Coalition Pushes for Labor Standards at George Mason University

A coalition forming in Northern Virginia is asking the largest regional university why public dollars are going to employers that are bad actors in their community. In Northern Virginia, George Mason University has been expanding its footprint in the region and is now the largest university, in terms of enrollment, in the state. The university, with a budget of $1.25 billion, took in $180 million in taxpayer dollars and $448 million in students fees. Yet the university puts a low priority on the treatment of its contracted workforce much of which is immigrants and people of color.  In contrast, the nearby Georgetown University has adopted a Just Employment Policy, which holds the institution to high labor standards for both contractors and direct employees.

GMU has no such policy and local activists are beginning to push the university to respect workers and implement more stringent procurement practices. This campaign began in 2010 when food service workers, contracted with Sodexo, began the work of forming their union with SEIU Local 32BJ. The university did not intervene despite Sodexo’s unwillingness to recognize the workers’ union. After years of struggle, including a one-day strike, the workers finally won a collective bargaining agreement in 2019 that raised average wages 12% and improved the health insurance.

This victory led to the janitorial staff, contracted with LT Services, to begin their effort to join 32BJ in the last two years. These workers allege poor and potentially illegal labor practices by the cleaning company such as being paid without taxes being deducted and forcing workers to come to work after exposure to the coronavirus.  These kinds of labor practices are common when a public entity seeks the cheapest possible services with no regard to labor standards.

LT Services continues to intimidate workers to stop them from organizing and the National Labor Relations Board has found the company guilty of Unfair Labor Practices in recent months and forced the contractor to reinstate two fired workers.

As the janitorial staff was organizing, a construction union found drywall workers on campus construction projects also working under potentially illegal labor practices. In the construction industry, subcontractors often use labor brokers, which are construction staffing companies. In this case, the labor broker providing workers was paying the workers as independent contractors and not taking out mandatory payroll deductions such as taxes and social security. The laws around who can be classified as an independent contractor a stringent and these workers were almost certainly misclassified.

In the past, Virginia law has mandated that public entities award contracts to the lowest bidder, with no consideration of quality and reliability, much less labor standards. This practice often forces a race to the bottom with contractors forced to cut safety and labor standards to meet ever cheaper competition. However, the state is beginning to change these rules and is beginning to allow other factors to be considered. The coalition of GMU professors, students, labor unions, and community activists are demanding that GMU improve their procurement policies and stop using the money paid by students and taxpayers to support these low-wage, low-road employers.

ONLINE EVENT: Catholic Labor Network’s 25th Anniversary

March 10, 4pm ET

In the mid-1990s a group of Catholic priests and union activists met while organizing solidarity for the locked-out workers of A.E. Staley in Decatur IL. They proceeded to hold the founding conference of the Catholic Labor Network in March of 1996. Join us and hear a panel of speakers look back at the founding of the Network and its early years. Panelists will include union Seafarer, pastor and spiritual moderator of the CLN, Fr. Sinclair Oubre; Kim Bobo, former Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice; and Thomas Shellabarger, former policy advisor to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. CLICK TO REGISTER

Raise the Wage: The Fight for Fifteen Faces Setback in Senate

“The laborer is worthy of his hire,” we read in the Gospel of Matthew (10:10). One of the most basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching was laid out in the papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum, the principle that every worker deserves a living wage. America’s current $7.25 per hour minimum wage – less than $15,000 per year for a full-time worker, hardly constitutes a living wage in any state in the union. That’s why the Catholic Labor Network supports the Raise the Wage Act, which would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 immediately and to $15 per hour by 2025.

The Raise the Wage Act has support in the House of Representatives but has encountered a major setback in the Senate. Because opponents have threatened to filibuster the bill, it would take 60 votes to pass in the Senate. Supporters tried to bypass a filibuster by appending it to the American Rescue Plan – aka the COVID relief bill – which as a budget matter only requires a simple majority. But the Senate parliamentarian has now ruled that Raise the Wage is not a budget matter and not eligible for such treatment.

We can’t let this be the end of the line for a living wage. The Senate needs to get back to work and ensure that America’s working poor get a raise. Have you told your Senators you support Raise the Wage? If not, call or write them today!


Union, Loyola University Chicago Contract Protects Cafeteria Workers

UNITE HERE Local 1, which represents cafeteria workers at Loyola University Chicago, has shared some good news. In the midst of the pandemic, food service workers at Loyola University have secured a new union contract with their employer, Aramark. The agreement includes recall rights for employees put out of work due to the pandemic, measures to increase COVID safety, across-the-board pay raises, and measures to ensure that employees who return to work have health insurance right away.

