Workers’ Memorial Day 2019

April 28 is observed across much of the world as Workers’ Memorial Day. On this day we pause to remember the millions of workers who give their lives each day planting and harvesting our food, building our homes and cars, paving our roads and shipping our goods. In a terrible reminder of the hazards many endure at work, April 27 witnessed a horrible accident when a tower crane in Seattle was toppled by high winds. The two operators, who were building a new facility for Google, were killed, as were two bystanders.

More than 5,000 workers die from traumatic injuries on the job each year, and some 50,000 are killed by occupational diseases such as black lung, asbestosis and cancers caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals. And yet, the number of OSHA inspectors has remained flat even as our population and workforce grows, leaving each inspector responsible for protecting more workers. Today there is one OSHA inspector for every 79,000 workers. Put another way, at current staffing levels it would take OSHA 165 years simply to inspect each workplace once. And despite all, the White House is calling for cutting workplace safety and health regulations, not increasing them.

To learn more about workplace safety and health in the United States, check out the AFL-CIO Report Death on the Job: 2019.

Cause of Worker-Saint Opened

“Brother Marinus”Rescued 14,000+ Korean Refugees

Merchant Marine Captain Leonard LaRue earned lasting fame during the Korean war. The proud Masters, Mates and Pilot union member rescued more than 14,000 Korean refugees trapped in Hungnam when Chinese “volunteers” suddenly intervened in the Korean War. LaRue and his crew executed the daring evacuation under fire on Christmas Day in 1950. After the war, LaRue took vows as a Benedictine monk and became Brother Marinus. Bishop Seratelli of the Diocese of Paterson has opened the cause for sainthood for Servant of God Brother Marinus. To read more, check out coverage in the Diocese of Paterson Beacon.  

Workers’ Memorial Day 2019

April 28 is observed across much of the world as Workers’ Memorial Day. On this day we pause to remember the millions of workers who give their lives each day planting and harvesting our food, building our homes and cars, paving our roads and shipping our goods. In a terrible reminder of the hazards many endure at work, April 27 witnessed a horrible accident when a tower crane in Seattle was toppled by high winds. The two operators, who were building a new facility for Google, were killed, as were two bystanders.

More than 5,000 workers die from traumatic injuries on the job each year, and some 50,000 are killed by occupational diseases such as black lung, asbestosis and cancers caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals. And yet, the number of OSHA inspectors has remained flat even as our population and workforce grows, leaving each inspector responsible for protecting more workers. Today there is one OSHA inspector for every 79,000 workers. Put another way, at current staffing levels it would take OSHA 165 years simply to inspect each workplace once. And despite all, the White House is calling for cutting workplace safety and health regulations, not increasing them.

Please pray for those in peril on the job. To learn more about workplace safety and health in the United States, check out the AFL-CIO Report Death on the Job: 2019.

CLN On-The-Spot Reporting: Farmworker Activism

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of1935 guaranteed workers the right to organize and bargain collectively without employer retaliation — but it excluded agricultural workers. That means farmworker organizations must use other tactics to organize and bring employers to the bargaining table. Since the time of Cesar Chavez and the celebrated UFW grape boycott in the late 1960s, consumer boycotts have been a critical strategy for farmworkers seeking justice. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) are among the labor organizations doing just this.

The tomato pickers of Florida have used targeted boycotts of fast food restaurants to improve their own working conditions – and eventually to obtain a fair labor code of conduct covering many other growers and their employees. Today all the fast food chains but Wendy’s have agreed to abide by the code. CIW has called for a boycott of Wendy’s until they follow suit. In early March, CIW members did a bus tour to four universities hosting a campus Wendy’s and rallied with student supporters, calling on administrators to “Boot the Braids!” The tour visited University of Florida, UNC-Chapel Hill, Ohio State, and University of Michigan. UM has announced that it will not renew Wendy’s lease.

FLOC members and supporters tell Circle K to pull VUSE e-cigarettes from shelves

Meanwhile, tobacco harvesters in North Carolina organized by FLOC are calling on RJ Reynolds to police its supply chain. FLOC is unique in the farm labor movement, having succeeded in forming a union of guest workers in the Tar Heel state. But many tobacco workers still toil for nonunion growers, for low wages and under unsafe conditions. Much as the fast food chains have the power to demand that their growers adhere to fair labor standards, RJ Reynolds could do this for their tobacco growers. Until they do, FLOC is calling for a boycott of RJR’s VUSE e-cigarettes. On March 28, FLOC members and their supporters rallied outside the regional HQ for Circle K, asking that the convenience store chain pull the offending e-cigarettes from their shelves. Many such actions have been held since.

We ask members and friends of the Catholic Labor Network to remember farmworkers and honor these boycotts.

