Ten Strikes

The Working Catholic: Strikes
by Bill Droel

Not so long ago strikes were deemed counterproductive, says Commonweal magazine (3/26/18). That was until this past February when 20,000 teachers in West Virginia walked off the job. This job action, Commonweal notes, initially occurred “without collective bargaining powers or the legal right to go on strike.” Yet it was “well-executed [and] wide-scale… Its size and scope proved critical.” With visible public sympathy and sufficient solidarity, the West Virginia teachers were successful. Credit goes to “a decentralized rank-and-file made up mostly of women,” Commonweal concludes.

The West Virginia example does not mean that the strike tactic is back. Nor that it is a sure-fire remedy to income inequality. Strikes are still rare in our country–maybe a dozen notable ones per year. Further, strikes are often broken with no immediate improvement for our country’s workers.
The full positive results of a strike and of the union movement itself might only materialize some years after the event. That’s a conclusion to draw from A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis (The New Press, 2018).
The book’s first chapter centers on the “mill girls” of the early 19th century. A New England economy based entirely on farms and craft shops gave way in 1793 when Samuel Slater (1768-1835) opened a textile mill in Pawtucket, RI. Francis Cabot Lowell (1775-1817) thereafter opened another mill along the Charles River in Boston. His company expanded after his death, including a mill along the Merrimack River in a town renamed for Lowell. That town was nicknamed Spindle City because by the mid-1800s its 40 textile mills and 10,000 looms, operating six days a week, produced about 100million yards of cloth per year.
Instead of using child labor these mills recruited young women from area farms and elsewhere. The young workers, who were capable of operating somewhat complicated machines, lived in boarding houses and were encouraged to read and to attend cultural events. For some young women at the time, it was considered a great adventure to assert independence from their families. However, workdays were routinely 13 hours. The definition of young woman was really teenager. The workers paid for their company housing and their employer increased rent when the company wanted more discipline.
In 1834 and again in 1836 the town’s mills cut wages. In both cases a strike spread to several mills, but was crushed within a week. In 1845 the young women added a strategy: Documenting health and safety concerns and then testifying in favor of a state-mandated 10-hour workday. Only nearby New Hampshire legislated 10 hours, but its mills ignored the law with impunity.
Think about the struggle of these young workers come February 2019 when your donut shop hands you some change. You might see a quarter honoring Lowell National Historical Park (www.nps.gov/lowe). On the quarter is a woman toiling at a cotton loom and a clock tower in the background. Modernity requires increased public awareness of hours and minutes. Thus one town after another installed mechanical clock towers. The Boott Mill clock tower of 1835, as depicted on the new coin, symbolizes New England’s transition from a village economy to an industrial economy—for better and for worse.

Loomis anchors another chapter of Ten Strikes with autoworkers in Flint during December 1936-January 1937. As with the West Virginia teachers, these autoworkers were two steps ahead of their union leaders. Most strikes, of course, occur outdoors. They include picket lines, protest signs, maybe lawn chairs and maybe a huge inflatable rat. But the strike in Flint was different. The workers sat to conquer. That is, they stayed inside; commandeering in a sense all of General Motors’ expensive equipment. Again as in West Virginia, the women from town played the crucial role. With coordination they brought food and newspapers into the plant; they rallied citizen support, not only in Flint but in other locales.
The AFL at this time, Loomis explains, was focused on craft workers across lines of employers. The door was thus open for the United Mine Workers, the United Auto Workers and the CIO to organize all the workers of a single employer and then all the workers in a specified industry. The champion of this type of organizing was John L. Lewis (1880-1969), and he was a major factor in the Flint job action.
Loomis drives home one of his main themes in this chapter. There are three major players in the national economy: big business, organized families/workers and government. Workers cannot make headway, Loomis argues, without some support from government. In the Flint example, the workers’ ally was Governor Frank Murphy (1890-1949), who was later appointed to the Supreme Court. At a tense moment, Murphy sent the National Guard to the General Motors plant. But not—as was expected—to evict the workers. Murphy had the National Guard protect the workers. General Motors was soon ushered to the bargaining table where they gave recognition to Lewis and the United Auto Workers.

