Building Futures in Washington DC

In many cities in the United States, the building trades unions are experiencing an acute shortage of candidates, particularly women and minorities, for their apprenticeship schools.  For low-income workers, entering a union apprenticeship program can be life changing for them and their family. These trades offer excellent wages, healthcare, retirement and most importantly a stable job for low-income workers that experience insecurity and gripping poverty that is extremely difficult to overcome.

In Washington DC, a program run by the local AFL-CIO labor council has been working to solve this problem by training and placing low-income DC residents in apprenticeship programs and construction jobs. The six-week program trains participants in the basic skills they need to start a construction career such as OSHA and construction math while also offering the soft skills needed to get a job such as interviewing and resume writing. Woven throughout the classroom time are opportunities to visit and experience DC area union apprenticeship programs to give students a sense of the different trades available to them. To help students overcome the barriers to full time employment that are endemic in the poorest neighborhoods of the city, Building Futures offers wrap around social services to insure students are ready to go to work at the end of the six weeks.

If students are interested in a particular trade, the program helps them understand and navigate the apprenticeship application process and facilitates them entering the trade. For students that are not quite ready to commit to a trade, the program works with employers to place students in high wage jobs. Even after graduation and placement, students can always come back to the program for job placement assistance.


The Working Catholic: Christmas Shopping
by Bill Droel

Will your shopping for gifts this holy season include buying apparel? Be warned: It will be difficult to find clean clothes. Some are hopelessly stained with child labor, even slavery. Most have flaws like sweatshop wages, dangerous working conditions, wage theft, harassment and more.

In recent years some consumers have shown interest in healthier food. The slow food movement has even reached the menus within the biggest fast food chains. Now a slow fashion movement is budding. For example, you can purchase clean jeans from Blue Delta in Oxford, Mississippi. There is an Ivy League educated woman in Tennessee who is doing well growing and selling indigo domestically. About 700 cotton farms in South Carolina practice re-shoring; that is, growing stateside and supplying manufacturers here. Even a few well-known apparel brands are gradually turning away from sweatshops.
It is likely too late to get into slow fashion purchasing before Wednesday, December 25, 2019. However, Advent (also called the Journey Outward) is an appropriate time for solid reading on the topic of clothing.

In Beaten Down, Worked Up (Alfred Knopf, 2019) Steven Greenhouse gives two thorough chapters to the history of U.S. apparel manufacturing.
In the early 1900s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a premier manufacturer of affordable women’s blouses. It occupied the top three floors of New York City’s Asch Building (now known as Brown Building and owned by N.Y. University). In November 1909 the women there and in other factories staged a 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–from a set amount per day, no matter the number of hours to an hourly wage. When they settled, the Triangle workers got a small raise and a 52-hour week. They did not get the first goal of every worker action: sole and exclusive bargaining rights. Nor was workplace safety part of the outcome.
Beaten Down, Worked Up profiles Clara Lemlich Shavelson (1886-1982). She was 23-years old in those last weeks of 1909. She emerged as a leader of the garment workers. 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.
Beaten Down, Worked Up goes on to detail a devastating fire at Triangle Company that occurred in March 1911. After just 18 minutes, 144 people were dead.
Before 1900, it might be noted, 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 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 stylish shirts; the beginning of what today is called fast fashion. Of course, the main ingredient in the early 1900s as with nearly all garments today was cheap labor. An exploitative wage system was and is justified.
Beaten Down, Worked Up then profiles a witness to the Triangle Company tragedy: Frances Perkins (1880-1965), an Episcopalian. She was in a nearby café, on break from her position with National Consumers League ( Her friend was Florence Kelley (1859-1932), a Quaker and the first general secretary of Consumers League.
If you have ever drawn overtime pay, ever collected an unemployment check, ever benefited from Social Security, ever been thankful for safety features at your job site, it is because of the tireless efforts of Perkins. After her time with the Consumers League, she worked for New York State and then became the first woman cabinet member, serving through all of President Franklin Roosevelt’s terms. She was compelled to improve conditions for working families by the imprint of the horrible Triangle Company tragedy.

How is it that all our clothes come from Asia or Latin America? Might President Donald Trump revive apparel manufacturing in the U.S.? Is there something we can do about dirty clothing even during these short days before Christmas? To be continued with information drawn from Fashionapolis by Dana Thomas (Penguin, 2019).