May 1: Feast of St. Joseph the Worker

America’s official Labor Day falls in September, but the world’s Labor Day is May 1. That includes the Church, which celebrates this day as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. As Pope St John Paul II observed in his Apostolic Exhortation on Joseph, Redemptoris Custos:

If the Family of Nazareth is an example and model for human families, in the order of salvation and holiness, so too, by analogy, is Jesus’ work at the side of Joseph the carpenter. In our own day, the Church has emphasized this by instituting the liturgical memorial of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1. Human work, and especially manual labor, receive special prominence in the Gospel. Along with the humanity of the Son of God, work too has been taken up in the mystery of the Incarnation, and has also been redeemed in a special way. At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption [22].

We might observe that Joseph is a saint for our times in another way. Lest we forget, Joseph, Mary and Jesus became refugees when Herod sought to destroy the Christ Child, and Joseph spent years thereafter as an immigrant worker practicing his trade in Egypt.

BTW, curious about our beautiful Catholic Labor Network artwork on the right? It’s adapted from an image by the Catholic Worker’s Ade Bethune.

On the Road: New Orleans and Nashville

Neither Louisiana nor Tennessee are known as “union states.” Workers in both places who want to organize and bargain need to navigate so-called “right-to-work” laws designed to stymie collective action. Nonetheless, in recent visits to the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Diocese of Nashville I found impressive networks of unions, workers’ centers and community groups campaigning for worker justice, often with the moral and material support of the local Church.

Read more

30,000 Workers Strike Stop & Shop in Northeast

…And Why We Need Strikes

30,000 Stop & Shop grocery workers in New England represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) are in the second week of a strike. The workers say that the company’s offer amounts to a net loss for workers: the small raises will be swallowed up by increased health insurance premiums.

In the short term, strikes are disruptive, but they play an essential role in ensuring that an enterprise – whether a grocery store chain, an automaker, or a hotel – serves all its members. When workers produce more, the CEO will see to it that the shareholders get their cut, and competitors will ensure that consumers see price cuts. But without unions, and occasional strikes, workers get left out of the distribution.

That’s a big reason why wages were unhooked from labor productivity when union membership started sharply declining in the late 1970s. From the 1940s to the 1970s, unions were there to make sure that when workers produced more, they got a raise too – even if this sometimes required a strike. Now that’s no longer true in most sectors of the economy.

Source: EPI

Grocery stores are one of the remaining sectors where unions still play a major role, and can strike to make sure workers get their share of the profits they have earned. And you get a chance every day to vote for or against worker justice with your food dollars. You can shop at union supermarkets like Safeway, Stop & Shop, Kroger’s and Giant, where workers get to bargain for a fair share, or you can put your money straight to the pockets of CEOs and shareholders at Whole Foods or Wal-Mart. Which will you choose?

What is “the common good”?

Catholic teaching discourages us from using politics to pursue our private advantage, urging us to orient our civic engagement to “the common good.” But what is the common good? University of Dayton theologian Vincent Miller explored this concept in a recent America magazine article, “What does Catholic Social Teaching say about the economy? It’s more complicated than you think.”

Miller was responding to free market ideologues who argue that economic prosperity is a sound measure of the common good, and laissez-faire government the best way to achieve it. But, as Miller points out, this is virtually the opposite of the common good as Catholic doctrine explains it. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church tells us that

The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains “common”, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it and safeguard its effectiveness, with regard also to the future. Just as the moral actions of an individual are accomplished in doing what is good, so too the actions of a society attain their full stature when they bring about the common good. The common good, in fact, can be understood as the social and community dimension of the moral good [164].

Living in a cynical century where “politics” is portrayed as nothing more than a fight among interest groups, we can be forgiven if we struggle to understand this idea. The Church fathers, Miller reminds us, imported the notion of the common good from the Greeks and Romans. Both saw politics – the pursuit of the common good – as a high calling. A man in ancient Athens or the Roman Republic who devoted his life to accumulating wealth was considered contemptible. One who wished to be honored by their peers would devote himself instead to politics, where he would provide for the common defense, commission public works of art and construct temples to the gods.

The Church, bringing the teachings of the Gospel to bear, has enriched the concept of the common good enormously. But private transactions between buyer and seller – however valuable they may be in satisfying genuine needs for both involved – are irreducibly individual. As Miller concludes, “Market economies have much to offer society when oriented toward the common good. For Catholic social thought, it is the task of politics to promote and set limits to the market so that it can serve the common good.”

By the way… With generous support from CCHD, our friends at Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative are part of a consortium working on a project called Bargaining for the Common Good. The premise is that public employee unions will go beyond seeking their own interests alone, and work with community and civic groups to formulate bargaining demands that satisfy worker justice while meeting community needs and concerns for quality public services.

Maryland moves to make minimum wage a living wage

The right to a living wage is fundamental to Catholic Social Teaching: every worker has a right to a wage sufficient to support the worker and his/her family. It would be hard to argue that today’s federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour – less than $15,000 per year for a full-time worker – is a living wage. But in March the Maryland state legislature took action to address this problem, voting to phase in a state minimum wage of $15/hour by 2025. (The smallest employers will have until 2026 to comply.)

Pope Leo XIII laid out Catholic teaching on just wages in his 1893 Encyclical Rerum Novarum. In it he took issue with free-market ideologues who argued that any wage was just if the worker agreed to accept it. He told readers that “Each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work.” Consequently,

There underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice [45].

