As OSHA dithers, Virginia and DC move to protect workers from Covid

Workers in supermarkets, transit systems, farms and especially health care facilities continue to serve under high risk of exposure to covid infection, yet OSHA refuses to issue a workplace safety and health standard to protect workers on the job. Thanks to dedicated coalitions in Virginia and Washington DC, however, some state and local authorities are stepping up to the plate. Responding to appeals from the Virginia AFL-CIO and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy (and many others, including the Catholic Labor Network), on July 15 the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board adopted an emergency temporary standard setting out what employers must do to protect employees from covid infection on the job. Doris Crouse-Mays, President of the Virginia AFL-CIO stated, “Finally, Virginia has demonstrated that it values workers. We now have standards that will protect workers, families, and communities by keeping them as safe as possible during this unprecedented time.”

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For the Catholic Labor Network, the fight now shifts to the District of Columbia, where Council Member Elissa Sliverman has introduced the Protecting Businesses and Workers from Covid-19 Emergency Amendment Act of 2020. We are part of a coalition of labor and community organizations urging the DC Council to adopt the legislation and ensure safer working conditions for those employed in the District.

Catholic Labor Network Statement on Police Unions and Racism

Recent events have reminded all of the deep wounds of racism that continue to afflict the United States, and of the particular problem of racist violence in our systems of policing and criminal justice. The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has inspired wide-ranging discussions of this issue and possible remedies, including discussion of the role of police unions — whether unions of police officers contribute to the problem by protecting those who abuse their authority.

The Catholic Labor Network has struggled with this question and considered it in light of Catholic Social Teaching. Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking social encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) established the right of workers to organize in unions as a basic element of Catholic social doctrine in the modern age. Eight decades later, reflecting on Rerum Novarum, Pope Paul VI elaborated on the role of unions in society in his encyclical, Octogesima Adveniens (1971), observing that “The important role of union organizations must be admitted: their object is the representation of the various categories of workers, their lawful collaboration in the economic advance of society, and the development of the sense of their responsibility for the realization of the common good.” (14).

Informed by these two points — the right of workers to organize in unions, and the obligation of unions (like other associations) to serve the common good — the Catholic Labor Network concludes that 1) law enforcement personnel, like other workers, have a natural right to form unions and associations, but 2) these unions are obligated to go beyond serving their members and to actively participate in the fight to root out the evil of racism, especially in the criminal justice system and within their own ranks.

Some commentators have been quick to invoke the killing of Mr. Floyd to challenge the right of police to organize in unions at all, arguing that collectively bargained disciplinary procedures make it difficult to fire problem employees. However, the Catholic Labor Network notes that some of the most prominent advocates of this viewpoint have long sought to weaken or eliminate unions for other categories of public employees as well (e.g. Daniel DeSalvo, “Tired of Bad Cops? First, Look at Their Labor Unions”, Washington Post, 6/3/2020). The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World instructs us that “Among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people,” (Gaudium et Spes 68) and that indeed Pope St John Paul II has called labor unions “an indispensable element of social life” (Laborem Exercens, 20) in the modern era. The right of workers, including police department personnel, to form unions is sacred and inviolable. Replacing unilateral management fiat with a just grievance procedure is one of the goods that all workers seek when they organize.

Nevertheless, along with that right comes a duty to serve the common good. In a world where all of us are wounded by sin, we face a perpetual temptation to use our powers for selfish ends. This is a special challenge for those granted authority over others. We have witnessed with sorrow how a clerical culture, protective of its members at the expense of those the Church is commissioned to serve, enabled the scandal of clerical sexual abuse to fester for decades. In a similar way, we have seen how many police unions have come to occupy a role where they protect officers who abuse their authority. This has come spectacularly to light in the role and activities of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis under its current leadership. Significant structural racism plays a key and harmful role in our current policing practices. Rather than justifying this, police unions have an obligation to listen to the voices of the community and take up the fight against racism in our system of policing.

