Labor Leaders Respond to Floyd Killing

Labor leaders across the country are responding to the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of police and reflecting on structural racism in the United States. Below find selections from some of their thoughts.

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The AFL-CIO building, located a block away from the White House, was damaged during protests along with others on nearby streets. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka released a statement the next day.

My heart is heavy at the events of the past few days. I watched the video of George Floyd pleading for his life under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. No person of conscience can hear Floyd’s cries for help and not understand that something is deeply wrong in America. What happened to George Floyd, what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, what happened to far too many unarmed people of color has happened for centuries…Racism plays an insidious role in the daily lives of all working people of color. This is a labor issue because it is a workplace issue. It is a community issue, and unions are the community. We must and will continue to fight for reforms in policing and to address issues of racial and economic inequality. We categorically reject those on the fringes who are engaging in violence and destroying property. Attacks like the one on the AFL-CIO headquarters are senseless, disgraceful and only play into the hands of those who have oppressed workers of color for generations and detract from the peaceful, passionate protesters who are rightly bringing issues of racism to the forefront….

The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) represents workers who drive buses and operate subway systems; although about one in eight U.S. workers are African-American, more than one in four transit workers are. During the protests following Floyd’s death, several bus drivers, starting in Minneapolis, refused to transport police and arrested demonstrators. ATU President John Costa released a statement on the tragedy and on ATU members’ actions in the aftermath.

We are deeply disturbed and angered by the tragic death of George Floyd, an African-American who was held, handcuffed, on the ground by a white Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck as he pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” Those all-too-familiar words, first uttered by Eric Garner, an African-American who was suffocated during a 2014 arrest by a white New York police officer, come as a tragic reminder of the injustice inflicted on persons of color every day in the United States…    Furthermore, as our members – bus drivers – have the right to refuse work they consider dangerous or unsafe during the pandemic, so too Minneapolis bus drivers – our members – have the right to refuse the dangerous duty of transporting police to protests and arrested demonstrators away from these communities where many of these drivers live. This is a misuse of public transit…

The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) represents police officers in departments across the United States. Zealous defenders of their members, the FOP typically responds to charges of excessive force by police by urging a presumption of innocence. But the video of the Floyd killing inspired a swift denunciation by the police union.

Our thoughts and prayers today are with the friends and family of Mr. George Floyd, whose tragic death this week shocked and horrified our nation. Law enforcement officers are empowered to use force when apprehending suspects and they are rigorously trained to do so in order to have the safest possible outcome for all parties. Based on the bystander’s video from this incident, we witnessed a man in distress pleading for help. The fact that he was a suspect in custody is immaterial—police officers should at all times render aid to those who need it. Police officers need to treat all of our citizens with respect and understanding and should be held to the very highest standards for their conduct….

Interested readers should also visit the home pages of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the National Association of Building Trades Unions



Church Leaders Respond to Floyd Killing

Catholic Church leaders across the country are responding to the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of police and reflecting on structural racism in the United States. Below find selections from some of their thoughts.

The video of George Floyd in police custody Monday evening is gut wrenching and deeply disturbing. The sadness and pain are intense. Let us pray for comfort for his grieving family and friends, peace for a hurting community and prudence while the process moves forward. We need a full investigation that results in rightful accountability and veritable justice.

Particularly at this time when human fragility has been brought into focus by the Covid-19 pandemic, we are called to respect the worth and dignity of each individual, whether they be civilians in need of protection or law enforcement officers charged with providing that protection. All human life is sacred. Please join our Catholic community in praying for George Floyd and his family, and working for that day when “love and truth will meet [and] justice and peace will kiss” (Psalm 85).

– Archbishop Bernard Hebda, Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis.

In astonishment, we are seeing the reactions of people across the United States as they express feelings of frustration, hurt, and anger in their cry for justice for George Floyd, whom we painfully watched being suffocated in front of our eyes on video in Minneapolis, Minnesota this past week. Many of us remember similar incidents in our history that accompanied the Civil Rights Movement, where we repeatedly saw Black Americans viciously brutalized by police on television and in newspaper photos.  Those historic moments helped to rouse our national conscience to the African American experience in the United States and now, in 2020, we tragically still see repeated incidents of police brutality against African Americans.  We find ourselves in this national moment again with the awakening of our conscience by heartbreaking photos and video that clearly confirm that racism still endures in our country. On television and in social media, we are observing an overflow of pain felt acutely in the African American community and shared by too many other communities…. This moment calls us to be the Church of hope that Jesus Christ created us to be in a world full of pain and despair. We pray for a new Pentecost:  a renewal of love, justice and truth in our hearts.  We are called to do justice and love goodness in order to walk humbly with God….

– Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the Archdiocese of Washington.

[The Catholic Labor Network is based in the Archdiocese of Washington; Archbishop Gregory is one of a handful of African-American bishops. CLICK HERE to read Archbishop Gregory’s statement in its entirety.]

The killing of George Floyd was senseless and brutal, a sin that cries out to heaven for justice. How is it possible that in America, a black man’s life can be taken from him while calls for help are not answered, and his killing is recorded as it happens?

I am praying for George Floyd and his loved ones, and on behalf of my brother bishops, I share the outrage of the black community and those who stand with them in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and across the country. The cruelty and violence he suffered does not reflect on the majority of good men and women in law enforcement, who carry out their duties with honor. We know that. And we trust that civil authorities will investigate his killing carefully and make sure those responsible are held accountable.

We should all understand that the protests we are seeing in our cities reflect the justified frustration and anger of millions of our brothers and sisters who even today experience humiliation, indignity, and unequal opportunity only because of their race or the color of their skin. It should not be this way in America. Racism has been tolerated for far too long in our way of life.

It is true what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, that riots are the language of the unheard. We should be doing a lot of listening right now.

– Archbishop José H. Gomez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Archbishop Gomez also serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

We are broken-hearted, sickened, and outraged to watch another video of an African American man being killed before our very eyes. What’s more astounding is that this is happening within mere weeks of several other such occurrences. This is the latest wake-up call that needs to be answered by each of us in a spirit of determined conversion.

Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a throwaway political issue to be bandied about when convenient. It is a real and present danger that must be met head on. As members of the Church, we must stand for the more difficult right and just actions instead of the easy wrongs of indifference. We cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities and yet still try to profess to respect every human life. We serve a God of love, mercy, and justice….

This joint statement was issued by the Chairs of seven USCCB Committees, ranging from the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development to the Ad Hoc Committee on Racism to the Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

Who is the Catholic Labor Network? Meet Catherine Orr, Social Ministry Coordinator

CLN Recording Secretary Catherine Orr also serves as Program Coordinator for the Roundtable Association of Catholic Diocesan Social Action Directors.

Catherine Orr has been working with marginalized communities for many years and has embodied the call of Catholic Social Teaching. While attending Marquette, she was doing a service learning project in which she worked at a group home for at-risk boys. She worked on anger management with the boys but was forbidden from mentioning anything related to religion, which she found difficult because forgiveness in foundational to all faith traditions. She wanted to continue to help the marginalized and the poor but wanted to make her faith a more explicit part of this work.  This led her to the Department of Living Justice in the Diocese of Green Bay where she became the diocesan director running the St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter, Inc. and the Micah Daytime Resource Center for people struggling with homelessness. During this time, she saw the struggles of immigrant workers in the local agricultural sector, which led her to become active in immigrant issues. She worked in coalition with farmers and community activists to fight for immigration reform.

Catherine and her family relocated to Youngstown, Ohio in August 2016, and while living there, she worked in the Social Action Office for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Cleveland. During this time, she witnessed the mass layoffs at the Lordstown General Motors and saw the devastation on the community as economic security and dignity gave way to opioid abuse. While living in Youngstown, she became the Program Coordinator for the Roundtable Association of Catholic Diocesan Social Action Directors that operates out of a virtual office setting.  Her role is to support social action directors around the country in their ministerial efforts.

Two years later, Catherine and her family returned to southeastern Wisconsin, and she began ministering as the Pastoral Associate at Lumen Christi Parish in Mequon, a position she also continues to hold today. In all of her work, she sees dignified work as a fundamental aspect to Catholic Social Teaching, which continues to inspire and drive her ministry.

