US Bishops: “Workers’ share of the fruits of the economy has been declining for decades”

Bishop Dewane’s letter recalls the 100th anniversary of the 1919  “Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction”

Bishop Frank Dewane

Each year on Labor Day, the Chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development issues a statement reflecting on our economy in light of Catholic Social Teaching. This year Chairman Bishop Dewane (Diocese of Venice) looked back on a landmark statement issued by America’s bishops a century ago. In a document that came to be called the “Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction,” they examined social conditions in the wake of World War I, with workers fighting powerful monopolies and trusts and an increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few. The Bishops of 1919 recommended a series of social reforms that prefigured the New Deal initiatives of the 1930s: a federal minimum wage, the right to organize in labor unions, social security for the elderly.

Bishop Dewane’s letter “On the Hundredth Year of the United States Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction” reminds us that the problems of monopoly, economic inequality and exploitation are still all too real today…

Today’s economy, if measured by the stock market, has the most money and wealth it has ever had, and unemployment is around the lowest it has been in fifty years…[yet]  more than one in five jobs in the United States is in a low-wage occupation where the median wage pays below the poverty threshold for a family of four.  Real wages have been largely stagnant for decades, and workers’ share of the fruits of the economy has been declining for decades. Why does this situation persist?

New research suggests that anticompetitive behavior from employers has resulted in lower wages in many labor markets, particularly for lower wage workers.  To be clear, Catholic social teaching holds wages to the standard of a just wage, which is not synonymous with a merely competitive labor market.  In theory, low unemployment should raise wages, but recent research suggests that this may be offset by the increasing concentration of employers—in other words, fewer numbers of employers are employing larger shares of the labor force, giving employers greater power to keep wages down.

As in 1891, with Rerum Novarum, or in the 1919 Program, Bishop Dewane highlights the importance of unions in addressing these issues.

The declining share of labor’s access to the wealth of the country cannot be explained by any one model or concept alone.  Nevertheless, that story must include the dramatic decline of worker unionization rates: now, only about 10.5% of workers belong to a union, including only 6.4% of the private sector.  A complex set of policies and decisions over decades have led to the present state of things.  A better arrangement will require careful and nuanced thinking in processes over time.  From the Church’s perspective, progress must include the expression of solidarity that unions strive to embody, as well as the respect for the priority of labor over capital, which is nothing less than the primacy of human beings over “things.”

We in the Catholic Labor Network certainly agree that a just economy must reverse “the declining share of labor’s access to the wealth of the country” and that “the dramatic decline of worker unionization rates” is a leading culprit in today’s income inequality. If we want to live in a good society, we need a large dose of the “solidarity that unions strive to embody.” Labor Day is the perfect time for we as Church to consider how we can support workers and foster that solidarity.

Labor Board Looks at Boeing Firings

For more than a decade, Boeing has been shifting production from well-organized Washington state to South Carolina, where elected officials have vowed to keep workers from forming a union. (Former Governor Nikki Haley said she didn’t want union jobs coming to her state because they would “taint the water”; her successor Henry McMaster has called unions “about as welcome as a Category 5 hurricane.”) When workers tried to organize, the company fought tooth and nail, even illegally firing union supporters. But last year a group of technicians at Boeing’s Charleston plant stood firm, voting 105-64 to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). And now it seems the other shoe is dropping: the labor board is investigating the firings, and has found merit in the charges. Is Boeing repentant? Hardly – it named Haley to its Board of Directors in 2019! Stay tuned.

Minneapolis Airport Workers Share Stories

Sky Chefs employees Adil Becker and Darmyelesh Geda tell Adam Fitzpatrick (Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul) about wages and working conditions in airport kitchens.

