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.’”

Tech Companies, Part II

The Working Catholic: Media/Tech Companies, Part II
by Bill Droel

The Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 is among the most significant chapters in U.S. labor relations history. Homestead, Pennsylvania is just south of Pittsburgh, on the west bank of the Monongahela River. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) owned the prosperous steel mill there. Some of its workers were highly skilled and belonged to a craft union, Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. Carnegie was determined to break this union. He cut wages. Knowing there would be trouble, he enlisted the Pinkerton Detective Agency to assist him. At that time Pinkerton employed more agents than the U.S. Army had soldiers. The 1892 event resembled a naval siege; the union was eventually broken.
Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in The New Yorker (8/27/18), reminds us that several months before the Homestead Strike Carnegie wrote a pamphlet about disposing of one’s fortune. Titled The Gospel of Wealth (www.carnegie.org), it argues against a big inheritance for one’s children. It also argues against handing out money to the poor. Instead, Carnegie said the wealthy have an obligation to endow institutions that benefit the public—universities, libraries, cultural centers and more.
The juxtaposition of Carnegie’s pamphlet and his management of Homestead Steel “made explicit” to critics “the inconsistency of Carnegie’s position,” Kolbert writes. “How could a person ruthlessly exploit his employees and, at the same time, claim to be a benefactor of the toiling masses?” Why, for example, didn’t Carnegie endow a pension fund for his employees?

Carnegie was not alone. When it comes to charity, most companies and foundations in our country are guided by the so-called Protestant business ethic. Deserving individuals or the public at large are assisted by targeted programs or enrichment venues. However, the programs never challenge the system and the benefactors never question “too deeply how it is they came to do so well,” Kolbert concludes.
The attitude of 19th and 20th century industrial titans parallels that of our 21st century tech titans and their admirers. The big tech players today—the founders, the original investors and the elite engineers—are technology determinists. As Evgeny Morozov puts it in To Save Everything Click Here (Perseus Books, 2013), each and every application of technology is “inherently good in itself, regardless of its social or political consequences.” In fact, if someone happens to notice a social problem, then its solution is more technology. Homelessness, to give an extreme example, is tolerable with an app that makes streets feel like home. Or as a Google executive said: If you want to solve economic problems, create more entrepreneurs.
Central to the philosophy of the tech leaders is their belief that they are doing something for the greater good, both in their business ventures and in their philanthropic enterprises. Some of them are sincere. Their frame of reference all the way from high school to their current position never included concepts like structural evil or the priority of labor or even an obligation to the common good (which is not the same as calculation of a common denominator).
When it comes to their big charity ventures, explains Anand Giridharadas in Winners Take All (Alfred Knopf, 2018), the high-tech players plus their financial and political admirers assume a noble posture. They cannot imagine that their good intentions might actually be making things worse. There is no need to consider any systematic change, they presume. Inequality cannot be causing more suffering because doesn’t the economy allow for universal opportunity?
The big stage for tech philanthropy is the conference circuit. Events are held on Cape Cod, in Silicon Valley, in Colorado, often in Manhattan, maybe in Switzerland or France. Headliners often include Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and movie starlets. They are joined by guests who have a startup project in Los Angeles or Africa. These events are low on content, high on puff, says Giridharadas. Key phrases heard at the conference include incredible, amazing, awe-inspiring, empowering and the like.

The leaders of big tech companies want to do good, they say. But they never challenge power arrangements in our society. All of this, I suppose, is too much of a moral burden to place on someone who simply hails an Uber ride or gets a referral from Task Rabbit or orders a keurig through Amazon. But today’s tech industry is far from morally neutral. It warrants moral consideration. To be continued…

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

Our Statue

The Working Catholic: Lady Liberty
by Bill Droel

The primary symbol of our country is our flag, the “stars and stripes.” Closely connected to our flag is the song Star-Spangled Banner, based on an 1814 poem by Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key (1779-1843). It is customary to stand and doff one’s cap when our anthem is performed at the beginning of every sporting event. There is, by the way, no obligatory rubric about other songs at the ballpark. America the Beautiful, a 1910 tune by Katherine Bates and Samuel Ward, is not our national anthem, though some fans seem to think it is. Nor is there any compulsory ritual around the seventh inning song about Katie Casey, produced in 1908 by Jack Norwoth and Albert Von Tilzer. Likewise, fans can do and think what they like when the public address system blares out the 1978 song by Victor Willis and Jacques Morali, YMCA… So too in Boston with the 1969 song by Neil Diamond, Sweet Caroline.