America’s Unions List “Five Essentials” for Pandemic Recovery Legislation

Wednesday June 3 the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions have organized car caravans in cities across the United States to focus on the essential needs of American workers as the pandemic continues. Many of these needs were addressed in the HEROES Act that passed the House of Representatives on May 15. We don’t yet know what the Senate’s sequel to the CARES Act will be, but the labor movement seeks to ensure that any new legislation includes measures to ensure the following:

  1. Keep Front-Line Workers Safe. This means that workers who are providing essential services to us during the pandemic have proper PPE and testing. OSHA must issue an Emergency Temporary Standard covering workplace safety during the pandemic.
  2. Keep Workers Employed and Protect Earned Pension Checks. The Paycheck Protection Program should be extended and we need to make sure it is used to protect jobs during the shutdown, not to boost stock prices. And we need to take action to protect current and future retirees whose pensions have been hit hard by the falling markets.
  3. Keep State and Local Governments, Our Public Schools and the US Postal Service Solvent and Working. The pandemic has blown a hole in state and local government and postal budgets. We cannot allow this to turn into mass layoffs that slash public services and further damage the economy.
  4. Keep America Healthy – Protect Health Insurance for All Workers. Millions of laid-off workers are losing their health insurance in the midst of a public health crisis. The government should step up to assume COBRA payments for these workers to prevent a new health catastrophe.
  5. Keep America Competitive – Hire People to Build Infrastructure. America needs substantial investments in roads, rail and bridges, while tens of millions are out of work. There will never be a better time to invest heavily in the upgrading of America’s transportation, communication and energy infrastructure.

These are indeed economic essentials if America is to recover stronger than ever from the covid pandemic. The Catholic Labor Network joins with the AFL-CIO in calling on the US Senate to address these issues in a sequel to the CARES Act.

Special Mass Comforts, Strengthens Furloughed LA Hotel Workers

The workers of UNITE HERE Local 11 are hurting. More than ninety-five percent of the members of Local 11 – who work in Los Angeles hotels and restaurants – have lost work as the pandemic shuttered the city’s hospitality sector. So the largely Latino and immigrant workforce did what came naturally: they gathered virtually for a Mass.

The beautiful liturgy was celebrated by Fr. Mike Guitierrez, with members of Local 11 doing the readings and providing the music. Fr. Mike, from St. John the Baptist in Baldwin Park, has had a long relationship with the members of the Local. Twenty years earlier, when he was assigned to a Parish in Santa Monica, several of his parishioners approached him – they worked in area hotels and were trying to organize a union, and asked for his support. “Workers need the support of the Church, and priests involved in labor solidarity have a rich tradition in the United States,” he explained.

Ana Lara, a housekeeper at the Beverly Wiltshire and twenty-two year union steward, read the first reading. “It was so good because we had so many fears. It was time to ask God to help us. We feel more at peace.”

The Spanish-language Mass was livestreamed and a recording can be viewed HERE.

Laudato Si and the Just Transition

May 24, 2020 marks the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ widely hailed letter on the environment, Laudato Si. The remarkable letter reflects on our materialist culture, pointing to widespread pollution and the threat of global warming. He tells us that the Earth “cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” [2]

I find it troubling, not merely because I have myself consumed more than my share of the Earth’s goods, nor because of the Holy Father’s scientifically grounded warnings about climate change. As a member of Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), most of my brothers and sisters are employed in construction. And they aren’t spread evenly across the building industry: in fact, they are also disproportionately dependent on the carbon economy.

As union membership has declined over the past several decades, union contractors have virtually disappeared from single-family home construction and renovation. Most of the strip centers and many office buildings are now built by non-union workers who lack the job security, employer-paid health care, and pension benefits enjoyed by skilled but expensive union workers. In contrast, many sectors of civil construction remain largely in the hands of union workers, and much of this sector is indissolubly linked with the carbon economy. Union workers lay the pipelines that carry the crude oil and build the refineries that turn it into gasoline. They maintain the power plants that turn coal into electricity. They build the roads and bridges demanded by our nation’s massive fleet of cars and trucks.

This means that any dramatic action taken to reduce man’s carbon footprint won’t fall equally on all of us in society, but rather will fall particularly hard on my brothers and sisters in the building trades unions. And that’s not all: coal miners, auto workers, power plant operators and many other blue-collar union workers will almost certainly become collateral damage of a transition to renewable energy.

Some progressives, in their zeal for the environment, airily dismiss the concerns of these workers. More than a few even imply that their fears of displacement signify selfishness and greed, a willingness to destroy the planet for a few dollars in their pocket. I doubt the Holy Father would agree, though. Laudato Si critiques a “throwaway culture” that wastes both resources and human beings. If workers in the energy economy rely on these jobs to secure a living wage for themselves and their families, Pope Francis would be the last to casually wave aside their concerns and the first to counsel the need for a just transition.