Readers of this newsletter know that airline food service workers are among the lowest-paid employees in the aviation sector, and that across the country they are organizing to change that. Recently airline catering workers in the Twin Cities shared their stories with CLN and with Adam Fitzpatrick, Social Mission Outreach Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

America’s airline kitchens are largely staffed by immigrants. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, that usually means the person packing meals for food carts was born in East Africa. Adil Beker, Daremyalish Geda, and Hailu Mulugeta, who met with us, all hailed from Ethiopia. They are employed by LSG Sky Chefs, a contractor servicing Delta, American Airlines and other major carriers.

The starting wage at the Minneapolis Airport Sky Chefs is $13 per hour, about $26,000 per year for a full-time employee. Though above the minimum wage, it’s not nearly enough to pay rent and support a family in Minneapolis. But the workers were even more concerned about the poor health insurance offered by Sky Chefs: co-pays are $50 a visit for even in-network providers, and it costs $500 per month to buy the family coverage. Most workers instead have to turn to Medicaid or the public exchanges, where taxpayers subsidize the cost of their health care – or they just go without.

Many of the 20,000 airport food service workers have joined the hotel and restaurant workers’ union UNITE HERE. They point out that airlines such as Delta and American are highly profitable, and are calling for a starting wage of $15 per hour and better health care coverage. They have voted to strike, but under the law they can’t do it until they are “released” by the National Mediation Board.

“Worker justice is one of the most consistent elements of Catholic Social Teaching, emphasized since Rerum Novarum,” says Fitzpatrick. “We as Church need to show solidarity with workers organizing for justice.”

To learn more, and to support the workers in their fight for just wages, contact

CCHD Feature Story on the Catholic Labor Network!

Check out the latest edition of the USCCB Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s newsletter Helping People Help Themselves… It’s all about the Catholic Labor Network!

Union, Church Join Forces to Support Families Upended by Mississippi ICE Raids

On Wednesday, August 8, people across the country saw the terrible scenes on their television: hundreds of ICE agents raiding several poultry plants in Mississippi, leaving crying children in their wake. The response from Church and labor was immediate. The state’s Catholic Bishops condemned the raid, and Catholic Charities set up headquarters in parishes near each plant. The United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union (UFCW) also rushed to the aid of the workers and their families Read more

Airline Food Service Workers Sit-in at American Airlines, Demand Living Wage

On Tuesday, 58 airline food service workers and their supporters were arrested for blocking the entrance to the American Airlines headquarters at their Dallas-Fort Worth area hub, calling for a living wage. American Airlines has subcontracted food preparation there to LSG Sky Chefs, which pays entry-level workers less than $10 per hour – that’s an annual salary of less than $20,000 for a full-time worker, below the poverty level for a parent with two children. Meanwhile, American Airlines is running billion-dollar surpluses. Read more

National Farm Workers’ Ministry leaders gather in DC

As a hot August began, leaders from the National Farm Workers’ Ministry gathered in Washington to explore ways to extend solidarity to the men and women who harvest our food. The NFWM is an interdenominational Christian organization that supports farmworker unions and alt-labor formations with prayer and action. Their work supports the United Farm Workers, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, to name a few.

CLN Executive Director Clayton Sinyai joins NWFM activists to urge Sen. Mark Warner (VA) to support pro-farmworker legislation

Hill visits in 2019 focused on two critical pieces of legislation. The Fairness for Farmworkers Act seeks to redress a historic wrong: when New Deal reformers passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, which establishes overtime wages and other protections, farmworkers were excluded from coverage. Fairness for Farmworkers would extend overtime and other standard labor protections to these workers, and currently has 14 co-sponsors. The Agricultural Worker Protection Act, which the UFW has made a special priority, would offer undocumented farmworkers the opportunity to obtain a “blue card” giving them legal work status – and eventually to earn a green card. The bill has 13 co-sponsors.

The Catholic Labor Network is exploring opportunities to expand our work with NFWM and the nation’s farm worker organizations.

Airline food service workers: ONE JOB SHOULD BE ENOUGH!