Droel edits a print newsletter of faith and work for National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Join the Catholic Labor Network at the USCCB Catholic Social Ministry Gathering!

January 25-28, 2020

Omni Shoreham Hotel, Washington DC 

Every year, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops invites Catholic social ministry leaders and social justice activists from across the country to Washington DC for several days of fellowship, learning, prayer, and activism – and the Catholic Labor Network, as a partner in the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, holds its annual meeting and luncheon. I hope you will join us for one or both of these events in January 2020 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC!

The Catholic Labor Network annual meeting opens at 8am on Saturday, January 25. In the morning, we’ll hear Catholic labor leaders, clergy and lay social justice activists share how their faith has informed their witness for the working poor and struggles to change society. Our special guest speakers will include USCCB Labor Policy Advisor Michael O’Rourke; staff from Catholic Charities and the United Food and Commercial Workers who responded to this year’s ICE raids at Mississippi meatpacking plants; airline food service workers who have organized with the union UNITE HERE, and are campaigning for living wage jobs with health care coverage; and many more. We will also provide updates on the Church-Labor Partnership Project, a Catholic Labor Network effort supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, fostering partnerships between Church and labor organizations to promote social justice.

CSMG 2020 will open that afternoon and continue through Tuesday, January 28. This year’s theme is Bearing Witness: Life and Justice for All. Speakers and workshops will cover major topics in Catholic Social Teaching, from global peace to environmental protection to economic justice – including a workshop hosted by CCHD and the Catholic Labor Network, Church and Unions Partner to Seek Justice for All.

To register for either or both of these important events, CLICK HERE

Catholic Labor Network Statement on the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued the Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum, endorsing the right of workers to organize in unions to secure just wages under modern economic conditions. Citing the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, he noted that “Two are better than one: They get a good wage for their toil…. Where one alone may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken.” Indeed, Leo did not simply endorse the right to form unions, but “desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient [49-50].” This teaching has remained consistent to the present day, as reaffirmed by Pope Benedict XVI in his Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate when he said 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].”

Sadly, in the United States we have witnessed the opposite. In the 1950s, more than one third of American workers enjoyed the protections and opportunities of union members: protection from arbitrary treatment in the workplace, and the opportunity to negotiate their wages and working conditions through collective bargaining. What union workers won helped lift the dignity and standards of all workers, reducing inequality and promoting a more humane economy.

Today only about one in ten workers belong to labor unions, and when workers try to organize and bargain collectively they often face retaliation or stonewalling by hostile employers. The erosion of union representation in the face of this opposition has in turn lowered standards for all workers, contributing to surging inequality.

The PRO Act proposes to deter – and where necessary, punish – employers that violate workers’ rights to prevent them from organizing. It provides for arbitration when a union and an employer are unable to agree on a first contract. It would permit unions to negotiate “fair share” fees when they incur costs for representing workers who do not belong to the union.

The Catholic Labor Network believes that the PRO Act is consistent with “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.” These reforms promise to make labor unions “more numerous and more efficient.” Consequently, the Catholic Labor Network endorses passage of the PRO Act.


The Working Catholic: Strikes
by Bill Droel

Strikes are in the news: auto workers, janitors, teachers, hotel workers and more. Catholicism has a well-developed doctrine on labor relations that includes moral considerations regarding strikes. Most Catholics, I suspect, know nothing about this doctrine. Some who know about it don’t accept it.

Catholicism says that a wholesome, holy society must have bargaining associations for workers. This teaching is part of the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. It also fits with Catholicism’s experience of responsible freedom—something lacking in societies without independent worker associations and other countervailing forces. Totalitarianisms, on one hand, squash unions. Libertarian capitalism with its equation of freedom with extreme individualism likewise rejects unions and other mediating structures. A healthy society by contrast encourages workers’ groups and other associations.
Catholicism does not say that every workplace must have a union. It does not say that this or that union is a good fit for this or that workplace. It does, however, assert that the workers make the choice for or against a union without the maternal or paternal meddling of management. In support of this doctrine Catholicism says that bona fide workers’ groups are entitled to job actions. Catholicism does not vouch for the wisdom of any one job action. That’s a prudential matter for the workers.

