat in secular history!
Will other Catholic colleges follow suit?
COVID-19 shutdowns in the food service industry are devastating working families across the country. As Catholics, we believe that we will be judged on whether we have fed, clothed and sheltered “one of these least brothers of mine” (Matthew 25:31-46). That’s why we are pleased to share that Georgetown University has performed a special act of witness and charity in this time of fear, intervening to protect the livelihood of displaced campus food service workers.
When the university closed the campus to prevent the spread of coronavirus among students and staff, Aramark and Bon Appetit, the food service contractors who staff the campus cafeterias and restaurants, began laying off employees. However, the union and the students informed Georgetown administrators what was happening — and the university’s leadership took action. They met with the contractors and hammered out an agreement ensuring that these workers would be paid through the scheduled end of the semester.
This is an act of evangelization that every Jesuit, and indeed Catholic, university and college can readily follow. Unlike airlines, restaurants and sports and entertainment venues, colleges and universities have not yet suffered a catastrophic loss of revenue limiting their capacity to provide succor for their employees, whether direct or indirect.
The Catholic Labor Network has addressed letters to Catholic university presidents across the country, sharing Georgetown’s powerful example and urging them to follow suit. Would you like to help us get the word out by contacting Catholic colleges and universities in your area? Email me at email@example.com to take part in this effort.
The terrible COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting the lives of Americans across the nation, but falling with special severity on low-income workers. According to the 2018 Federal Reserve Board Survey of Household Economics and Decision Making, four in ten Americans lack the savings to cover an unexpected $400 expense – yet millions of these workers stand to lose much more as COVID-19 shutters shops and restaurants, darkens casinos and stadiums, grounds airplanes, and closes offices.
While most Maryland workers enjoy paid sick leave under state law, some workers are excluded from coverage, and countless state residents who are not ill are facing an economic crisis due to emergency closures. As Catholic Christians, we know we will be judged on whether we have fed, clothed and sheltered “one of these least brothers of mine” (Matthew 25:31-46). That’s why a growing number of Maryland parishes are joining other worker and community organizations and calling for the state to adopt the following emergency measures:
- Employees covered by the Healthy Working Families Act (HWFA), Maryland’s earned sick leave law, should be allowed to use their earned leave where they cannot work due to school closures, business closure, or because they or a family member has been quarantined by a public health official.
- Coverage under the HWFA should extend to all temporary workers.
- All workers whose jobs require significant public contact and those working with vulnerable populations should be immediately covered.
- The waiting period to use sick leave under the HWFA should be eliminated, and the maximum number of days employees can use leave should be extended to 14 days.
Thanks to Fr. Ty Hullinger and the community at Baltimore’s St. Anthony of Padua Parish for leading the way with this letter addressed to Governor Larry Hogan and the parish’s state legislative delegation. We congratulate all the Maryland parishes that have taken these steps and urge others to follow their lead!
Next Step: National Paid Sick Leave Policy
Legislators have proposed a growing number of legislative initiatives in response to the COVID-19 epidemic, many of them good. In this fast-moving situation, the Catholic Labor Network is mailing a special appeal to Catholic US Senators and Representatives enunciating two basic principles. First, that workers — especially low-income workers — must be made whole, whether they have lost income due to personal illness, that of a family member, or through social distancing policies to prevent spread of the virus Read more
On January 21, several labor unions representing workers in low-wage occupations – notably Northern Virginia’s SEIU Local 32BJ, representing janitors, and UNITE HERE Local 25, representing hotel workers – organized busloads of union workers to travel to the state capital in Richmond to visit their legislators. Accompanying them was Father Bob Cilinski, Chair of the Arlington Diocese Peace and Justice Commission and Pastor of Nativity Church in Burke. It didn’t hurt that Fr. Bob’s parish is located in the district represented by Assembly Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, who was very interested in what Catholic Social Teaching had to offer on the issue! The day ended with a “Raise the Wage” rally where Fr. Bob offered a prayer and Rachel Laustrup of the Diocese of Richmond Office of Social Ministries, joined the group. Read more
The construction industry has a problem, and the problem is wage theft. At this year’s Catholic Labor Network annual meeting – held at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in January — CLN field organizer Ernesto Galeas reported on seven months of visiting construction sites in Washington DC and Maryland, and his findings were grim. Galeas, an immigrant from El Salvador with long experience in the construction industry, reported that on fully half the sites he visited, construction workers were misrepresented as “independent contractors,” allowing their employers to duck required social security contributions, workers compensation coverage, unemployment insurance payments, and workers’ required overtime pay.