Our country’s second most important symbol is the Statue of Liberty. Whereas the U.S. flag is revered mostly by U.S. residents and those of us serving or working overseas, the “Statue of Liberty is the world’s most universally recognized symbol,” writes Steve Fraser in Class Matters (Yale University Press, 2018). What does it symbolize? “Above all, Lady Liberty is thought of as the patron saint of hard-pressed immigrants.” Our statue in the Upper New York Bay stands for “an uplifting promissory note.”
The statue has a conflicted history and was not always associated with immigrants, Fraser recounts, as does Tyler Anbinder in his massive City of Dreams (Houghton, Mifflin, 2016).
It was 1865 when Edouard Rene de Laboulaye (1811-1883) first proposed a gift from his fellow French citizens to the citizens of the U.S. in recognition of our country’s extension of liberty to former slaves. His project went slowly. Frederic Bartholdi (1834-1904), a sculptor, joined the effort. The original completion date having past, the goal then became delivery to the U.S. for the 100th anniversary of our independence. As the days went by, the theme for the proposed statue came to include a beacon of liberty to those still under regressive or colonial governments. The motivation of the French committee, writes Fraser, was “to inspire and memorialize their dedication to a stable, middle-class society.” It was not so much to have “a monument to the nation that had pioneered in inventing [liberty],” to the U.S. The premise was that both France and the U.S. “cherished learning, enterprise, peaceable commerce and republican liberties.”
No matter the theme, the project remained in low gear. Finally in 1880 the French committee delivered the statue in crates to the U.S. Embassy in Paris. The statue’s eventual location in New York Harbor was assumed, but because the French committee was broke the U.S. was responsible for building a pedestal. Four government entities said no to an allocation for the project. Likewise, several wealthy people here declined to donate.
A stateside committee held a fundraiser; an auction of original paintings and literary pieces. It was a bust; only $1,500 was raised. One item in the November 1883 auction was well received: The New Colossus, a poem by Emma Lazarus (1849-1887).
It looked like the statue might forever be warehoused in crates. But in March 1885 Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), a Hungarian immigrant, ridiculed the wealthy in his newspaper and called upon working families to send along their nickels. The common people responded; the pedestal was built; a dedication was held in October 1886. Of note: No mention of Lazarus, of her poem or of immigration was made at that ceremony. Thus for many years the statue was a symbol mostly for French-U.S. friendship and vaguely for liberty as an exportable ideal.
The common people enter the story once again. In 1903 friends of Lazarus had the 14-line The New Colossus inscribed on a bronze plaque and with permission installed it inside the statue, on the second-floor landing. The theme of welcome to immigrants, especially the thousands who arrive in this harbor, was making a slow comeback. In 1945 the poem was moved to the main entrance of Lady Liberty. It was then, Fraser writes, that “the Statue of Liberty became the symbol we have assumed it always was.” The statue, the famous poem, Liberty Island and nearby Ellis Island are now basically one, and together are firmly associated with our country’s grand experiment in pluralism, with the compassion of our citizens and with the gratitude nearly all of us feel for the opportunities that this great country gave our ancestors.

New York City is inexhaustible. But all visitors and residents need to find the Liberty Island/Ellis Island ferry in Battery Park at the bottom of Manhattan. Here’s one way to reflect on what your tour means: Look to the bow and see our country’s story of “huddled masses” and then look to the stern and see the great skyscrapers of finance. Fraser’s book can add to that reflection because he examines the tension between bow and stern, the give-and-take of our American Dream. The subtitle of Anbinder’s book is The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York. It too examines the reality of give-and-take.