Ten Strikes is a good introduction to U.S. labor history. Loomis, however, trips on his rhetoric once or twice. Workers today must take back “our dignity from our employer,” he wrongly writes.
No employer can give a worker dignity. A job promotion does not confer dignity. An employee of the month award is not about dignity. Paternalism is incapable of adding to dignity. Likewise, no employer can take away an employee’s dignity. Harassment, for example, is a sin, but it does not diminish the essence of a person. No one loses an ounce of dignity if his or her hours are cut. Dignity is innate; it is God-given. This is important to believe. This is a truth about power. Each person—middle manager, owner, janitor, skilled engineer, clerk, receptionist and more—possesses as a gift from birth the power of one’s own dignity. It can’t be given away; it can’t be taken away. Don’t ever think that it can.

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

NC State Legislators Take Aim at Farmworkers’ Union

Courts will decide fate of anti-union law

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has achieved something remarkable in North Carolina: they have organized and won union contracts improving wages and working conditions for nearly 5,000 North Carolina farmworkers. This is remarkable because right-to-work North and South Carolina have the lowest union membership rates in the United States (roughly 3%). It’s remarkable because farmworkers don’t enjoy the legal protections of the National Labor Relations Act. Most of all it is remarkable because these union members are vulnerable guest workers from Mexico, in the United States at the pleasure of their employers.

In 2017, North Carolina state legislators moved to shut it all down.

In last-minute amendments to the state’s 2017 Farm Act, anti-union legislators inserted language prohibiting “dues checkoff,” the method most union members use to pay their dues. In a typical union workplace, new employees sign an authorization form permitting the employer to deduct their union dues from their paycheck, much the way they would authorize a payroll deduction for a 401k retirement plan or other employee benefit. The workers covered by FLOC contracts are spread across more than 500 farms in the state – in the absence of dues checkoff, FLOC’s small staff would have to set aside their real job of representing their members and instead spend all their time making site visits to collect dues.

The union and its allies have filed suit in federal court, arguing that the new law violates the farmworkers’ constitutional rights. If farmworkers want FLOC to be their voice on the job, authorizing dues deduction is an exercise of free speech. The law also arguably discriminates against workers based on their ethnicity (virtually all the affected workers are Latino) and immigration status (virtually all the affected workers are H2A visa holders).

The law is not currently being enforced, as this September the US Magistrate granted a preliminary injunction to preserve the farmworkers’ union representation while the litigation proceeds. The Catholic Labor Network will keep you informed as the case develops.

Bad Words

The Working Catholic: Bad Words
by William Droel

Violent language keeps company with violent behavior. The former does not usually cause the latter directly, but in due time violence can follow. To be clear by way of an example, the rhetoric of Sarah Palin did not incite the January 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others, six of whom died. Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008, had an advertisement that put some Congressional districts (not individual candidates) in a mock crosshairs during the 2010 midterm campaign, including Giffords’ Arizona district. But those who said the shooting was a direct consequence of Palin’s violence-tinged electioneering (using slogans like “Don’t Retreat, Reload” and “Take Up Arms”) were jumping to a simplistic conclusion or, in her odd phrase, engaging in “blood libel.” Not to say that no relationship exists between violent metaphors or hateful rhetoric and physical attacks.
Violent language originates in and plays upon resentment. Though the hateful speaker appears tough and rugged, she or he is insecure. For example, Palin (now like President Donald Trump) has no public identity apart from the reaction of those who believe she is over the top. Her insecurity (like Trump’s) requires so-called enemies to fill her inner void by reacting to outrageous statements.

“The resentment felt today is the product of widespread feelings of powerlessness, writes Jeremy Engels in his important The Politics of Resentment: A Genealogy (Penn State Press, 2015). Those anger feelings are legitimate but become problematic when expressed with no context and directed at mistaken adversaries. Resentment is ineffective. Its expression soon enough turns back to the frustrated person, whose self-image becomes an inadequate victim. Resentment is all around these days because some of our “politicians and our sensationalized media seem intent on training citizens to be frightened, frustrated, apathetic, acquiescent and ultimately [more] resentful,” says Engels, who details the Palin-Giffords example. The politics of resentment is nefarious because it plays upon an honest desire for powerful reform but employs life-destroying strategies. Of course, some local, national and international figures play on resentment. Listen to them carefully: Their alternative to the status quo is always vague. They usually offer no lasting reform policy or improved organization and thus their promises only result in more alienation.
Resentment is like an addiction, which is why it seems like fun for awhile. However, it only pulls down. A resentful person, truth be told, has made herself or himself dependent on a larger force without being able to do anything about it.

