What is “Codetermination?”

Ever heard of “codetermination”? In industrial relations, the term refers to a practice used in Europe, most famously in Germany, to ensure that firms operate for the common good of owners, managers and workers alike. You see, German law sets aside seats for workers on the corporate boards of German corporations. The practice ensures that worker viewpoints get a hearing at the highest levels, where corporate decisions are made, and has a hidden Catholic history. And as Matt Mazewski points out in his recent Commonweal Article “Bringing the Workers on Board”, presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to bring codetermination to the United States. Under her proposal, 40% of the seats on a corporate board would be set aside for elected employee representatives.

Joint labor-management control of work has been a theme of Catholic Social Teaching from its beginning in Rerum Novarum, which promoted “workingmen’s unions… consisting either of workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together” in the manner of the medieval guilds [49]. The teaching was further elaborated in Quadragesimo Anno, in which Pope Pius XI advised that “so far as is possible, the work-contract be somewhat modified by a partnership-contract [69].” Mazewski reviews this history in the concrete case of Germany and its institutions.

Indeed, he concludes,

Given the support for some form of codetermination or worker ownership evident in the past century of papal writings, it is striking that the topic is hardly ever mentioned by Catholic labor activists or by the bishops—including the current Bishop of Rome. Most discussions of the church’s views on labor and the rights of workers begin and end with unions. A search of the website for the Catholic Labor Network, which strives to advance workers’ rights and to spread awareness about Catholic teaching on the issue, returns nearly two hundred mentions of the word “union” but not a single instance of “codetermination” or “worker ownership.”

Phil Murray, CIO President

Ouch! (In our defense, the word “codetermination” does not appear in the Encyclicals or the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church either.) But we agree it’s a fruitful topic — and although not referenced in Bringing the Workers on Board, America had its own brief flirtation with codetermination. Starting with the National Recovery Association codes of the early 1930s to the National War Labor Board of the early 1940s, the mid-20th century saw a series of experiments in joint labor-management regulation of economic production. Phil Murray, the devoutly Catholic leader of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the Steelworkers Union – inspired by Quadragesimo Anno — advocated vigorously for developing a permanent system of Industrial Councils in America jointly led by unions and captains of industry. The idea fell out of favor in the postwar years, however, even as Germany developed its modern system of codetermination.

One might say there are traces of codetermination to be found in the construction unions, where joint labor-management trusts still operate the apprenticeship programs, hiring halls, health insurance programs and pensions for the union sector of this vital industry. But I hope that Senator Warren’s proposal leads to more discussions of this excellent practice – and if it does, you’ll see more of it in the Catholic Labor Network blog!

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.