Some voices in the labor movement have called upon the AFL-CIO and its state labor federations to expel all affiliated police unions from their ranks. This is a legitimate position, many of whose advocates rightly contend that the labor movement must actively commit itself to antiracism. The Catholic Labor Network prefers the historic approach of the labor movement to addressing unions whose actions have reflected poorly on the broader movement: when unions have been found to be compromised by organized crime, for example, their participation in labor bodies was made contingent on reforms. The Catholic Labor Network believes instead that the labor movement should remain open to those police labor organizations that commit to working to end systemic racism in policing and who are willing to join in solidarity with broader efforts to move from mass incarceration toward greater amelioration of the needs of the communities of color. We call upon our brothers and sisters in the police unions to join a dialogue with the community and human services agencies on the future of policing and public order and to envision a future worthy of the call we have received.


CLN ONLINE EVENT! Workers Speak Out: Public Services and the Pandemic

The pandemic’s economic freeze has cut deep into city, county and state revenues. Unless the federal government acts to fill this gap, Fall will see massive layoffs among state and local government employees and major public service cuts. The workers who staff our clinics, provide our drinking water and haul our trash are at risk of furloughs and layoffs.

As the US Senate weighs its response to this crisis, the Catholic Labor Network invites you to join us for Workers Speak Out: Public Services and the Pandemic. You’ll hear from some of the frontline workers whose lives and work remain in the balance, and their union, explaining what you can do to help.

Speakers to include:

  • Phil Cisneros, Office of the Cook County Public Guardian
  • Stephen Mittons, Illinois Department of Children and Family Services
  • Becky Levine, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees)
  • Clayton Sinyai, Catholic Labor Network

3pm ET

Wednesday, July 22, 2020


How can we reconcile religious freedom and the rights of workers at Catholic institutions?

In an important legal decision at the intersection of worker rights and religious freedom, the Supreme Court has ruled that Catholic school teachers are not protected from employment discrimination due to age or disability, because the first amendment forbids the US government from interfering in religious institutions.

The decision addressed two cases at different schools in the Los Angeles area. The late Kristen Biel, a teacher at St. James School was let go after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Agnes Morrissey-Berru, a teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, sued for age discrimination after her contract was not renewed. A 7-2 majority of the court ruled that both teachers qualified for the “ministerial exemption” from discrimination laws because religious instruction is among their duties.

These are difficult cases. The USCCB understandably hailed the ruling as a vindication of religious freedom principles, but it’s unfortunate their statement didn’t acknowledge the rights of workers in any fashion at all. The legal right of Catholic institutions to discriminate according to age or disability may be an undesired consequence of a zealous defense of religious freedom, but it should temper our celebration of the outcome. Although I can’t speak to the merits of either teacher’s claim, all of us should be wary of a system that makes the employer judge in his own cause, as this decision does.

The Bishop’s 1986 Pastoral Letter Economic Justice for All includes a section on “The Church as Economic Actor” with specific reference to the Church’s practices as an employer. The Bishops observe that “All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the Church and its agencies and institutions; indeed the Church should be exemplary [347].”

The current situation is far from exemplary. The Bishops state that Church employees have the right to organize in unions [353], but employers such as St. Xavier University in Chicago bust faculty unions at will. The Bishops oppose discrimination in employment, but those with a claim of discrimination have no place to turn for a fair hearing. If we are to reconcile our religious freedom with our social doctrine, it is beyond time for the Church to establish a bill of rights for employees of Catholic institutions and a forum where those whose rights have been violated can press their claims.

The Evolution of Catholic Social Ethics by Fr. Frank Colborn

A guest contribution from Fr. Juan Romero

I invite Catholic Labor Network members to check out Fr. Frank Colborn’s  The Evolution of Catholic Social Ethics From the Palaeolithic to Pope Francis, recently published by WIPF & STOCK. In spite of its great breadth, the work is succinct at fewer than 200 pages.

Fr. Frank Colborn is an octogenarian priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who did doctoral studies in Rome where he was ordained at the end of 1963. He is a classmate and friend who taught dogmatic theology in the seminary for several years. Read more

Labor Apostle

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

There’s a new edition of Christian Socialism: An Informal History by John Cort (Orbis Books, 2020). Gary Dorrien of Union Theological Seminary provides its introduction. The book generally goes in chronological order from the New Testament onto the Church Fathers (East and West), then St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and St. Thomas More (1478-1535). Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) appears in a chapter about France and Most Rev. William Temple (1881-1944) in one about England. The chapter on Catholic socialism draws upon papal encyclicals, the thoughts of Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945) of St. Paul and on liberation theology.