The opposite of resentment is gratitude. Anyone who desires effective social reform must believe that the world and its environs is a gift. Maybe that belief is not explicitly stated upon awakening each morning. Maybe the word thanks is not used. But a person who is capable of improving his or her business or church or neighborhood or political party is a grateful person. Such a person knows that she or he is not self-made. He or she realizes that one’s interests have to be negotiated among the rights and wishes of others and that the beautiful gift of freedom implies care for one’s family, for society and to a degree for the world.
Let’s not get soft here. Politics is hardball. Business can be quite competitive. Civic groups can strike fierce poses. Specific interests must often be strongly asserted. Issues get sharply framed. Meetings get contentious. In democratic public life there are adversaries, opponents and perennial rivals. In a democracy, however, there are no enemies. Social change advocates and politicians who use that word betray the gift of our country. At a minimum they exhibit self-righteousness. Worse, they open a door to violence. In war there are enemies. In regular public life the word enemy, and other violent phrases, are not to be used.

Droel’s booklet, Public Friendship, is available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)

ONE JOB SHOULD BE ENOUGH: What the Marriott Strike Is All About

Over the past two months, hotel workers in our nation’s major metropolitan areas have walked out of Marriott hotels in a nationwide strike. As of October 8, nearly 8,000 members of the hotel workers’ union UNITE HERE were on the picket lines in Boston, Detroit, Honolulu, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay Area. What do they want? Well, it’s simple really. They are tired of working multiple jobs to earn enough to support their families. Their placards say it all: One Job Should Be Enough.

There was a time in this country when a man or woman who was willing to work hard and put in a forty-hour week would earn enough to live, modestly but comfortably Read more

Misdirected Idealism

The Working Catholic: Misdirected Idealism
Bill Droel

John McKnight directs Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He objects to the standard approach toward a neighborhood by urban planners, government officials, and bank executives, building inspectors, social workers, some police officers and even some teachers. Instead of projecting joy and enthusiasm, they give exclusive attention to a neighborhood’s defects (old buildings, broken curbs, high number of transients, roaming delinquents, dim street lights and more). The well-meaning prophets of doom sometimes propose cosmetic interventions (new basketball hoops and additional street sweeping) to buoy drooping spirits of families.
McKnight, contrary to standard understanding, thinks many seemingly good interventions are in fact disabling help. A forceful ideology, he details, assumes some people are not competent neighbors; they are instead clients with deficient parts. This ideology is apolitical. There is no need to radically address the economic or cultural environment. Service, sincerely delivered, is an unquestioned good. There is no compelling need to explain why our country has terrific medical discoveries and many improved medical instruments and yet poor health. Or why our country has lots of knowledge about food and great interest in culinary arts and yet poor nutrition. Or lots of new classroom technology and yet declining reading scores.

Anand Giridharadas applies this analysis to those who sincerely believe that by doing well they can do good. Idealistic students, enterprising tech engineers and many innovators in finance “declare themselves partisans of change,” he writes in Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World (Knopf, 2018). Yet they selectively take on problems with projects they design, jumping over most of the people affected by the problem and quite often blocking government agencies from access to the problem. The goodwill of these educated and highly positioned do-gooders is insufficient, Giridharadas argues. In many cases it is harmful.
The tech entrepreneurs and the enterprising finance wizards, Giridharadas says, believe that “to change the world you must rely on the techniques, resources and personnel of capitalism.” The approach of these economic and cultural leaders is taught to students at big-name colleges. “The private push into world betterment,” he continues, sidelines “the older language of power, justice and rights.” Instead, the elite-style of social change uses phrases like leveraged data, social impact, and incubation of ideas, start-up venture, empowering endeavor, social enterprise club, impact investment and more.
The internet began in the mid-1960s, first among select engineers. It soon grew in scope and now is, of course, nearly universally used constantly by way of many types of devices. A philosophy came along with the hardware and the programs. The big tech players and their fans, says Giridharadas, believe in the leveling ability of technology. Everyone is entitled to access, they say, and extensive use of cyberspace, in and of itself, increases equality. (See for example The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman, Picador, 2007.)
Perhaps the tech giants are sincere. But their notion of change always includes a payoff for the tech entity and never addresses the basics of our economic system or our dominant culture. Keep in mind: Today’s tech industry is more concentrated than any other sector. A small number of people own the entire infrastructure. Their companies greatly add to wealth inequality.
Is it better then for tech leaders and for young adults who aspire to do good and do well to stifle their philanthropy and cease their forays into social problems? Might they simply put their excess wealth and lingering idealism back into their portfolio?

