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)

Airline Food Service Workers across US Take Strike Votes

After a strike vote, food service workers at National Airport in Washington DC warn passengers about the developing labor dispute.

The workers who prepare food for flights are among the poorest paid in the airline industry. In many areas they earn little more than the minimum wage, and they can seldom afford the high premiums to participate in their employer’s health insurance plans. That’s why thousands of them have organized and joined UNITE HERE, the hotel and restaurant workers’ union. The catering firms that employ them, however, have refused to budge. So one by one, workers in airport kitchens across the country have taken strike votes. Will there be a nationwide strike in the fall?

That depends on the airlines. Although most of the airlines outsourced these jobs long ago, they still hold the key to a living wage for these food service workers. One job should be enough to support a worker and his or her family, and the highly profitable airlines can afford to make this happen. The Catholic Labor Network will keep you posted as this story develops.

Labor Priest Elected to AUSCP Leadership Team

Fr. Andy Spitzer (left) was elected to the AUSCP leadership team.

In late June, hundreds of priests from across the country gathered in St. Louis for the annual meeting of the Association of US Catholic Priests (AUSCP) and elected Fr. Andy Switzer, a prominent West Virginia labor priest, to join the organization’s leadership team.

Fr. Switzer introduced himself to the assembly in a speech reflecting on his upbringing as the son of a coal miner and his ongoing commitment to bring the good news to West Virginia workers. Switzer first came to the attention of the Catholic Labor Network when he was arrested alongside more than two dozen retired mineworkers and union activists in a civil disobedience action. (The mine operators were attempting to use restructuring and bankruptcy proceedings to escape health care obligations for some 23,000 retirees.)

Other high points of the conference included a keynote address by Cardinal Blase Cupich exploring how both lay and ordained Catholics share a common priesthood through their Baptism, and a colloquium led by Bishop John Stowe on the topic of “Prophetic Obedience and Prophetic Action.” Finally, Fr. Rich Creason, recently retired Pastor of Holy Trinity Church in St. Louis and a longtime member of the Catholic Labor Network, was honored for his life’s work at an award banquet (alongside Sr. Norma Pimentel, whose work caring for migrants in McAllen, TX, has brought her national recognition).

The AUSCP’s Labor Working Group has supported Catholic Labor Network initiatives for several years, and today the organization is providing valuable assistance in our new Church-Labor Partnership Project.

Union Grocery Workers Picket to Protest DC Metro Store Closures

In the Baltimore-Washington area there are three union supermarket chains: Safeway, Giant, and Shoppers Food. There may soon be two, as Shoppers’ corporate parent is rapidly closing locations with little public explanation.

The grocery workers, who are members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Locals 400 and 27, say the parent company, United Natural Foods Inc, (UNFI), is closing the profitable stores to satisfy private equity investors. They want the company to consider more than their wealthy investors, and have conducted informational picketing to alert the community.

Prior to its sale to UNFI, Shoppers had been known as a good company to work for, with excellent benefits and wages negotiated by UFCW over the years.  The roughly 3000 Shoppers workers have an average seniority of 18 years and their long tenures in the same store means they know their customers personally. One UFCW member in DC expressed uncertainty about the future and the ability to find a secure job with good benefits in a grocery industry that is under pressure from anti-union retailers like Wal-Mart to drive down wages. She said many workers live paycheck to paycheck and losing these union jobs will drive many into financial distress trying to make ends meet. Union activists said Shoppers workers could go from a union job offering $18 per hour with vacation, extra Sunday pay, and excellent healthcare to a nonunion one offering $12 per hour with little or no benefits.  Another member from a store in Maryland was worried about losing the healthcare benefits because her daughter depends on the vision benefits negotiated in her union contract.

The UFCW members are frustrated because the parent company has left them in the dark about the store closures. UFCW is demanding the UNFI take measures to facilitate handing off the Shoppers locations to other union employers such as Giant or Safeway in order to preserve good jobs and avoid food deserts in poor communities.

Losing union jobs like those at Shoppers has a devastating impact on workers and consumers in our communities. Many of the Shoppers locations facing closure are serving communities bereft of grocery stores and their closure drives consumers out of their community to shop. The decent wages and benefits offer stability and dignity in many communities that are often economically insecure.

As Catholics, we must stand up for good union jobs that uphold the dignity of work and give members of our community economic security. We need to stand against the erosion of decent jobs in favor of an economy that favors Wall Street and wealthy investors instead of our communities.

Tenth Anniversary of “Respecting the Just Rights of Workers”

Today, June 22, marks the tenth anniversary of a remarkable document. Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Health Care Workers and Unions was released on June 22, 2009, signed by a roster of 10 Bishops, union leaders, and Catholic hospital administrators.

