Successful Social Change

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

Will the buds of social improvement flower? There are promising signs. People are speaking out for respectful behavior in workplaces. Others are adamant about equal treatment under the law. Some desire better attention to mental health and addiction; still others are sensitive to food and product safety. To turn these and other initial bursts of interest into meaningful social change means avoiding pseudo-change; those activities that feel like social change but only approximate genuine politics.

Discussion groups, for example, are not change agents. Consciousness-raising is not politics. Oh yes, our society benefits from book clubs. Roundtable discussion groups that meet over drinks and a topic are important. These and other modes of intellectual sharing assist those who advance the common good.
It sometimes happens, however, that participants in a discussion group assume that they are thereby tackling a social problem. A parish group, for example, forms around shared concern over opioid addiction. They read and discuss Dreamland, a terrific book by Sam Quinones (Bloomsbury, 2016). They subsequently invite the entire congregation to a couple of presentations, including a well-attended one with the local sheriff. The parish group accumulates a referral list for families dealing with addiction. All of this is good, noble and necessary. It is not yet social change. An opening must be found into the pain treatment industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the nursing home industry, the criminal justice system, the social service bureaucracy and the like.
The parish group itself does not have to be a change agent; in fact, it probably should not be. But the group can perhaps find ways that its members can get inside the problem from within their workplace, their college, their professional association or their union. Plus, the small parish group can perhaps coalesce with other church groups in their denomination or across denominational and religious lines and then join even bigger circles of influence.

A key to social change behavior is the understanding that outsiders must get to the inside. This journey requires sophistication and some tradeoffs, including serious attention to core principles.
Here is one example of outsiders getting to the inside. Globalization has many unfortunate side-effects. But globalization by definition is huge and seemingly amorphous. Sweatshops in Bangladesh are a bi-product of globalization. But there’s nothing one can do about them. But wait. Some students have found a clever way to break into the seemingly impenetrable harshness of the global economy. First students at one school and then students at the next school went, as insiders, to their college bookstore. They asked the store manager to name the factory that produces the school’s sweaters, shirts, jackets and the like. They simultaneously pushed the college administrators to require that bookstore vendors have humane labor codes. The students, who communicate with those at other schools through United Students Against Sweatshops (www.usas.org), got their school to sign-on with an apparel monitoring organization, Worker Rights Consortium (www.workersrights.org). Guess what? Some major apparel retailers and clothing brands met with student representatives. The companies now expect their overseas sub-contractors to observe humane working conditions.

Is the problem of sweatshops solved? Not yet. Some apparel lines want to do their own monitoring of the overseas suppliers; the student groups want independent monitoring. So, the students have to get further inside some apparel companies. In doing so, the students have to find an ally (maybe a college trustee) who is connected to the apparel industry. The students also must consider their principles: Is half a loaf acceptable or do we push for three-quarters of a loaf? Is the credibility of the students enough or would a celebrity endorser help? Maybe a bigger presence on social media is the answer? What else is involved in social change? To be continued…

Labor News from Catholic Healthcare

More than 200 nurses at Providence Hospital in Washington D.C. who are represented by National Nurses United (NNU) have negotiated a new contract. The Nurses report that, beyond wage gains, they won “more time for nurses to discuss patient care issues: The Professional Practice Committee (PPC), comprised of nurse leaders from units throughout the hospital, meets to monitor and resolve patient care issues. The new contract allows nurses more time to dedicate to the PPC.” Meanwhile, nurses at Holy Cross Hospital in nearby Silver Spring, MD are seeking to join NNU.

Employees at Napa’s Queen of the Valley Medical Center, in contrast, voted to join the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) back in 2016 but still don’t have a contract. Instead of bargaining, hospital administrators have been demanding a rerun of the election. Sorry, Queen of the Valley, you don’t keep getting election do-overs until you get the result you want. A federal judge has ordered that the hospital stop stalling and bargain in good faith.

Georgetown response to grad students throws Just Employment Policy into crisis

In recent years, Georgetown University has earned considerable respect from both labor unions and Catholic social ministry activists for its remarkable Just Employment Policy. The policy, developed over more than a decade of dialogue between students, faculty, administrators and workers, helps ensure that university personnel practices demonstrate Catholic Social Teaching. But a confrontation with graduate student employees seeking to form a union has thrown the Policy into crisis, leading to mass resignations from the advisory committee of clergy, staff, faculty and students that observes its implementation.