Catholic social doctrine has pertinent principles. According to subsidiarity, decisions should be made as close as possible to those affected by the decision. Maternalism or paternalism is a step or two removed from the scene. For example, says Catholicism, workers make the decision for or against a union without interference from management, even if management seemingly knows better. According to the principle of participation, a society increases in justice as more families have an increasing stake in the economy and the direction of culture. Catholicism favors private property and never requires exact material equality of income or wealth. It does insist, however, that all families have agency—usually by way of intermediate associations.
Context is a crucial difference between tech/finance philosophy and Catholicism. Individuals login and travel around the tech world as they please. In Catholicism, there is no such thing as a person without an environment; without family, friends, clubs, and more. A large portion of the social environment, Catholicism appreciates, is a gift.

Winners Take All is an important critique; one made by only a small number of other commentators like John McKnight in The Careless Society (Basic Books, 1995) and more recently by Thomas Frank in Listen Liberal (Henry Holt, 2016).

Droel is the author of Public Friendship (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)

Why organized labor is a Catholic cause

Catholic News Agency’s Kevin Jones talks with Fr. Sinclair Oubre of the Catholic Labor Network

As part of last month’s Labor Day coverage, CNA reporter Kevin Jones interviewed Catholic Labor Network spiritual moderator Fr. Sinclair Oubre about what makes labor unions a Catholic cause.

Fr. Oubre is himself a union member, a mariner who belongs to the Seafarers International Union and periodically still serves on ships in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. Besides serving as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Orange, Texas, Oubre ministers to visiting seafarers in nearby Port Arthur as president of the Apostleship of the Sea. (An avid Harley fan, many also know him for the annual Blessing of the Bikes.)

Sinclair recalled how Catholic workers played no small role in creating the modern American labor movement in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. “They took to heart our Catholic social teaching, and tried to implement it in their workplace.” But today there seemed to be a disconnect between Catholics and organized labor.

Like in so many areas of our faith, the heresy of radical individualism, a lack of knowledge about why unions were formed, and a general ignorance of what options workers have, have led to many Catholics to either not realize that the Church has favored workers’ associations, or that the Church even has a teaching that has to do with the workplace.

Oubre urges Catholics who belong to labor unions to study that history and teaching, and to view unions as a site for evangelization. To read the full interview, “Why organized labor is (still) a Catholic cause,” CLICK HERE

When it comes to organizing, farmworkers face special challenges

Few U.S. workers face more challenging circumstances than farmworkers. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed in 1935 to guarantee workers the right to organize and bargain collectively without retaliation, excluded agricultural workers from its coverage – so these workers enjoy no protection from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) if disciplined or fired for their union activity. Add to this the fact that recent immigrants make up the bulk of the workforce, and that relatively few are U.S. citizens, and you have a recipe for exploitation. Despite the odds, organizations like the United Farmworkers (UFW), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) continue to organize in the fields and dairies – and need solidarity from allies in the Church and the labor movement to back them up.

The UFW is probably the most familiar to readers. In their 1970s heyday, the largely Mexican and Mexican-American workforce that harvested California’s grapes organized under the leadership of the legendary Cesar Chavez. Chavez, deeply motivated by his Catholic faith, led a grape boycott and hunger strikes to draw attention to working conditions in the fields. With extensive support by Catholic clergy and laity and by the unions of the AFL-CIO, the UFW persuaded the state of California to adopt an “Agricultural Labor Relations Act” that gave farmworkers in the Golden State the basic rights guaranteed in the NLRA. In a current campaign among dairy workers, Washington State Darigold Workers who belong to the UFW demanded their legally mandated lunch breaks — and were fired for doing so. Starbucks Coffee is a major buyer, so the union is asking supporters to contact Starbucks and demand they meet with the workers.

Under the H2A visa program, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service permits growers in the United States to sponsor guest workers from Mexico (and elsewhere) who come to do the heavy work of planting and harvesting – then are sent home when the work is done.  Because these workers can be deported if they displease their sponsoring employer, they are highly vulnerable to exploitation. Nonetheless, some have been successful organizing through the FLOC, a union that has operations in both Monterey, Mexico where the workers are recruited and in the US tobacco fields where they work. FLOC is asking Reynolds tobacco to source their tobacco from farms adhering to a code of conduct. The workers are asking allies to boycott Vuse e-cigarettes  – and asking convenience stores like Circle K, 7-11 and Wawa to drop the product – until Reynolds takes responsibility for labor rights and working conditions on their contract farms.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is not a union at all but has achieved remarkable progress in the tomato fields of Florida. The farmworkers of Immokalee came together in the 1990s to fight for improved wages and working conditions, but soon learned that only the large buyers had the power to enforce lasting changes in the fields. Building a network of allies in the Church, labor and community organizations, the workers persuaded McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell to buy only from growers who have signed the CIW code of conduct. Today they are leading a boycott of Wendy’s, the stubborn holdout of the fast food sector, demanding that the chain do the right thing and use its market power to secure justice for farmworkers.