John Cort (1913-2006), a 1935 Harvard University graduate, served our country as a Peace Corps volunteer in Philippines, as a local director in the Office of Economic Opportunity and as a director of a municipal program. He is best known as founder of Association of Catholic Trade Unionists in February 1937.
In the 1940s the Communist Party controlled 15 major labor unions in the U.S. and had influence within others. Many blue-collar workers at the time were immigrant Catholics. If Catholicism was indifferent to the world of work, Cort reasoned, the door is open to communists to use unions for their ideological purpose. Thus ACTU would encourage Catholic workers to join unions and be active members, Cort said. It assisted with CIO membership drives, battled racketeers and sponsored labor schools where workers learned leadership skills and discussed Catholic social principles. At ACTU’s peak there were 5,500 members in 14 cities. Many ACTU chapters published hard-hitting newspapers.
ACTU was controversial. Some Catholics accused it of cooperating with communism. The greater criticism came from the other end: ACTU was a voting-block within union locals, so fixated on anti-communism that it turned a progressive labor movement hopelessly rightward. Indeed, a few ACTU chapters got so obsessed with communism that they lost ACTU’s original purpose. Cort repeatedly said that the U in ACTU stood for unionists, not unions. He did not advocate Catholic trade unions or Catholic political parties, as sometimes occurred in Europe. Catholics display their faith in public life simply by being good unionists–or in other examples, good politicians, good civil servants, good nurses, good teachers. The workers in ACTU met outside their job site with fellow Catholics for mutual support, spiritual formation and instruction on social doctrine. Communists in the 1930s and 1940s were not socialists or progressive prophets who planted seeds of reform, said Cort. They were Stalinists who denied the spiritual life and who jeopardized national security. ACTU, Cort insisted, “was a progressive organization most of whose leaders and members were dedicated to honest democratic trade unionism.” Thus for Cort non-violence was a non-negotiable religious principle. No exceptions.
Only in the 1970s did Cort publicly call himself a socialist. But he was clear that socialism is not crazy radicalism, not totalitarianism and not communism. For Cort it came from a vision of society based on religious principles, not on Marxism. The vision is sketched in Catholic social encyclicals and develops through the efforts of ordinary Catholics, in cooperation with like-minded colleagues, to improve policies in their workplace and their community. By the way, these encyclicals—from 1891 to 2000—equally critique total systems like communism and unrestricted systems like neoliberal capitalism. Cort gave an example. A 1937 encyclical by Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) was, of course, published in Latin. It is often titled in English as On Atheistic Communism. “I analyzed this encyclical and found that one-quarter of it is devoted to the evils of communism and three-quarters are devoted to the evils of capitalism,” he said. “It might well have been entitled On Atheistic Capitalism.

For those not interested in the history lessons contained in Cort’s Christian Socialism, get a used copy of Cort’s autobiography, Dreadful Conversions (Fordham University Press, 2003). It is terrific spiritual reading.
St. Basil (329-379) gives “the best and shortest summary of Catholic social teaching,” Cort was fond of saying. “The coat that hangs in your closet belongs to the poor.”

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

Seafarers stranded by coronavirus

At any given time, about one million workers are working onboard the world’s merchant fleet, most of them hailing from the global South, especially South and Southeast Asia. These mariners have been uniquely impacted by the pandemic: with so many nations shutting their doors to foreigners they are trapped on board ships for many months at a time, denied shore leave. Worse, they cannot be relieved. Normally these workers serve out their contract and then disembark and fly to their homes for time with their families, but both the receiving countries and their home countries are putting obstacles in the way of their entry out of coronavirus fears.

Last week Pope Francis drew attention to their plight, thanking mariners for their sacrifices during the pandemic in a video addressed to the world’s seafarers:

In these past months, your lives and your work have seen significant changes; you have had to make, and are continuing to make, many sacrifices. Long periods spent aboard ships without being able to disembark, separation from families, friends and native countries, fear of infection… All these things are a heavy burden to bear, now more than ever.