Leo hoped that labor unions could help ensure that every worker received a living wage, but understood that government regulation of the economy might be needed as well. Laws setting a minimum wage do just this by setting a wage floor – but if they are to effectively ensure that the minimum wage is a living wage, they must be regularly increased or indexed to inflation. This is certainly why the “fight for $15” movement that initially took hold among fast food workers (who had no union) resonated so clearly with the public.

Maryland joins California, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Illinois as states phasing in a $15 minimum; all together, 29 states have set a minimum wage higher than $7.25 per hour. A Catholic Labor Network survey found that both state AFL-CIO presidents and state Catholic Conference directors were likely to cite “increasing the minimum wage” as a policy priority.

Triangle Fire

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

The fire occurred in March 1911. Someone failed to fully extinguish a cigarette in New York City’s Asch Building (now known as Brown Building, owned by N.Y. University). “After just 18 minutes, 144 people were dead,” writes Christine Seifert in The Factory Girls (Zest Books, 2017). Two more died subsequently. The top three floors of the building were used by Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to assemble blouses. There were heroes during those frantic minutes. For example, NYU students spotted the fire and perilously rigged a ladder from their building to an upper floor of the Asch Building, saving lives. The fire department too risked health and safety during the short interval. Several workers also heroically tried to guide others down to the street.
Other historians have provided an account of this tragedy, including David Von Drehle in Triangle: the Fire that Changed America (Grove Press, 2003). Like those others, Seifert gives particulars in 175 pages. Her account though considers the historical, cultural and political factors that put young workers in a hazardous factory plus she describes today’s conditions in the apparel industry.
Seifert notes that before 1900 there was no such thing as fashion in our country; except among the elites in Virginia and elsewhere along the Atlantic coast who took cues from stylish Europe. There was no “off the rack” shopping for working women and men (only standard issue uniforms or homemade clothes). Only with mass production of apparel and other products in the 20th century could working-class people have an interest in and be able to afford fashion. The Triangle Company, like many other shops, cut and assembled the popular type of blouse known as the shirtwaist.
In order to make and widely distribute clothes for the working-class, economic factors had to align. The main ingredient in the early 1900s was cheap labor. An exploitative wage system was implicitly justified by a business philosophy called the Protestant Ethic. (It is derived from select Reformation themes, yet leaves aside key parts of Christianity. The same popular philosophy is today commonly called individualism or unregulated free market.) According to this philosophy, labor shows up in a company’s accounting as a cost like any other raw material. The wise business owner keeps costs low to become wealthy. In religious terms the owner’s success is a sign of divine favor. In secular terms success is about self-made virtue. On the other end, Seifert writes, “poverty was a moral failing.” The dominant philosophy denied that “poverty was a result of a system that was rigged to take advantage of people’s labor while lining the pockets of those who controlled production.”
Solidarity is the antidote to individualism. Seifert tells about the women from Triangle Shirtwaist and other factories who staged a November 1909 strike. Aided by Women’s Trade Union League and by International Ladies Garment Worker Union and for a time by a few wealthy women called Mink Coat Brigade, the Triangle workers held out for over two months. Their demands were modest: Managers must stop “yelling at them, threatening them or harassing them” plus a change in the pay system of set rate per day, no matter the number of hours. When they settled, the Triangle workers got a small raise and a 52-hour week. They did not get the sine qua non of every worker action: sole and exclusive bargaining rights. Nor was workplace safety found anywhere in the outcome.
Seifert devotes some paragraphs to Clara Lemlich Shavelson (1886-1982). She was 23-years old in those last weeks of 1909. At a crowded union meeting held in Cooper Union she pushed her way to the front and shouted: “I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. I move that we go on a general strike.” Her activism continued through her life. She pioneered the tactic of consumer boycott and started tenants’ groups in her neighborhood. In her 80s Lemlich Shavelson lived in a senior facility. Sure enough, she organized the nurses and aides. With these working conditions “you’d be crazy not to join a union,” she told the workers.
It is difficult to buy clean clothes today; that is, garments in our retail stores with no sweatshops in their chain of production and distribution. For example, women toiling in overseas sweatshops made the Ivanka Clothing Line, until the company’s July 2018 demise. Seifert names a handful of groups that can assist in cleaner shopping. She includes Clean Clothes Campaign (https://cleanclothes.org), based in the Netherlands with offices in several other countries. I recommend International Labor Rights Forum (1634 I St. NW #1000, Washington, DC 20006; www.laborrights.org). This is a sophisticated group that looks through the entire apparel pipeline. They are, to name one example, monitoring the compliance of those apparel lines that agreed to improve after the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh. Currently, the H & M Line needs a push to do better. To learn more about the economics and culture of off-the-rack clothes, I recommend Over-Dressed by Elizabeth Cline (Penguin, 2012).
Social justice is a relatively new virtue in that it once was not possible to do anything about wrongdoing that occurred in remote locations or in complex systems. Today social justice, though difficult, is possible. Action on behalf of justly-made clothes is possible.

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