The men and women who harvest the food we eat need our support. Please pray for them, and make your voice heard by signing on to these campaigns.

Unions, community members call on Ascension to keep DC Catholic hospital open

In the summer, Ascension Health Care announced plans to close the Northeast DC’s Providence Hospital, leaving a single ER serving the city’s largely African-American eastern wards. National Nurses United and the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees organized a community meeting at the Plymouth Congregational Church in September so that residents could air their concerns. As the DC Line blog reported,

DC residents, nurses, doctors, union activists and a city council member showed up to a recent community meeting to voice concerns about Providence Hospital’s plans to shut down acute care services to transition into a new model focused on outpatient services.

Many are calling for Ascension, the Catholic health system that oversees Providence, to fix problems instead of closing the hospital, which originated during the Civil War and relocated to its present site in the Northeast neighborhood of Michigan Park in 1956. Advocates say the move would create a “health care desert” for many residents in the eastern half of DC.

The Washington DC City Council will hold a hearing on the issue on October 10.

Missouri voters reject “Right-to-work”

In a dramatic win for workers’ rights, Missouri voters rejected a law aimed at crippling labor unions by a lopsided 2-1 margin in an August referendum.

Though called “right-to-work” by supporters, these laws do not in fact create a right to a job. Rather, they create a “right” to be a free rider, to enjoy union wages and benefits while one’s co-workers carry the freight by paying their dues. “Right-to-work” laws undermine solidarity among workers, tilting the balance toward employers at the bargaining table.

In 2017 Missouri legislators – saying that they wanted to make the state a more inviting target for business investment – passed a “right-to-work” bill, which was duly signed into law by the governor. NOT SO FAST, responded Missouri’s working families. Missouri union members fanned out across the state, telling their friends and neighbors what “right-to-work” was all about and collecting 300,000 signatures to put the question to a voter referendum.

Missouri residents voted 63-37 against “Right to Work.”

US Bishops: “stand in solidarity with workers by advocating for just wages.”

“The plight of our brothers and sisters who work hard but struggle to make ends meet calls us all to reflect in a special way this Labor Day.” So begins Just Wages and Human Flourishing, the Bishops’ annual Labor Day Statement. Bishop Dewane of Venice, who chairs the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, calls us to consider what our Church teaches about just wages.

It’s a timely message. Nine years into our recovery from the Great Recession, many Americans are working again – but far too many are working for poverty wages, insufficient to support themselves and their families. In fact, even as the stock market has climbed to record levels, and incomes have rapidly climbed in our nation’s high-income households, real wages for blue-collar and service sector workers have now stagnated for an astonishing four decades. Nor can Christians remain indifferent to this injustice:

The struggle of working people, of the poor, as Pope Francis reminds us, is not first a “social or political question. No! It is the Gospel, pure and simple…” How are we as Christians, who are members of society, called to respond to the question of wages and justice?  First, we are called to live justly in our own lives whether as business owners or workers.  Secondly, we are called to stand in solidarity with our poor and vulnerable brothers and sisters.  Lastly, we should all work to reform and build a more just society, one which promotes human life and dignity and the common good of all…

So what are Christians called to do?

Practically speaking, in the setting of wages, there must be due consideration for what justly ensures security for employees to establish and maintain all significant aspects of family life, and care for family members into the future.  Likewise, those engaged in public policy and finance should consider the structural causes of low wages, especially in the way that corporations distribute profits, and respond by working to address unjust disparities. The rights of workers to organize should be respected, as should the rights of unions and worker centers to advocate for just wages, health benefits that respect life and dignity, and time for rest, and to guard against wage theft.

The laborer is worth his wages. Every worker has the right to a living wage sufficient to raise his or her family in dignity. As Bishop Dewane exhorts us in closing, “This Labor Day, let us all commit ourselves to personal conversion of heart and mind and stand in solidarity with workers by advocating for just wages, and in so doing, ‘bring glad tidings to the poor.’”