Guided by the Just Employment Policy, the university has investigated labor practices at overseas firms producing Georgetown gear – and implemented a living wage requirement in its own service contracts, ensuring that food service and custodial workers are paid a fair wage event when they aren’t direct university employees. When adjunct faculty sought to form a union, Georgetown didn’t follow Manhattan or Duquesne University by fighting them and invoking their religious identity to claim legal impunity. Georgetown exhibited fidelity to Catholic Social Teaching on the rights of workers by saying that if the adjuncts wanted to bargain collectively, the university would honor their wishes. The adjuncts now belong to SEIU 500 and have a union contract.

Last year graduate students employed by the university as research or teaching assistants sought the same treatment. They formed a union, the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees (GAGE, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers) and requested recognition and bargaining rights.

Texas AFL-CIO (and CLN member) President John Patrick Retires

Our appreciation goes out to John Patrick, Texas AFL-CIO president who retired in December. Brother John was a good friend of the Catholic Labor Network and really put his faith into action through his work, leading the state labor federation this year in a spirited resistance to Governor Abbot’s “show me your papers” law targeting immigrants. We’ll miss you!

Pope Vows to Eliminate Temp Labor at Vatican

Every year, before the holidays, Pope Francis gathers the Vatican’s lay employees and their families to honor their service. He gives a short address praising their work and offering spiritual and temporal guidance for the year to come. This year, though, he also veered into a conversation about temporary workers. The Holy Father, who frequently preaches that workers deserve secure and dignified employment, had learned from one of the career employees that the Vatican itself employed temporary workers, and this concerned and alarmed him.

The Pope did not seem to be referring to temp workers in the American sense (i.e. workers obtained from temp agencies) but the Italian one. Under Italian law, workers who have passed a probation period have considerable employment security – and employers seeking to evade this obligation often choose to employ “temporary” workers on fixed, short-term contracts shorter than the probation period. Francis vowed to eliminate the practice in the Vatican as a matter of conscience.

The other day I had a meeting with Cardinal Marx, who is the President of the Council of the Economy, and with Monsignor Ferme, the Secretary, and I said: “I don’t want illegal work in the Vatican.” I apologize if this still exists…It’s a problem of conscience for me, because we can’t teach the Social Doctrine of the Church and then do these things that aren’t right.

Thank you, Francis, for affirming that employment is not just a matter of economics or even of law, but of conscience. You can read the Holy Father’s full remarks HERE.

Global Outsourcing Eliminates Oreo Jobs: Union Calls for Boycott

In November, US and Mexican Bishops urged that negotiators working to amend NAFTA ensure that any new agreement better protects workers on both sides of the border. Mondelez International, which owns Nabisco, is giving an example of why this is necessary. A couple of years back the company demanded that workers producing Oreo cookies on Chicago’s South Side offer massive wage and benefit concessions as the price of keeping production in place. The workers, represented by the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco and Grain Millers union (BCTGM), resisted – and the company promptly relocated production to Monterrey, Mexico, laying off 600 bakers and devastating the community.

The BCTGM has organized a boycott of the Oreo cookies outsourced to Mexico, and is working with Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) to share their story. In December, IWJ issued a report on the dispute, Breaking Faith: Outsourcing and the Damage Done to our Communities.

Advent, Part III

The Working Catholic: Advent Part III
by Bill Droel

Every preacher has a sermon ready for this weekend or next in a folder labeled “Keep Christ in Christmas.” The theme is such a cliché that it is better to leave the folder in a file cabinet, away from the pulpit. Ordinary lay people know how to sufficiently navigate December’s commercialism. And who says that Christ is not in the office parties, the shopping for gifts, the decorating, the baking and all the rest? For those who falter, there’s a how-to book: Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson (Harper Collins).
The entire “Put Christ in Christmas” movement, now championed by President Donald Trump, is misguided. It shows a lack of faith in the Incarnation. The error is an easy one to make. I catch myself on occasion saying something like, “Bring Christ to the Marketplace.” Although I don’t use the phrase “re-Christianize society,” I might nod in agreement when I see it in an essay.
Christ is already in the world and he cannot be removed, no matter how corrupt or indifferent people may be. A Christian is supposed to dispose himself or herself to God’s presence in the world; a lifetime task. Secondly, a Christian is supposed to assist others see the divine presence by making the world better match God’s plan for it.
The late November shampoo of our church carpets, the enhanced December décor of the church, the well-sung Advent hymns, the evocative Advent liturgy that makes use of Isaiah and early parts of the four gospels—all of these nourish us and prepare the way for the glory of Christmas. But the Bethlehem story itself points to the truth that God is most intimately available in the comings-and-goings of ordinary families, among unremarkable workers and especially among the poor.
Yes, the crèche in our home, in front of the church and in many public squares (including here in Chicago) is a visual reminder of God’s Incarnation. But the figurines in those displays are inanimate. The living Christ includes all the retail clerks who stack merchandise and direct shoppers. These workers, please understand, do not have to consciously exude Christianity. Indeed, some are members of other religious traditions; others do not worship at all. Yet, Advent is seeing Christmas in them and then improving their world. For example, don’t shop on Sunday so that workers have Sabbath time.
Restaurant workers mirror Christ. As an Advent discipline, bump up the tip, let’s say to 25% of the bill. The barber, the postal worker, the newspaper delivery person, your bartender.
Christ is the worker who sews the dress shirt that goes into a gift box. That worker is likely overseas and may well labor in a sweatshop. Christ is the worker in a Thailand shrimp house who washes and packages the little fish for the hors d’oeuvre tray at the office party. That worker is probably a slave. As an Advent discipline, only eat shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico or from a U.S. aqua-farm.
Christ is any family that can’t find a room at Mar-a-Lago, or at the Hilton or even at the Route 20 Motel. Christ is anyone who is not welcome at the family table, likely because that person is associated with too much sorrow and discord. During December, many Christians donate food or money for the care of the homeless. Get a closer look at Christ by volunteering at the pantry or shelter.

