Who is the Catholic Labor Network? Meet President Phil Tabbita, APWU

Phil Tabbita is the President of the Catholic Labor Network. In his day job, he is Manager of Negotiation Support and Special Projects for the American Postal Workers Union (APWU).

Phil Tabbita did not begin his working career with the intention of becoming a union activist. He just needed a job while he studied music at Wayne State and the Postal Service was a good job to have. Before going to Wayne State, Phil attended the seminary, but left feeling bitter towards the church. He grew up believing priests were saintly, but in seminary he encountered regular fallible men. He stopped attending church and believed he could structure his faith independently and have his own prayerful relationship with God.

Phil began working for the US Postal Service in 1970 as a window distribution clerk and was active in the organization of the APWU as a number of Postal Service unions merged.  He joined the national APWU staff in 1983 and has been involved in every round of contract negotiations since 1981. Ten years after he had left the church, he was the lead for the union side of an arbitration and a witness offered to lie to help the union’s case. Phil was shocked at the cavalier attitude towards an amoral act like lying under oath. This event caused Phil to reflect on his faith and he realized he no longer had a relationship with God. He returned to the church to become an active member of the Catholic community and developed a deep connection to the Eucharist because of his closeness to God through the sacrament.

Phil tries to spread Catholic Social Teaching through his labor work and believes it is the best kept secret about the church. He believes work is ubiquitous and touches everyone, therefore we should work to make jobs decent and dignified. The Church is the antidote to the world and gives us the ability to look around and see good people. Work also gives us the ability to carry out our obligation to make the earth better.

Phil’s role at the APWU is to serve as executive assistant to the president, support collective bargaining, and act as a union advocate in arbitration among other jobs. Phil is active in the Knights of Columbus and is an usher at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.


The Pandemic, the Economic Freeze, and the American Worker

Aside from the elderly and retired who are most likely to suffer fatal complications, the covid-19 pandemic and its economic consequences have struck no segment of American society harder than the American working class. It was a grim irony, therefore, that federal social distancing guidelines expired quietly on May 1, the Feast of St Joseph the Worker – because for American workers, the hurt is just beginning. The guidelines were replaced by a set of recommendations to governors of the various states, who must make the decision which enterprises remain closed in the interest of public safety and which are permitted to reopen in the interest of economic recovery.

How have workers been specially impacted by covid-19? On the one hand are several categories of workers who remain on the job and face excessive risk of exposure to the virus. Bus drivers, supermarket cashiers, and especially health care workers continue to serve the public and consequently risk infection every time they greet a passenger, accept a payment or move a patient. On the other are those who work in crowded production and distribution facilities, from meatpacking plants to Amazon distribution warehouses. Though not exposed to the public, the infection of a single worker can rapidly spread across the shopfloor – as has been witnessed repeatedly at pork and chicken processing facilities. Despite calls from trade unions and occupational health experts, OSHA has made no effort to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard covering covid-19 safety hazards in the workplace, leaving workers on their own. Unions like the UFCW (groceries and meatpacking), SEIU and NNU (health care), and ATU and TWU (mass transit) are among those who represent large numbers of workers at elevated risk of infection.

On the other hand are tens of millions of workers who have been forcibly idled by the shutdown. As of the end of April, some 30 million workers had filed for unemployment benefits, with the official unemployment rate nearing 15% (the true rate is almost certainly far higher, as this number does not include those who have given up looking for work out of despair). Layoffs and furloughs have disproportionately fallen on the working classes: many college graduates who usually work in offices have transitioned to doing their jobs from home via the internet, but that’s not available to a high school graduate working in a factory or restaurant. While about 8% of college graduates are reported as unemployed, about one in five of those with a high school diploma or less have been sidelined. The impact has been especially hard on those employed by airlines, hotels, food service, and entertainment venues, where most of the jobs vanished overnight. Unions such as UNITE HERE (hotels and food service), ALPA and AFA (airlines), and IATSE, AFM and Actors’ Equity (entertainment) are among those who represent large numbers of workers who have been furloughed and face elevated risk of economic ruin.