It won’t do just to say that the new economy will create enough “green jobs” to absorb these workers. After all, the nation is filled with former industrial workers who were assured that with “retraining” they’d quickly find new jobs to replace those lost to automation or globalization. Too many of those workers today are serving hamburgers, stocking Walmart shelves or driving for Uber at a fraction of their former family-supporting salaries – if indeed they have jobs at all. It’s poor sport to retrain an unemployed West Virginia coal miner to install solar panels if the solar panel installations are all in Nevada. It’s not much help to send a laid-off SUV assembly line worker to IT classes if the corporate offices are hiring younger college grads to fill the available positions.

What will a just transition for these workers look like? I don’t know. It may indeed involve, as some have suggested, a Green New Deal, but it will take more than that. Will we need affirmative action programs that prioritize workers displaced from the carbon economy? Costly economic incentives to ensure that  new jobs are located in the same communities where the old jobs disappeared? Increased taxes on the rest of us to support all this? A just transition will require a practical and concrete plan to reemploy those employed in the carbon economy, and that will be expensive. We should all be prepared to sacrifice in order to share that burden equitably.

Minneapolis Janitors strike against Climate Change

While some unions face a devastating dilemma when their members’ livelihood is tied to the carbon economy, others are finding common ground with environmentalists. Janitors represented by the SEIU and their green movement counterparts have long shared an interest in eliminating toxic cleaning products. Under the banner of Bargaining for the Common Good, SEIU Janitors in the Twin Cities and local environmental activists went a step further in February.

Under Bargaining for the Common Good, unions and community organizations meet together prior to union negotiations and develop a shared set of demands. In this case, SEIU Local 26 sat down with student climate strikers and groups like Environment Minnesota and the North Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, and incorporated a series of environmental demands into their bargaining priorities alongside wage and benefit improvements. After grueling negotiations and a short strike, the union won not just a raise but creation of a labor-management fund that will look for ways to reduce the environmental footprint of the office buildings they service.

For more information on the strike see Lessons from the First Union Climate Strike in the U.S. in Labor Notes and Bargaining for Climate Justice in The Forge.

Will Eulen use pandemic as a union prevention tool at Washington National Airport?

Airport workers muster in a car caravan

In Washington DC’s National Airport, a group of immigrant workers from Africa and Latin America has been struggling for years to form a union and bargain for a living wage. Now they are concerned that their employer, the multinational corporation Eulen Group, will use covid-related layoffs to kill the their union drive, targeting union activists.

At National Airport, Eulen employees clean airplane cabins and terminal floors, push wheelchairs and perform other service tasks. Eulen is one of several contractors performing this work at the Washington National and Dulles Airports, but the company has distinguished itself by fighting tooth and nail to prevent its workers from organizing at Washington National — Read more

Who is the Catholic Labor Network? Meet President Phil Tabbita, APWU

Phil Tabbita is the President of the Catholic Labor Network. In his day job, he is Manager of Negotiation Support and Special Projects for the American Postal Workers Union (APWU).

Phil Tabbita did not begin his working career with the intention of becoming a union activist. He just needed a job while he studied music at Wayne State and the Postal Service was a good job to have. Before going to Wayne State, Phil attended the seminary, but left feeling bitter towards the church. He grew up believing priests were saintly, but in seminary he encountered regular fallible men. He stopped attending church and believed he could structure his faith independently and have his own prayerful relationship with God.

Phil began working for the US Postal Service in 1970 as a window distribution clerk and was active in the organization of the APWU as a number of Postal Service unions merged.  He joined the national APWU staff in 1983 and has been involved in every round of contract negotiations since 1981. Ten years after he had left the church, he was the lead for the union side of an arbitration and a witness offered to lie to help the union’s case. Phil was shocked at the cavalier attitude towards an amoral act like lying under oath. This event caused Phil to reflect on his faith and he realized he no longer had a relationship with God. He returned to the church to become an active member of the Catholic community and developed a deep connection to the Eucharist because of his closeness to God through the sacrament.

Phil tries to spread Catholic Social Teaching through his labor work and believes it is the best kept secret about the church. He believes work is ubiquitous and touches everyone, therefore we should work to make jobs decent and dignified. The Church is the antidote to the world and gives us the ability to look around and see good people. Work also gives us the ability to carry out our obligation to make the earth better.

Phil’s role at the APWU is to serve as executive assistant to the president, support collective bargaining, and act as a union advocate in arbitration among other jobs. Phil is active in the Knights of Columbus and is an usher at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.