A few years ago I was in a Milwaukee shopping mall during Advent. Or better to say, my wife was shopping in Milwaukee; I found a bench inside the mall. A Pakistani-American woman and her baby sat down next to me. An older, well-dressed woman approached us and presumably mistaking me for the father said, “You are so lucky. This child is a great hope to us today.” How did she know?
Over 2000 years ago there was another baby. This one conceived out of wedlock to under-employed refugees. This baby’s life was in political danger and the family had to spend time in a foreign country with no green cards. In one sense Jesus did almost nothing that was extraordinary. He simply went about doing the unexpected: showing kindness to strangers, preaching subversively, associating with oddballs. Advent is about looking for the greatest in the unexpected. It is about great hope on a bench at a mall in downtown Milwaukee.

Advent is preparation for Christmas. Christmas is preparation for the day after Christmas.

Fordham Adjuncts, Instructors Vote Union Yes

In an election concluded in November, contingent faculty at Fordham University have voted overwhelmingly to form a union and bargain collectively. The bargaining unit will include both adjunct faculty and others not eligible for tenure, such full-time lecturers and postdoctoral research fellows. After much hesitation, the flagship Catholic university in New York City had joined Georgetown University and many other Catholic schools across the nation in consulting Catholic Social Teaching on labor and work, and adopted a neutral position during the vote, recognizing it was the right of the employees to decide for themselves whether they wanted to join a union. Today the faculty are represented by SEIU Local 200.

Sadly, a few schools in this position seem to have consulted “union avoidance” attorneys rather than CST. They are determined to prevent their employees from getting a union and are asking the NLRB and the courts to respect their “union avoidance” as an expression of their religious identity (!). Duquesne University, Manhattan College, Seattle University and St Xavier University have chosen this unfortunate route.

American and Mexican Bishops offer Joint Statement on Renegotiating NAFTA

Bishops in the US and Mexico have come together to issue a remarkable joint statement on trade. RENEGOTIATING NAFTA: Rebuilding our Economic Relationship in Solidarity, Mutual Trust, and Justice calls on government officials in the trade negotiations to “pursue a commercial relationship that is mutually respectful, just and solidary, especially for the poorest in our countries.”  The Bishops laid out several criteria that must be met by any just trade policy, including protections for the environment, indigenous peoples, migrants and the poor. Readers of this newsletter will be especially interested in their criteria for “Work and Labor Protection.”

The Church teaches that work has an inherent dignity. We support the protection of worker rights, in their country and in foreign lands, including the right to organize, as well as compliance with internationally agreed -upon worker standards. Concern with job loss in both countries requires that any agreement be accompanied by firm commitments to help workers, as well as their families and communities, cope with both the social and financial strains of dislocation that free trade might bring about. It is fundamental that attention be devoted to safe working conditions, reasonable work hours, time off, living family wages, and other recognized social benefits, as well as preventing child labor.

The statement in its entirety is published, in both English and Spanish, on the USCCB website.

Vatican Organizes International Conference of Union Leaders

November 2017 witnessed a historic gathering at the Holy See in which the Church engaged labor union delegates from around the world in a dialogue about economic justice. The conference, From Populorum progressio to Laudato si’ — Work and Workers’ Movements at the Center of Integral, Sustainable and Fraternal Human Development, was hosted by Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads the Vatican’s new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. Pope Francis delivered a message to the participants honoring the assembled labor activists for their role Read more