A strike is morally OK with some conditions. It must be a just strike. That is, the workers have previously exercised good faith in expressing their position. The issues are serious enough. No violence can occur, though strikers can be loud and can temporarily assert extreme demands. During a strike the union must have a negotiating posture. So too, says Catholicism, must management. This is why a lock out is immoral.
Finally, the strikers are not allowed to put customers, patients, students, neighbors and the like in danger. This is why a wholesale strike by police officers is immoral. For the same reason a nurses’ strike is morally dicey. It could be acceptable, only if provisions for patient care are taken and if it is of short duration.
In keeping with these criteria Catholicism says that no Catholic is allowed to cross a legitimate picket line. No Catholic, meaning suppliers, customers and managers. (If this stricture were observed, all strikes would be settled quickly. After all, about 25% of all executives are Catholic.)
Cardinal John O’Connor (1920-2000) of New York was schooled in labor doctrine from his childhood. One time a major Catholic entity scheduled its high-priced ticket fundraiser at an elite country club. Days before the event the club’s staff went on strike. O’Connor announced that his religion prohibited him from attending the event and mentioned that the prohibition should apply to any Catholic. The event was cancelled, even though the entity really needed this fundraiser.
From the doctrine pertaining to strikes it logically follows that the use of permanent replacement workers is a contradiction in terms. O’Connor testified to our U.S. Congress on this point.

Finally, the record must state that Catholic institutions sometimes flaunt our faith and engage in union busting. That their trustees and managers are able to get away with their behavior, provides proof as to why workers need their own associations, free from maternalism or paternalism. A list of Catholic institutions that harmoniously deal with a union is found on this Catholic Labor Network website.

Droel is an author of Catholic Institutions and Labor Unions (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $1)

Catholic Labor Network Representative Presents to Rising Theologians at Vanderbilt University Program on Religion and Justice

Aimee Shelide Mayer presents on Catholic Social Teaching and labor to Vanderbilt theology students

Guest Column by Aimee Shelide Mayer

When I began my role as a liaison for the Catholic Labor Network in Nashville, I did not know about the newly-formed Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice at Vanderbilt.  After meeting a Divinity School student at a Gamaliel-affiliated community task force on economic inequality, I got connected to Dr. Joerg Rieger, founding director of the Wendland-Cook program.  He invited me to address his course, “Theology, Economics, and Labor,” whose syllabus reads:

The class is designed to help students understand the challenges of broad economic developments and of work and labor for the lives of individuals and communities. Changes in economics and labor affect not only the worlds of politics and economics but also the world of religion and faith, as growing disparities shape us deeply, all the way to the core. The goal of this course is not to bemoan the situation but to search for alternatives and to show that all those affected by these problems can also contribute to turning things around, based on the notion of deep solidarity.

I presented on the day when they were considering “Christian Responses to Capitalism,” particularly written responses from various denominations, including the American Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, Unitarian, United Church of Christ, and–most notably–Catholic traditions.  The class included twenty-four graduate students from various theological backgrounds, including a few Catholics.  I spoke on the rich Catholic tradition supporting labor (including Scripture and Catholic Social Teaching–particularly the social encyclicals and pastoral letters on labor).

In addition to expounding on the historical/social encyclical context, I also talked about the current-day work being done on behalf of the Catholic Church through the Catholic Worker Movement, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Catholic Labor Network to support on-the-ground initiatives for workers’ rights.  I shared how CLN is working in Nashville to support the MC3 Apprentice Readiness Program in the Building Trades, to build clergy  support of Workers’ Rights Campaigns, and eventually to create educational opportunities on labor for leaders in the Catholic Community, including the Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers.

The graduate students were encouraged to learn that the Catholic Church has an action plan in place to practice what they have preached and written about since the dawn of Catholic Social Teaching with Rerum Novarum in 1891.  The students’ response should be a source of encouragement for all Catholics to embrace our rich tradition and welcome it as a call to action to support the dignity and decency of work in our own local communities.

Aimee Shelide Mayer is a local representative of the D.C.-based Catholic Labor Network and works to support opportunities in Nashville, TN, that promote the principle of Catholic Social Teaching on the Dignity and Rights of Workers. She can be reached at or 615.669.4694


Despite Unfair Labor Practices, Nurses Form Union at St. Mary Medical Center, PA

This summer nurses at St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, PA organized to seek collective bargaining. This might have been an opportunity for bearing witness to Catholic Social Teaching: Church teaching on the right of workers to organize is clear and consistent, and in their 1986 Pastoral letter Economic Justice for All our nation’s bishops stressed that “All church institutions must also fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with the institution through whatever association or organization they freely choose (353).” Unfortunately, hospital administrators responded much the way secular, for-profit employers often do. According to Unfair Labor Practice charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board and recent health reports publicized by the Center for Advancing Health, administrators conducted illegal surveillance of union supporters and disciplined at least one of them in retaliation for their organizing activity.