The Pandemic, the Economic Freeze, and the American Worker

Aside from the elderly and retired who are most likely to suffer fatal complications, the covid-19 pandemic and its economic consequences have struck no segment of American society harder than the American working class. It was a grim irony, therefore, that federal social distancing guidelines expired quietly on May 1, the Feast of St Joseph the Worker – because for American workers, the hurt is just beginning. The guidelines were replaced by a set of recommendations to governors of the various states, who must make the decision which enterprises remain closed in the interest of public safety and which are permitted to reopen in the interest of economic recovery.

How have workers been specially impacted by covid-19? On the one hand are several categories of workers who remain on the job and face excessive risk of exposure to the virus. Bus drivers, supermarket cashiers, and especially health care workers continue to serve the public and consequently risk infection every time they greet a passenger, accept a payment or move a patient. On the other are those who work in crowded production and distribution facilities, from meatpacking plants to Amazon distribution warehouses. Though not exposed to the public, the infection of a single worker can rapidly spread across the shopfloor – as has been witnessed repeatedly at pork and chicken processing facilities. Despite calls from trade unions and occupational health experts, OSHA has made no effort to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard covering covid-19 safety hazards in the workplace, leaving workers on their own. Unions like the UFCW (groceries and meatpacking), SEIU and NNU (health care), and ATU and TWU (mass transit) are among those who represent large numbers of workers at elevated risk of infection.

On the other hand are tens of millions of workers who have been forcibly idled by the shutdown. As of the end of April, some 30 million workers had filed for unemployment benefits, with the official unemployment rate nearing 15% (the true rate is almost certainly far higher, as this number does not include those who have given up looking for work out of despair). Layoffs and furloughs have disproportionately fallen on the working classes: many college graduates who usually work in offices have transitioned to doing their jobs from home via the internet, but that’s not available to a high school graduate working in a factory or restaurant. While about 8% of college graduates are reported as unemployed, about one in five of those with a high school diploma or less have been sidelined. The impact has been especially hard on those employed by airlines, hotels, food service, and entertainment venues, where most of the jobs vanished overnight. Unions such as UNITE HERE (hotels and food service), ALPA and AFA (airlines), and IATSE, AFM and Actors’ Equity (entertainment) are among those who represent large numbers of workers who have been furloughed and face elevated risk of economic ruin.

While the government was abysmally slow in preparing for covid-19 to reach our shores during the weeks after it was reported spreading in Wuhan, Congress and the President moved surprisingly quickly to vote economic relief for the first phase of the economic crisis. While some of the funds approved through the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) followed the European model of subsidizing firms to retain idled employees – the PPP or Paycheck Protection Program – the bulk was distributed in individual payments to taxpayers and/or through the unemployment insurance (UI) system. Unemployment benefit coverage was expanded to cover large categories of workers who aren’t usually eligible because they don’t pay into the UI system, such as Uber drivers who are classified as independent contractors or employees of Catholic Churches and schools.

But the relief package does nothing to replace employer-paid health insurance, leaving millions of workers at risk of losing access to health care. It still leaves significant numbers of workers unprotected and potentially destitute, especially the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in our farms and kitchens who perform some of the economy’s least desirable work at low wages in the best of times. And perhaps most gravely, the income supports that do exist were set to expire during the Summer, anticipating a short “V-shaped” recession with a rapid economic rebound. It’s becoming clearer that this will almost certainly not be the case. This leaves American workers in a bind, balancing a risk of the coronavirus if they return to their place of work with a guaranteed loss of necessary income and health insurance if they do not.

Of course, some of those jobs will be gone in any event. With the coronavirus still killing 2,000 people a day, many Americans will shy away from shopping centers, hotels, bars and theatres for some time to come. We can expect major economic dislocation as the weaker retailers and restaurants close their doors forever, and double-digit unemployment enduring into 2021 at least.

The Catholic Labor Network will continue to advocate for “the least of these brothers and sisters” (Matt 25) through this terrible health crisis and year of economic agony. We will work with the nation’s trade unions to rebuild as the recovery proceeds, and promote safer workplaces that limit worker exposure to covid-19. We believe that the desperate need for a national paid sick leave policy has become clear to all, so that workers will no longer have to choose between feeding their families and infecting their colleagues with a communicable disease. And we anticipate that a major new jobs program will be on the agenda in 2021. Dare we dream, as the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si approaches, that a Green New Deal with a just transition for workers currently employed in the carbon economy is on the horizon?