“This has not been an easy year. My coworkers have been struggling – many have been out of work, many have been sick, some have lost loved ones, and there isn’t one person who has not been affected by this pandemic,” said Monica Manning, a food service worker who has worked at Loyola for 20 years. “Finally, there seems to be a light at the end of this tunnel. With more of us coming back to work, this contract will give us the protections that we need to feel safe at work. Just as importantly, this contract will give all of our coworkers who are still laid off the security of knowing they will be able to go back to work as soon as the work comes back at Loyola.”

259 food service workers at Loyola are represented by UNITE HERE Local 1. Food service operators at some other Chicago-area universities have not signed similar agreements, leaving workers without many of the protections achieved in this contract at Loyola.

“Right to Work” Is Wrong for Workers and Society

Two are better than one: They get a good wage for their toil. If the one falls, the other will help the fallen one. But woe to the solitary person! If that one should fall, there is no other to help. Where one alone may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10,12

Woe to the solitary person in today’s economy! An individual worker is powerless to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions with the likes of McDonald’s, Amazon or Wal-Mart. That’s why Pope Leo XIII made the right of workers to organize in unions a fundamental premise of Catholic Social Teaching in his 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum [49]. And it applies today no less than it did in in the early years of the industrial revolution. Pope Benedict XIV, in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, in fact concluded that “The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must be honoured today even more than in the past [25].”

Misnamed “right to work” policies confer no right to employment; rather, they serve primarily to undermine the effective functioning of labor unions. Labor unions are formed by majority vote and serve as expressions of the solidarity of a given workforce: the union bargains a contract for the common good of all the workers, and all the workers in turn contribute dues to support its operation. “Right to work” laws give individual workers the “right” to enjoy the benefits of the union contract while opting out of paying dues to support it. “Right to work” laws create a wound to solidarity and a perverse incentive setting the economic interests of the solitary person against the common good of the group as a whole.

Each year legislators in one or more states propose new “right to work” laws. As Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago observed in 2015,

In view of present day attempts to enact so-called right-to-work laws the Church is duty bound to challenge such efforts by raising questions based on longstanding principles. We have to ask, “Do these measures undermine the capacity of unions to organize, to represent workers and to negotiate contracts? Do such laws protect the weak and vulnerable? Do they promote the dignity of work and the rights of workers? Do they promote a more just society and a more fair economy? Do they advance the common good?” Lawmakers and others may see it differently, but history has shown that a society with a healthy, effective and responsible labor movement is a better place than one where other powerful economic interests have their way and the voices and rights of workers are diminished.

“Right to work” does not protect the weak and vulnerable or promote a more fair economy; it does undermine the capacity of unions to organize, represent workers and negotiate contracts. Answering Pope Benedict’s call to promote worker associations that can defend worker rights more than in the past calls for laws that foster worker solidarity make it easier for workers to form unions and bargain collectively, not more difficult. The Catholic Labor Network opposes the implementation of “right to work” laws and recommends the repeal of such laws where they currently exist.

Chuck Hendricks Remembers John Sweeney

I have never met John Sweeney, however, I have one story about his commitment to organizing the unorganized.

When I was 19 years old, I attempted to organize my own union with a painting company in Baltimore. I didn’t know how to organize my co-workers, but I tried based on a book I bought called “Organizing to Win.” Eventually we tried to reach out to the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades. I tried a number of times get get someone to pay attention to me, but a 19 year old saying that they want to organize a union at a small company wasn’t of much interest. After many failed attempts at getting the local unions to organize us I was disappointed and a bit dispirited.

I got fed up and actually sent a random email to asking for help, and he personally responded my email, thanking me for the email, telling me that it was important that people like me organize and that the afl-cio stood with us. He assured me that someone from the painters union would follow up and the next day the Organizing Director of IBPAT personally called me to get the process moving.