Despite this, the nurses at the Bucks County hospital outside Philadelphia affiliated with the Trinity chain voted 403-285 to join PASNAP, the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals.  The hospital and the union are currently in difficult negotiations for a first contract. It doesn’t have to be this way: more than 200 other Catholic hospitals and nursing homes bargain constructively with unions representing their employees in a spirit of mutual respect. We hope and pray that the same positive spirit soon comes to St. Mary Medical.

Will California’s Uber drivers finally win labor protections?

American workers have certain legal protections, such as the minimum wage, the right to overtime pay, and the right to organize in unions – plus their employers must make social security contributions on their behalf, and purchase workers’ compensation insurance to protect them in case of injury. The self-employed lack all of these rights. “Gig workers” such as Uber drivers have been denied the legal rights of workers because, like self-employed people, they choose their hours of work – even though otherwise their entire “business plan,” including prices charged, is dictated by Uber. Since the federal government has failed to protect these workers, the state of California has tried to step into the breach with a new law. The law, signed by Governor Newsom in September, makes it more difficult for employers to classify workers as “independent contractors” without basic employee rights, and will take effect Jan. 1.

Want to learn more about the difficult working conditions faced by Uber drivers? Check out The Uber Workplace in DC, a report by Katie Wells of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor an the Working Poor.

Catholic Charities, Construction Unions Join Forces for Job Placement

Catholic Charities USA and North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) are partnering to connect low income and unemployed workers with family-supporting careers in the union construction trades. Faced with an aging workforce, NABTU has joined with Catholic Charities and a variety of community-based organizations to recruit a new generation of workers, with an emphasis on increasing opportunities for women, transitioning veterans and people of color. A key element of the program is a three week “pre-apprenticeship” program that allows candidates to explore the different trades before making a commitment. Pre-apprenticeship classes are running in several areas of the United States with participation from local Catholic Charities agencies. Support for this program is an important element of the Catholic Labor Network’s Church-Labor Partnership Program. For more information, contact

Theologian: Catholic Social Teaching Could Break Impasse on Paid Family Leave

Paid family leave is a major policy priority for both the Catholic Church and organized labor. “Every other industrialized country has a policy ensuring that parents can have a paid break whenever they have a child, and polls suggest widespread support for such a policy. Yet competing paid-family-leave bills introduced in this year’s Congress have stalled, continuing almost a decade of legislative impasse,” explains Catholic University of America theologian David Cloutier in a compelling recent Commonweal essay. What’s more, he argues, each political party is promoting a solution rooted in one element of Catholic Social Teaching while neglecting another.

Republican proposals for family leave, Cloutier says, generally allow individuals to borrow from their own social security or retirement accounts to care for a new child – but that means delaying retirement or reducing benefits later. This imposes a real hardship for low-income workers; the proposals contain no element of solidarity, no cost-sharing in which those of us who are more fortunate help those who are less so. The Democratic proposals, in contrast, vastly expand the type and number of “qualified caregiving” costs (arguably including “self-care”) eligible for subsidy up to sixty days per year and is funded by taxpayers generally – there’s not a lot of evidence of subsidiarity in the program. Cloutier concludes,

In their current approaches to paid family leave, our two major political parties display their failure to understand that solidarity and subsidiarity work in tandem. Democrats try to impose solidarity, while Republicans try to escape it. Republicans confuse subsidiarity with atomistic individualism, while Democrats ignore the appropriate complexity of shaping a civil order in pursuit of genuinely shared goods. It is not that Democrats are the “solidarity party” and Republicans the “subsidiarity party”; each misunderstands not only the other’s principle but also the one it pretends to own. The overall result is a lack of action that hurts the most vulnerable. Catholic social teaching might suggest a way out of this impasse, but it would require a fundamental reorientation on the part of both sides of our polarized country.

CLICK HERE to read The Paid Family Leave Impasse: How Catholic Social Teaching Can Help.