I would like to say something to all of you. Know that you are not alone and that you are not forgotten. Your work at sea often keeps you apart from others, but you are close to me in my thoughts and prayers, and in those of your chaplains and the volunteers of Stella Maris.

“Enough is enough,” says Fr. Sinclair Oubre, spiritual moderator of the Catholic Labor Network and a member of the Seafarers International Union who ministers to mariners in Port Arthur, Texas. “If countries can’t figure out how to accommodate crew changes they should learn to live without the oil, computers, cars and other commodities that mariners bring them.”


Immigration Win in Supreme Court

The nation’s labor unions strive to represent all workers, whatever their immigration status, and include as members many mixed-status families. For this reason the AFL-CIO welcomed the recent Supreme Court decision that preserved the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka greeted the news as “a victory for all working people”:

Today’s Supreme Court’s decision on DACA is a victory for all working people and a testament to the tenacity and vision of immigrant youth whose leadership made it possible. For years, hardworking Dreamers, and their families and supporters, have fought for the simple right to live and work without fear in our country. With this decision, the Supreme Court allowed working people to move forward with our fight to bring equal rights and protections to all workers, regardless of our race or place of birth…

Our entire workforce has benefited from DACA, and those benefits will now continue. This program helps to raise wages, support a stable workforce and reduce exploitation in our country.  The lessons of DACA make clear that the right way to protect workers is by expanding rights and protections, rather than ramping up enforcement tactics that spread fear in our workplaces and communities. Dreamers’ contributions have been vital for this nation, including on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and America’s unions will continue to stand proudly with them in the struggle for justice by working to secure long overdue immigration reforms.

The DACA program covers those undocumented immigrants brought here as children; many of them have no memories of their countries of origin and identify only as American. Under DACA, these children (often known as “dreamers”) are given provisional status and permitted to work and study; they are considered a low priority for immigration enforcement, and most DACA supporters hope that an eventual comprehensive immigration reform will secure them a permanent legal status.

The White House sought to eliminate the DACA program, established under President Obama, but the Court found that the administration had not provided sufficient legal justification for the radical change in immigration enforcement. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had submitted an amicus brief supporting the “Dreamers,” similarly hailed the ruling and urged the president to reconsider its plans to terminate DACA:

We welcome the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision noting that the Trump Administration did not follow proper administrative procedures required to repeal the DACA program.

First, to DACA youth, through today’s decision and beyond, we will continue to accompany you and your families. You are a vital part of our Church and our community of faith. We are with you.

Next, we urge the President to strongly reconsider terminating DACA. Immigrant communities are really hurting now amidst COVID-19 and moving forward with this action needlessly places many families into further anxiety and chaos. In times of uncertainty, let us remember the teachings of the Gospel which encourage us to be open and receptive to those in need: ‘If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him?’ (1 John 3:17). In this moment, we must show compassion and mercy for the vulnerable.

Lastly, we strongly encourage our U.S. Senators to immediately pass legislation that provides a path to citizenship for Dreamers. Permanent legislative protection that overcomes partisanship and puts the human dignity and future of Dreamers first is long overdue.

The nation’s labor movement and the American Church continue to strive for a comprehensive immigration reform, one that will include earned citizenship for otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants who have contributed to the nation with their labor.

NLRB Withdraws Protection from Catholic College Faculty; Saint Xavier University Busts Faculty Union

Under the National Labor Relations Act, most private-sector workers in the United States enjoy the protection of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) when they seek to form a union. If their employer fires or writes them up for supporting the union, they can get relief from the Board; if a majority of workers votes for a union, the Board certifies them as the representatives and the employer is obliged to negotiate a contract. Although these protections are stronger on paper than in practice, they do exist.

That is, unless you teach at a religious college or university. On June 10 the NLRB reversed a previous decision (Pacific Lutheran) holding that adjunct faculty outside of religion and theology departments had a legally protected right to organize in unions. In Bethany College, the Board ruled that the school’s religious identity shields them from legal consequences if they fire union supporters or refuse to bargain with a union formed by the adjunct faculty. This does not forbid workers from forming a union and bargaining, but whether their efforts succeed now depend largely on the goodwill of the employer.