John J. Sweeney: Exemplary Catholic Labor Leader (1934-2021)

Prof. Joseph A. McCartin, Georgetown University

The CLN lost a loyal friend and the labor movement lost one of the great champions of its history when John Joseph Sweeney died on February 1 at the age of 86.  Labor leaders reared in Catholicism have played a disproportionately large role in the shaping of the American labor movement from Terence Powderly and Mother Jones in the 19th century to George Meany and Thomas R. Donahue in the 20th century, to Rich Trumka and Mary Kay Henry in the 21st.  Among them, Sweeney’s contribution was distinctive.  He was a bridge-builder who helped move labor beyond the Cold War, drew young people into the movement, transformed labor’s relationship with immigrants and the immigration question, welcomed women into top leadership, and revamped labor’s political operations.  In all of this, he drew generously from the values of his church and its social teachings.

Many obituaries have attested to John Sweeney’s remarkable story, from his birth to Irish Catholic immigrants in the Bronx, to his Catholic education from kindergarten through college, his involvement with the Young Christian Workers, his study with labor priest Phil Carey, S.J., his early work with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Read more

SEIU Members Rally, Demand Reinstatement of Fired Janitors at Office Building

In the commercial janitorial industry buildings change contractors frequently and profit margins can be tight for employers as global real estate titans seek ways to trim costs. Last week the Catholic Labor Network supported janitors in Northern Virginia fighting to get their jobs back after a new contractor took over the contract and promptly fired the union workforce in order to bring in cheaper replacements.

SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 32BJ represents is a massive union representing janitors up and down the East Coast. In some markets such as Boston, New York, and Washington, DC, they represent more than 90% of commercial building janitors, enabling them to negotiate family-supporting wages and benefits. But often in the adjoining suburbs such as Northern Virginia much of the workforce remains unorganized, and union contractors face heavy pressure from nonunion competitors. It’s not unusual for a nonunion firm employing a part-time workforce to win work away from union firms taking a high-road labor approach, creating a race to the bottom.

That’s exactly what happened recently at 1950 Old Gallows Road in Vienna, Virginia. A large nonunion contractor, K&S, took over the cleaning contract from a union firm and immediately fired the existing cleaning staff. K&S has a history of labor problems – in 2019 the company was fined $1500 for firing workers who tried to organize and join the union. Other K&S workers have reported excessive workloads and late paychecks.

During the rally, union members demanded that K&S reinstate the fired workers and join the union’s master contract. After picketing the building, activists went to the K&S offices to deliver a petition but were blocked from meeting with management. The local plans to continue pressing the company to improve the treatment of their employees.

Courageous Google workers form Union

On January 4, a courageous group of workers at internet search giant Google announced that they had formed a union. The Associated Press reported that approximately 225 workers took the important step, “creating a rare foothold for the labor movement in the tech industry.” A foothold, but a small one out of the roughly 200,000 Google workforce. What’s going on?

Ordinarily, workers form a union by winning an election – supervised by the National Labor Relations Board — showing they represent the majority of workers in a given “bargaining unit.” If they win, their union is certified as the representative of all the workers in the unit, and the employer is legally required to bargain with them toward a contract. But that’s not the only way workers can form a union.

This group of techs, sales reps and others decided to form a union even though they are a small group in a large workforce. They are a “minority union” – a group of workers who have chosen to band together to negotiate together about terms of employment. It’s a tough road to follow. Without being certified as the bargaining agent by election, they must persuade or force their employer to negotiate with them.

The Alphabet Workers Union (Alphabet is the parent company of Google) will depend on its ability to recruit additional members and on the support of the Communications Workers of America, the large union rooted in the telecommunications sector that is supporting the group. And it will be especially dependent on the solidarity of the rest of us – Google users who speak up if the company cracks down and tries to strangle this new union in the crib.

Like Gideon’s three hundred marching against Midian (Judges 7), these brave souls have stepped forward to stand against one of the nation’s largest corporations. May they find the same success!


Catholic Social Ministry Gathering 2021 – Register Now!

Feb. 6-9, 2021

Each year the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development hosts a Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington DC. The event brings together those motivated by their Catholic faith to fight for an end to poverty and exploitation, global warming, racism, the death penalty, war and other crucial social justice causes.

If cost and travel time have kept you from participating in the past, CSMG 2021 is your opportunity! Due to the pandemic, the event will be a virtual one this year, which will enable many more people to participate and exchange views. This year’s theme is “Make justice your aim (cf. Is. 1:17): Rebuilding Together.” The Catholic Labor Network has teamed up with Catholic Charities USA to hold a workshop on new models for worker organizing, and the entire event will end with a virtual lobby day on Capitol Hill where you’ll be able to testify for justice before your elected representatives.

Registration is only $50. CLICK HERE to sign up today!