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

Working Catholic: Technology & Loneliness

There is a serious downside to use of computers and mobile devices, according to recent medical and social science reports. Several essays and books likewise point to the danger. Nonetheless concerned parents or stressed-out workers still reach superficial or incorrect conclusions about the internet and tech devices. For example, some well-meaning people say internet problems are due strictly to content. Don’t view porn and other trash, they continue, and you will be OK.
To better understand the influence of technology, learn something about the founders of some important companies—their philosophy, the culture of their businesses and more.
It feels odd to distinguish between the old internet and the new internet. The old internet was a tool for the military and for research facilities. As it grew, the internet had a populist aura. The feeling was that the internet is a friendly companion, a community, an extended family of pioneers. That language is still around but it does not apply to the new internet. By about 1995 the internet had become fully commercial. Yes, the content of the internet ranges over every taste, perspective and interest. But it is largely controlled by a small number of companies. The big players in today’s internet business oppose ideas of democracy and communal decentralization, writes Jonathan Taplin in Move Fast and Break Things (Little Brown, 2017). “The dominant philosophy of Silicon Valley [is] based far more heavily on radical libertarian ideology.”
Modernity (which dates from 1500, let’s say) remarkably elevates the dignity of each individual. This is a singular achievement. No longer can someone’s career or lifestyle be determined by the caste of one’s parents. No longer can someone be denied opportunity because of one’s ethnic group or gender. Of course, modernity does not always deliver on its promise. But compared to pre-1500 days, modern individuals enjoy immense freedom.
Libertarians take the otherwise good notion of a liberated individual to its extreme. They believe that, writes Taplin, attaining one’s individual happiness is the only moral purpose of life. That doesn’t mean that a libertarian walks down the block and knocks over older people in the way. A libertarian might sponsor a youth outing or visit the elderly. Simply that the criteria for any behavior is its potential to reward the individual actor—be it financially, psychologically or even spiritually, when defined in an individualistic way.
The big players of the new internet are moral arbiters each onto him alone (and it is a white male culture). They oppose any universal governance of the internet. They succeed—by their definition of success—because they are free to break the bonds, to go beyond, to be above, to push anything aside in the name of liberty. Taplin says their credo is: “Who will stop me.” The men who created the new internet “believed that they had both the brilliance and the moral fortitude to operate outside the normal strictures of law and taxes” and other restraints. They “truly believe that technology can deliver happiness” by its very nature. Thus critical to the success of the big tech companies “is the ability to maintain the illusion that they are working for the greater good even while pursuing policies that serve only their own needs.” Some tech giants give away money and sponsor anti-poverty programs. It is possible that in doing so some of the tech giants are totally sincere. In fact, for some the illusion is their reality.
We take the internet for granted; likewise cyberspace, the dish and cable box, mobile devices, apps and programs of all kinds. This technology is our default position. We don’t concern ourselves with the philosophy of the internet’s big owners. We assume the best whenever our mobile device helps us hail a ride or when our computer allows us to post a blog. We take it as obviously correct when Mark Zuckerberg says, “To improve the lives of millions of people [connect them] to the internet.” We hardly consider the downside of Zuckerberg and others promoting a world of isolated individuals who fend for themselves with a lifeline called the internet. We are content enough with the assumption that the way to better health care is through more and faster connections to web-doctors, cyber-insurance plans and computer-linked pharmacies with a drive-up window staffed by a robot. Better education? On-line courses. Better work experience? Robot colleagues. Better sports fandom? Watch the game on one’s own device…at the stadium, no less.
Is tech really an improvement? Or at a minimum a neutral force? A subsequent column will consider tech presumptions in light of Catholic philosophy.