In the DC Metro area, the problem typically relies on the use of “labor brokers,” intermediaries used by major construction contractors to enjoy the benefits of payroll fraud while preserving a level of legal deniability. Under this system a labor broker recruits the workers and leases them to the contractor, as if he were running a temp agency. However, the broker in turn tells the IRS that these workers are independent contractors (or simply pays them in cash and tells the IRS nothing at all). Unfair competition from these scofflaw contractors is driving legitimate businesses to the wall. A study commissioned by the Washington DC Attorney General found that this fraud allows employers to evade between 16.7% and 40% of labor costs. Workers lose out on overtime pay and potentially much more – if they are injured on the job they have no way to claim workers’ compensation benefits.
The problem, once confined to residential construction, has penetrated the commercial construction market and escalated to astonishing levels. In two major cases recently settled by DC Attorney General Karl Racine drywall installer Rock Spring and electrical contractor Power Design paid more than $3 million in lost wages and penalties.
Galeas’ testimony moved the listeners deeply and has been covered by the Catholic press (see Wage Theft, an Underreported Crime). In the months to come, CLN will be moving beyond researching the problem and assisting workers in filing complaints for lost wages. To see Galeas’ report at the CLN meeting, CLICK HERE.
The Catholic Labor Network annual meeting, held Saturday January 25 in conjunction with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, featured some great panelists and discussions. And this year, for the first time, we can share some of them with you! On our YouTube channel, you can check out the addresses from USCCB Labor Policy Advisor Michael O’Rourke, National Farm Worker Ministry Executive Director Julie Taylor, UNITE HERE’s Chuck Hendricks on the airline food service workers’ campaign, and Ernesto Galeas on wage theft in construction…
- Michael O’Rourke works for the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, serving as Labor Policy Advisor. He reviewed his past year promoting Catholic Social Teaching in the nation’s capital. CLICK HERE to see O’Rourke’s address.
- Julie Taylor leads the National Farm Workers’ Ministry (NWFM), an ecumenical organization supporting farm worker unions and alt-labor organizations. This year the CLN affiliated with NWFM. Taylor reviewed the different farm labor groups active in the United States and their current campaigns. CLICK HERE to see Taylor’s remarks.
- Chuck Hendricks is a national leader in UNITE HERE, the hotel and food service union. He has been helping direct a national campaign of airline food service workers who are seeking a living wage and affordable health care. (The Catholic Labor Network has been organizing solidarity with these workers among Catholic audiences.) CLICK HERE to see Hendricks’s talk.
- Ernesto Galeas is the CLN’s field representative leading our Mid-Atlantic Construction Wage Theft project. He has been visiting job sites and counseling workers denied proper wages. CLICK HERE to see Galeas’s report.
The Working Catholic: Exhibit about Workers
by Bill Droel
Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth St., New York, NY 10029) just ended an exhibit about the history of workers in its city. It’s not too late, however, to enjoy the exhibit. It is the basis for City of Workers, City of Struggle edited by Joshua Freeman (Museum of City of NY, 2019; $40). Our Chicago Public Library has a copy, as do other libraries.
The book’s introduction notes that working people help define politics, culture and the public sphere. In struggles between employees and employers, in struggles among groups of workers and in struggles within unions, people determine “what makes a good and livable city.” The book is about labor movements (plural), the introduction explains. That’s because the marketplace is fluid with new labor sectors replacing the old, with new immigrant groups arriving with new skills, with new wage arrangements and more. The book’s contributors devote chapters to colonial New York, slave labor, housework, sailors and dockhands, garment workers, labor relations and race, Puerto Rican contributions, civil servants and others. The book is richly illustrated with old pictures, news articles, posters and the like. A recurring theme is the rise, fall and renewal of several unions. There are more union workers in New York City, by the way, than anywhere else in our country.