Writers often lament the loss of “good” American industrial jobs to trade and automation, and it’s true that the decline of US manufacturing has denied many Americans an opportunity to earn family-supporting wages and benefits. But those jobs didn’t start out “good jobs” – they became good jobs when workers organized, bargained and struck to make them good. Now airline catering workers are campaigning to do the same with a neglected segment of the air transportation industry, and the Catholic Labor Network is accompanying them in their struggle.

UNITE HERE food service workers picket for living wage at National Airport

While the major US airlines earn billions of dollars in profits annually, the workers who pack the meals for flights endure low wages and unaffordable family health insurance. They have organized from coast to coast in unions, primarily UNITE HERE and the Teamsters, and are preparing to strike if necessary. For now they are engaged in a series of informational pickets to tell the public what’s going on.

On July 23, hundreds of airline catering workers from several East Coast states gathered at National Airport holding placards stating “ONE JOB SHOULD BE ENOUGH.” Tired of working for poverty wages and sometimes lacking health insurance for their spouses and children (two thirds of employees decline the insurance, which carries expensive employee premium payments),  they warned air travelers that they had taken a strike vote and they were ready to ground planes to get justice.

Catholic Labor Network board members Fr. Clete Kiley and Prof. Joe McCartin, with the Kalmanovitz Initiative’s Patrick Dixon, march in solidarity with airline catering workers.

The following week at the Roundtable of Catholic Diocesan Social Action Directors, the Catholic Labor Network invited Dallas-Fort Worth airport food service worker Letitia Gomez to tell social concerns staff about her job and why she was standing up. Gomez, a single mother who had worked for airline food service contractor Sky Chef for more than twenty years, still earned a salary below the federal poverty line. A parishioner at St. Luke’s in Irving, TX, Gomez appealed to listeners for solidarity.

The food service workers are preparing for a major action August 13 at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, where many will court arrest in civil disobedience actions. The metro area is the headquarters of American Airlines. The workers want AA to know that even if they outsource catering jobs, they can’t outsource their responsibility to the workers who occupy them.

Worker-friendly wage, union bills debated in Congress

Pope Leo XIII, in his 1891 Encyclical Rerum Novarum, set out some basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching in a modern economy: that every worker has the right to a living wage, and that workers have the right to organize in labor unions. There’s some modest good news on both fronts in Washington. In mid-July the 2019 Raise the Wage Act passed the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act continued to collect co-sponsors.

Pope Leo XIII, in his 1891 Encyclical Rerum Novarum, set out some basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching in a modern economy: that every worker has the right to a living wage, and that workers have the right to organize in labor unions. There’s some modest good news on both fronts in Washington. In mid-July the 2019 Raise the Wage Act passed the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act continued to collect co-sponsors.

The Raise the Wage Act proposes to raise the federal minimum wage in a series of steps to $15/hour in 2025. The bill passed the House July 18 by a vote of 231-199. The federal minimum wage has not been raised for a decade.

The PRO Act targets a number of tactics employers often use to prevent their workers from forming a union. It would provide swift remedies for workers illegally fired for union activity; forbids employers from holding “captive audience” meetings with workers, where they attack unions but don’t permit union advocates to respond; and offers binding arbitration when an employer refuses to bargain with a union voted in by a majority of employees. The PRO Act has won 190 co-sponsors in the House, and 40 in the Senate.

Sadly, prospects for these important bills seem dim in the current Senate. The Catholic Labor Network hopes and prays that these initiatives for the common good will find a warmer welcome after the 2020 elections.