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

Fordham, Adjunct Union Link Landmark Union Agreement to Catholic Social Teaching

This July, Fordham adjunct faculty and other non-tenure track instructors ratified a landmark first contract. SEIU Local 200, which represents about 800 instructors, secured a three-year deal that giving most adjuncts between $7,000 and $8,000 per course by the end of the contract. Both the administration and the union expressed pride in the resulting contract, which they contended would not just improve salaries for underpaid instructors but better integrate them into university life, ultimately benefiting their students as well. And speakers representing each side linked the outcome to the unversity’s Catholic values and witness. Fordham President Joseph McShane, SJ said:

In addition to the more tangible benefits offered in the contracts, we believe that the new contracts will better integrate non-tenure track faculty into the Fordham community and foster a work environment that will continue to attract top faculty to Fordham. I have said before that organized labor has deep roots in Catholic social justice teachings, and that given its Jesuit traditions and historic connection to first-generation and working-class students, Fordham has a special duty in this area. But the benefits of these contracts do not only accrue to the non-tenure track faculty: a stronger connection to students, tenured and tenure-track faculty, and the rest of the academic community rewards all of us in ways great and small.

Fordham University Lecturer Ashar Foley, a Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies who served on the negotiating committee, agreed. “I’m so happy to have helped bring this change in our working conditions,” Foley said. “By unionizing, we play our part in the Jesuit University mission of alleviating poverty, promoting justice, and protecting human rights.”

Catholic Writers Respond to Janus v. AFSCME

BONUS CONTENT: Where’s Mark Janus Now?

This June the Supreme Court dealt unions a severe blow in 5-4 decision in Janus v. AFSCME, making the entire public sector “right-to-work.” The decision that Illinois social worker Mark Janus had a “right” to be a free rider, enjoying the wages and benefits of a union contract without paying any dues or fees to the union that bargained them, had been opposed by the USCCB and inspired much reflection in the Catholic press in the month the followed.

Among the best contributions came courtesy of Professor Joe McCartin, who heads Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor (and serves on the board of the Catholic Labor Network). In his Commonweal article “Labor’s Existential Crisis” he explains why “like our forebears in the era of Rerum Novarum, we now face the challenge of articulating principles and devising practical mechanisms that can build a more humane and democratic world.”

Under the provisions of the Janus decision, governments must assume that their employees prefer to be free riders unless they indicate otherwise… The devastating effects of the decision are already being felt. Public-employee unions are now cutting their budgets, laying off staff, and putting once robust campaigns like the fast-food workers’ Fight for $15 on hold. The nation’s largest union, the National Education Association (NEA), which represents more than three million teachers, estimates that it will lose 370,000 members over the next two years. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) also expect significant membership losses…

Interestingly, these unions, through trial and error, are landing on an approach with strong echoes in Catholic Social Teaching. They are trying to add the common good to their list of bargaining demands.

Realizing that they must revitalize bargaining in response to these new conditions, public-sector unions began to experiment with new approaches in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Since 2012, teachers’ unions affiliated with the NEA and the AFT in Chicago, St. Paul, and Seattle, and municipal workers affiliated with the SEIU and AFSCME in San Diego and Los Angeles, have sought to expand the ranks of those who participate in collective bargaining, open up its processes, and broaden its purposes. They have invited community allies to help craft bargaining demands that advance shared goals, then insisted that these allies get a seat at the bargaining table…. To survive, unions know they must enlist allies and cultivate public support by defending the common good.

McCartin is optimistic about the prospects of such “Bargaining for the Common Good.”

Meanwhile, in the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters greeted the decision with the observation that “the badly named “right-to-work” laws have been made universal within the United States…. Freeloaders and libertarians are thrilled.” Ken Briggs saw the decision as a defeat for the Catholic notion of solidarity and a win for a Protestant individualist ethic in which “it is up to the person to succeed without a group.”

Where’s Mark Janus?

And what of Mark Janus, the child support specialist at Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services who explained to us that

I went into this line of work because I care about kids. But just because I care about kids doesn’t mean I also want to support a government union. Unfortunately, I have no choice. To keep my job at the state, I have to pay monthly fees to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, a public employee union that claims to “represent” me.

Thanks to Janus v. AFSCME, Mr. Janus no longer had to pay monthly union fees in order to keep his state job. Curiously, Mr. Janus celebrated his victory by promptly resigning from his Child Support Specialist job to work at a free-market think tank.