How will Catholic colleges and universities respond? Catholic social teaching hasn’t changed – Catholic doctrine has taught that workers have the right to organize since Pope Leo’s Encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, and the US Bishops stated clearly that this right extends to employees of Catholic institutions in their 1986 Pastoral Letter Economic Justice for All. But those Catholic institutions with unions – or with workers trying to organize – will surely be tempted to use their new legal impunity to dominate rather than bargain with their workers.

Indeed, some Catholic colleges such as Duquesne, Manhattan and Seattle University, have been refusing for years to bargain with union representatives elected by their adjuncts and invoking their religious freedom to do so. I fear that the NLRB decision will inspire those who have adhered to Catholic teaching and recognized adjunct unions heretofore to adopt the same line.

In a separate but related development, two weeks ago St Xavier University did just that. After 40 years of bargaining with a union representing full-time, tenured faculty, SXU announced that it would no longer do so. These workers were left unprotected by a different legal decision (Yeshiva, which ruled that tenured professors were managers, outside of the scope of the NLRA).

In the first reading last weekend, the feast of Corpus Christi, Moses explained that the LORD had let the Israelites wander in the desert so as to test their hearts, and learn whether they intended to keep his commandments (Deut 8:2). This NLRB decision has left Catholic college employees in a labor rights desert, but the test will be for college administrators: do they intend to manage their institutions in accordance with Catholic Social Teaching or not?



Facilities Can No Longer Prohibit Shore Leave for Seafarers

Fr. Sinclair Oubre on duty in the Panama Canal

A guest contribution from Fr. Sinclair Oubre, CLN Spiritual Moderator and member of the Seafarers International Union

In November of 2001, I took a job as the 12-4 AB on the MV Seabulk Challenge. I flew to Boston, and on arrival at the facility gate where the ship was discharging heating oil, I experienced the enhanced security procedures that were put in place after the attacks of September 11.

We sailed to Camden, New Jersey, loaded high-sulfur diesel at the Citgo facility, and then sailed into the Gulf of Mexico. We eventually docked at Kinder-Morgan in Houston, and began discharging our cargo.

On our arrival, the facility informed us that we were detained onboard because of “security.” A US-flagged ship crewed by US merchant mariners must have posed an extremely high security risk to the facility. Many of the crewmembers lived in Houston, and were prevented from seeing their wives and children in the 8 hours they had between watches.

The strange thing was that we watched tank trucks drive by the ship to go to the heart of the facility, load, and the depart.

As one crewmate stated in exasperation, “They want our oil, but they don’t want us.”

Jump forward almost 19 years, and the ability of US and foreign seafarers to access shore leave has finally been enshrined in US regulations.

The legislation was originally passed in the 2010 Coast Guard Authorization Act. Section 811 was simple:

“Each facility security plan approved under section 70103 ( c) of title 46, United States Code, shall provide a system for seamen assigned to a vessel at that facility, pilots, and representatives of seamen’s welfare and labor organizations to board and depart the vessel through the facility in a timely manner at no cost to the individual.”

This seems pretty straightforward, but billion-dollar companies could not figure out what the words “timely” and “no cost” meant. So began a ten-year regulatory process that finally guaranteed merchant mariners the right to shore leave when they arrive at US ports, assuming they have D-1 visas, and that no federal agency has restricted shore leave.

On June 1, 2020, the US Coast Guard regulations implementing section 811 finally came into force. Presently, foreign seafarers are restricted to their ships by company policies (concern that the seafarers will bring COVID-19 back to the ship), and CDC and CBP policies that restrict them to their ships during the pandemic. Once the pandemic ends, these restrictions will be lifted.

For thousands of US seafarers, though, no longer will they have to put up with arbitrary facility “security” polices.” Nor will they have to pay exorbitant transport fees to go from the gangway to the front gate.

For members of the members of the Sailors Union of the Pacific, the Seafarers International Union, the Marine Fireman’s Union, the Master, Mates & Pilots, the Marine Engineers Beneficiary Association, the American Maritime Officers, the Inland Boatman’s Union, and the thousands of non-union US merchant mariners, facilities will have to manage their visiting seafarers as well as they manage the ship’s cargo.