Throughout US history, nuns belonging to a variety of religious orders had made care for the sick a focus of their work in the world, and their institutions came to account for some 15% of the nation’s hospital beds. The sisters became a model of Catholic and Christian charity known especially for their care for the poor – unlike many competitors, their nonprofit institutions could focus on the needs of patients rather than the demands of shareholders.

The last years of the twentieth century witnessed an explosion of organizing in the nation’s hospitals and nursing homes. Had nuns still been staffing the Catholic hospitals this movement would surely have had little effect: the sisters, who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, did not pursue personal wealth, had no families to support, and a vow of obedience that made strikes unlikely. But by the 1980s and 1990s, the dwindling number of sisters in these communities dictated that most employees were laypeople, who had taken no such vows and were supporting spouses and children.

I suspect that this experience gap between the sisters who still dominated the hospital corporate boards and the new lay workforce — many of whom were not Catholic in any event – explained much of the bitterness that accompanying some of the organizing campaigns. (Adam Reich’s 2013 study examining one of these organizing campaigns, With God on Our Side: The Struggle for Workers’ Rights in a Catholic Hospital, is illuminating on this issue.)

Catholic Social Teaching on the right to organize offered a framework for the two sides to begin a dialogue in 1997, hosted by the USCCB. In 1999 the group issued a Working Paper describing their shared principles, “A Fair and Just Workplace: Principles and Practices for Catholic Health Care.” But it would be another decade before the discussants issued the final product, Respecting the Just Rights of Workers. The guidance document urged that management and labor debate the issue of collective bargaining in a spirit of charity, each assuming the goodwill of the other party – and stressed that under Catholic Social Teaching the right to organize or not to organize in a union belongs to the workers alone.

The document has not put an end to bitter union organizing fights in Catholic hospitals – to work, both hospital administrators and unions must agree to honor its principles. Today, most Catholic hospitals in the Northeast and on the West Coast are organized, but the situation in the Midwest is mixed, and few Catholic hospitals in the South engage in collective bargaining with unions representing their employees. As workers in nonunion hospitals continue to seek union organization, and hospital management must decide how to respond, Respecting the Just Rights of Workers offers an important resource for both parties to consider.

 

On the Edge

The Working Catholic: On the Edge
by Bill Droel

There are prophets of peace and builders of peace. There are protesters and institutional reformers. There are outsiders and insiders. The distinction is fluid. A person might be a prophetic outsider on one topic and an expert insider on another.
Newspapers and textbooks often present the outsider as a model for social justice. The outsider is concerned with social change but not overly concerned with how to implement reform. The insider gets less attention. They are the ones who speak institutional jargon. They can be dull. They know tax tables and zoning laws; they know about international protocols and about pipeline treaties. These insiders resist the first answer that occurs to them because they have heard the world’s complexities reduced to slogans. They take confidence in their faith but they do not believe that God is on their side or that God is opposed to their opponents. Insiders regularly wonder if they are right. They readily acknowledge to themselves that in this or that situation they are only 75% right.
The outsider is necessary for momentum but eventually the insider makes social change. Without inside reformers there are only passing reactions to grievances. Are there any bridges between the vociferous outsider and the stodgy insider?
The term ginger group is sometimes used in England and elsewhere. It refers to a conscience within a broader social reform movement or organization. A ginger group is loyal but it also dissents from an organization’s leaders. For example, Labor Notes (www.labornotes.org) with offices in Detroit and Brooklyn is loyal to unions. But it champions those workers that reform a workplace without waiting for clearance from an international union headquarters. Voice of the Faithful (www.votf.org), to mention a second example, has headquarters in suburban Boston. Its members have not left Roman Catholicism in disgust over bishops’ malfeasance nor have they challenged Catholic dogma. Instead they are a controversial ginger group that presses for reform.
Center for Action and Contemplation (www.cac.org) is the hub for all things regarding Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM. In a 2013 pamphlet titled Eight Core Principles and in some of his blogs, Rohr uses the term edge of the inside. A group on the edge of the inside of an institution is “free from its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways,” Rohr writes. An edge of the inside type group must love both the institution and the outsider critique of the institution, and it must “know how to move between these two loves.” An edge of the inside group advocates for change by “quoting [the institution’s] own documents, constitutions, heroes, and Scriptures against its present practice. This is their secret: systems are best unlocked from inside,” Rohr writes. The total outsider simplistically chooses one idealized alternative while denigrating the other institution. “This has gotten us nowhere,” Rohr concludes.
Does a posture of edge of the inside make sense in our current predicaments? Would Democrats for Life be an edge of the inside example? How about Change to Win, an affiliation since 2005 of four labor unions? Is an edge of the inside group ever effective? Or is edge of the inside but a temporary stop for outsiders with their denunciations and agitations on their way to being insiders? Please share your experience with this columnist.

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