Cardijn Conference in Cincinnati Offers Modern Takes on See-Judge-Act

What’s Past Is Prologue?

by Bill Droel

Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati was the setting for a recent conference about young adult Catholics. It was a positive conference because no one complained about bishops, priests or Vatican policy. And no one faulted young adults for disaffection from worship or for their lifestyle. By design, several conference presentations were about bygone people and events. But the event was not a nostalgia trip. The conversation was forward-looking. The tone of the conference was directed toward the world of work, family and neighborhood. The participants drew upon past experience, but only to emphasize the importance of listening to the real experience of today’s young adults. The conference was unanimous: Talking is worthless without organizing.

The Cincinnati conference was dedicated to a person who died more than 50 years ago: Cardinal Joseph Cardijn (1882-1967), the originator of the specialized Catholic Action method and the inspiration for several groups (Christian Family Movement, Young Christian Workers, Young Christian Students and more).  The Cardijn method and specialized Catholic Action mostly faded in the late-1960s–at least in the United States. There are Cardijn-inspired groups percolating in Latin America and Africa, conference participants learned. The Cincinnati gathering included representatives from the Republic of Guinea, El Salvador and Chile. Plus, there were representatives from Australia.

Catholic leaders in the United States want to attract and retain young adults to our faith tradition. They sometimes use the term new evangelization. What Catholic leaders usually mean (and here I employ a big generalization) is attracting young adults into the church. The strategies include social events, vibrant liturgies, reverent pieties, service projects, inspiring talks and more. Many programs for young adult Catholics are worthwhile.

The basic premise for Cardijn was different, however. He did not start from the notion of bringing people into the church. In fact, he worried that young adult ministry can unwittingly reinforce individualism by conveying the impression that the church is separate from young adult environments. Instead, Cardijn and his movements sought to bring Christianity to young adults in their workplaces and schools and family settings. The basic unit is not the individual who searches for meaning or faith. The basic unit is a small group, formed among people who work together or study together or live near one another. Thus, ministry is not something done for young adults; it is done by young adults with an emphasis on their own formation. Success is measured not by how many new people are recruited for parish committees or by how many get involved in liturgical functions. Success is when a Catholic Action group achieves a small improvement in workplace policy or neighborhood relations or school settings.

Several presenters at the Cincinnati conference made the point that talk, talk, talk is not formation. A book club that considers pastoral theology, a speakers’ series during Lent, an intensive RCIA curriculum, a summer theology update program, or a monthly discussion group about Catholic topics is OK. But these do not really form or retain young adults. The secret ingredient is action. Not run-around activity with only vague goals in mind. No, the key is small focused action directed at a subpar policy or practice in the school, neighborhood or workplace. And then… now this must occur… a reflection on the action by the entire small group.

The Cardijn method is a tad sophisticated, yet it can be implemented by ordinary people in workaday settings. It requires patience, but it doesn’t have to be perfect all the time top-to-bottom, beginning-to-end. Katie Sellers, for example, tried a little Cardijn among her high school students at DePaul Cristo Rey in Cincinnati. She was teaching Catholic morality. But the students, Sellers admitted to the conference participants, were snoozing. So she introduced a case study about a woman in jail. Then the students went through the Cardijn steps: Look at this situation carefully; judge the situation in light of our own experience and our Catholic principles; act in some way. Amazingly, the students interviewed lawyers and others in criminal justice, they read Catholic documents, they collected supplies and eventually arranged a tele-meeting with the prisoner. She, in turn, encouraged the students to continue their study and their actions.

Frank Ardito from Illinois, a veteran of Catholic Action, also provided the conference with examples. Sure, he admitted, one or another small group session might fizzle. Maybe the guidebook wasn’t clear that week. Maybe the group leader misinterprets the prevailing mood. But over time the process does form people in the faith. They want to belong to the group and they want to make a difference back in their workplace or school.

Bob Pennington is a young parent and a teacher. He was responsible for the details of the Cincinnati conference. He has a young colleague in New York and they are in touch with others their age around the country, in addition to their international contacts. They do not intend to put the enthusiasm from their conference back up on a bookshelf. They want more action. Interested? Contact Pennington (robert.pennington@msj.edu).

 

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