Extreme Capitalism

The Working Catholic: Extreme Capitalism
by Bill Droel

Economic indicators ebb and flow, though not with high predictability. In the years after World War II the U.S. economy was growing and its benefits were enjoyed by most middle-class families. Sputtering began in the late-1960s and by the mid-1970s U.S. companies were losing their competitive edge, details Steven Pearlstein in Can American Capitalism Survive? (St. Martin’s Press, 2018). U.S. consumers judged all types of imports to be of better quality and/or of a better price than the U.S.-made counterpart. Several U.S. companies, slow to innovate, were near extinction.
A rescue effort, indeed a transformation, began in the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) is often associated with this economic comeback, but the factors were many. Re-engineering, mergers, deregulation, sub-contracting, new tech businesses and more all played a part. “The transformation was messy, painful, contentious and often unfair,” writes Pearlstein. However, “it worked.” He outlines the business philosophy that drove the recovery. Briefly: 1.) Government is “significantly responsible for the decline” in U.S. competitiveness; 2.) “The sole purpose of every business is to deliver the highest possible financial return to its investors; 3.) No matter how ruthless, no matter how big the wealth gap, business “must ignore and dismiss moral concerns as naïve and ultimately self-defeating.” Pearlstein nods favorably toward these principles—to a degree. He summarizes them as supply-side economics, maximum attention to shareholders and a self-justifying market.
Pearlstein goes on to argue that the improvements of the 1980s have gone extreme. “What began as a useful corrective” became “morally corrupting and self-defeating economic dogma.” The business philosophy of the moment is driven by supply-side fantasies, anti-regulatory zealots, single-mined management focused on short term stock returns, the “grubby pursuit of self-interest” and a perversion of justice that cheats, manipulates and disrespects loyal workers and ordinary consumers. Today’s business philosophy has “betrayed its ideals and its purpose and forfeited its moral legitimacy,” Pearlstein concludes.
Catholicism agrees. But it is not because the economy has taken some useful principles to an extreme. No, the principles named by Pearlstein are at fault, no matter the degree. Business is a noble vocation, Catholicism repeatedly proclaims. (See Vocation of the Business Leader, NCL, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; free.) Further, there can be legitimate differences over how much government regulation is proper; over the relationship between shareholders and stakeholders; over the best way a business can serve the common good. But the prior principles for business are different in Catholicism than in extreme capitalism.
Work and creative genius are needed for any healthy economy, Pope Francis recently told an Italian business publication. A healthy economy “is never disconnected from the meaning of what is produced and economic activity,” he said. The meaning of work, Catholicism insists, is the worker. The first purpose of a business is its workers, which includes executives, janitors, sales force, delivery drivers, part-time consultants, assembly-line people and all others. Start with that principle, says Catholicism, and the chances increase for regular customers, honest suppliers, responsive lenders, successful recruiting and profit over time.
Unfortunately, Francis continued, some people have a business mentality which says money is made by money. But “money, real money, is done with work. It is work that confers dignity on people, not money.” Of course, financial investment is essential. And of course, profit is a good thing as long as “actions and responsibilities, justice and profit, production of wealth and its redistribution, operation and respect for the environment, become elements that over time guarantee the life of the company… From this point of view the meaning of the company widens and makes us understand that the sole pursuit of profit no longer guarantees the life of the company.” When Francis says “This economy kills,” he means extreme capitalism. It kills the very outcome that it pretends to desire.
Presenting Catholic economic principles is a hard sell. Who believes that our company or any company or firm is here for all the workers? It is a hard sell too because Catholic institutions are hypocritical when, for example, they preach justice but do not pay a family wage. Or hypocrisy is the word when bishops do not deal responsibly with deviant employees while preaching respect for life.
Yet some companies do operate under the principle that each worker is a subject of work. They do not—and should not—trumpet Catholicism on their marquee. A company does not have to be Catholic in any sense to be excellent. Nor is it is necessary that these good companies are even aware of any ethical sources for their operations. Finally, they don’t—and probably cannot—be consistently principled. There are though—partially, imperfectly, inconsistently—companies that are not interested in extreme capitalism.
Can you think of any? Chobani? Southwest Airlines? Starbucks? Procter & Gamble? UPS? Dick’s Sporting Goods? Please react to these suggestions and nominate others.
Businesses, says Pope Francis, “can make a great contribution so that work retains its dignity by recognizing that people are the most important resource of every company, working to build the common good, paying attention to the poor.”

Droel is associated with National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)