Any story about New York City, particularly a story about workers, must treat the fire of March 1911 in the Asch Building (now known as Brown Building, owned by N.Y. University). Within 18 minutes, 144 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were dead and two more died subsequently. It happened that Frances Perkins (1880-1965) was in a nearby café. She witnessed the horror. 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—first with the Consumers League, then as a New York State official and finally as the first woman cabinet member, serving as Secretary of Labor through all of President Franklin Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) terms. She often said that the imprint of the Triangle Company tragedy compelled her to improve conditions for working families.
City of Workers, City of Struggle details how the CIO grew during the late 1930s in New York City, borrowing the sit down tactic from John L Lewis (1880-1969). The tactic was effective at a public transportation powerhouse, at Woolworths and other dry goods stores and more. Although the CIO is associated with steel in Pittsburgh and automobiles in Detroit, many CIO unions had their national headquarters in New York City.
The book’s chapter on health care features Local 1199, a union for which I briefly worked in the early 1970s. Led by Leon Davis (1905-1992), this union began among pharmacists and other drugstore workers. Davis hired Elliott Godoff (1905-1975) to organize hospital workers. For 40 years after the National Labor Relations Act (aka the Wagner Act) voluntary hospitals remained outside of labor relations jurisdiction. Also many nurses felt that as professionals they did not need a union. And, concerns about public safety limit a union’s tactics in a hospital setting. Nonetheless in December 1958 a Bronx hospital recognized Local 1199 as “sole and exclusive bargaining agent” for its workers. There were lots of ups and downs for Local 1199 and other health care unions for several years. At critical moments, Cardinal John O’Connor (1920-2000) assisted the union with dramatic testimony and action. In 1995 an on-again-off-again merger between Local 1199 and Service Employees International was ratified.
Near its conclusion, City of Workers, City of Struggle considers the new worker centers. These centers do not engage in collective bargaining. They are a combination of social service and successful advocacy for workers.
Domestic workers have since 1938 been excluded from federal labor standards, though recently some federal policies have been extended to “direct care workers.” The remarkable Ai-Jen Poo is U.S. born of Taiwanese heritage. As a college student, Poo volunteered with an Asian-American service agency. Still in her 20s, she began systematic visits to many New York City playgrounds where she built relationships with nannies and other care workers who frequented the parks. She organized small meetings and by 2002 her groups were pressuring city entities for improved oversight of their occupation. In 2007 she launched National Domestic Workers Alliance (www.domesticworkers.org). NDWA successfully lobbied for labor standards that exceed federal minimums in nine states and in Seattle. NDWA is now pushing for a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to include paid overtime, safe working conditions, meal and rest breaks, earned sick time and fair scheduling.
Bhairavi Desal is another remarkable woman who has spent years visiting garages and airport lots talking with taxi drivers. Her Taxi Workers Alliance (www.nytwa.org) lobbies for precarious workers. Fekkak Mamdouh, a leader with Restaurant Opportunities Center (www.rocunited.org), does the same with food service workers. In particular, ROC campaigns to end harassment, to improve scheduling and to establish a fair wage structure. These centers must rely on public attention gained through rallies, education materials, and individual meetings with decision makers.
City of Workers, City of Struggle is a history book. But it is inspiring. It reminds the reader that although there are setbacks, social improvement is possible. The essential ingredients are always dedicated people and focused action over many years.
Droel edits a print newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (P O Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)
Clergy and activists from Arlington, Richmond join Virginia workers on lobby day
The federal minimum wage remains mired at $7.25 per hour – less than $15,000 per year for a full-time worker. That’s not a living wage in any part of the country, and certainly not in fast-growing Virginia. That’s why workers are calling on the state legislature to increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour over the coming years, and why the Church in Virginia is supporting their campaign.
Since Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical letter Rerum Novarum in 1891, the Church has affirmed that every worker deserves a living wage – and that if the labor market doesn’t provide this on its own, society must intervene. That led Monsignor John Ryan, the US Bishops’ first Social Action Director, to help lead the charge for minimum wage laws in the United States. And it’s what has led the American Church to become one of the most persistent supporters of efforts to make the minimum wage a living wage. Read more
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