While the government was abysmally slow in preparing for covid-19 to reach our shores during the weeks after it was reported spreading in Wuhan, Congress and the President moved surprisingly quickly to vote economic relief for the first phase of the economic crisis. While some of the funds approved through the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) followed the European model of subsidizing firms to retain idled employees – the PPP or Paycheck Protection Program – the bulk was distributed in individual payments to taxpayers and/or through the unemployment insurance (UI) system. Unemployment benefit coverage was expanded to cover large categories of workers who aren’t usually eligible because they don’t pay into the UI system, such as Uber drivers who are classified as independent contractors or employees of Catholic Churches and schools.

But the relief package does nothing to replace employer-paid health insurance, leaving millions of workers at risk of losing access to health care. It still leaves significant numbers of workers unprotected and potentially destitute, especially the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in our farms and kitchens who perform some of the economy’s least desirable work at low wages in the best of times. And perhaps most gravely, the income supports that do exist were set to expire during the Summer, anticipating a short “V-shaped” recession with a rapid economic rebound. It’s becoming clearer that this will almost certainly not be the case. This leaves American workers in a bind, balancing a risk of the coronavirus if they return to their place of work with a guaranteed loss of necessary income and health insurance if they do not.

Of course, some of those jobs will be gone in any event. With the coronavirus still killing 2,000 people a day, many Americans will shy away from shopping centers, hotels, bars and theatres for some time to come. We can expect major economic dislocation as the weaker retailers and restaurants close their doors forever, and double-digit unemployment enduring into 2021 at least.

The Catholic Labor Network will continue to advocate for “the least of these brothers and sisters” (Matt 25) through this terrible health crisis and year of economic agony. We will work with the nation’s trade unions to rebuild as the recovery proceeds, and promote safer workplaces that limit worker exposure to covid-19. We believe that the desperate need for a national paid sick leave policy has become clear to all, so that workers will no longer have to choose between feeding their families and infecting their colleagues with a communicable disease. And we anticipate that a major new jobs program will be on the agenda in 2021. Dare we dream, as the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si approaches, that a Green New Deal with a just transition for workers currently employed in the carbon economy is on the horizon?

A Personal & Brief History of the Founding of the Catholic Labor Network

On May 1, 2020 — the Feast of St Joseph the Worker — Fr. Sinclair Oubre presented A Personal & Brief History of the Founding of the Catholic Labor Network to a national audience via Zoom. In response to requests by listeners, here is the text of his address:


The personal roots of the Catholic Labor Network are found in my hometown of Port Arthur, Texas. This was a town where the word “union” was not a dirty word, and to be in a union was a source of pride. Though there had been many challenging strikes, the union families knew that though these had been hard time, the wages, pension, and healthcare benefits significantly outpaced those of their relatives in Louisiana.

Each union family knew that these wages and benefits were not gifts given by the refineries and construction companies, but were hard won union victories through collective bargaining, and sometimes by withholding each worker’s labor so as to demonstrate how serious the workers were.

In addition, Port Arthur and Southeast Texas had strong apprenticeship programs that trained the next generation of craftsmen. These apprenticeship programs supported a system where the individual craftsman’s welfare was directly tied to the welfare of his or her fellow union workers, and the welfare of their union.

In my own family, my great grandfather, my grandfather, my father, and my two uncles on my father’s side were all members of the Carpenter’s Union. Later, my father became a member of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union when he began working at the Texaco Refinery. In my high school graduating class, many of my classmates joined pipefitter, boilermaker, electrician, carpenter, or plumber apprentice programs. Others were hired directly into the plants as laborers, and eventually rose to be operators. All being members of the oil workers union. So, the roots of the Catholic Labor Network lie in my family’s union experience, and the tremendous benefits the union provided to my working class classmates in our parochial schools.

The personal roots of the Catholic Labor Network are also tied to a happenstance event that occurred at the University of St. Thomas’ Student Government Office. In 1978, while studying as a seminarian for the Diocese of Beaumont at St. Mary Seminary and the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, I was elected to the University Student Government Association. Passing through the SGA office in what is today Crooker Center, I picked up a copy of a booklet entitled: “On the Condition of Labor” by Pope Leo XIII. I started thumbing through it, and I was astounded that at the end of the 19th century, a pope wrote a strong critique of Marxist socialism and free market capitalism, while offering a third way that promoted private property, subsidiarity, the common good, and the dignity of the human person. This was very different from the montages that we were making in religion class at my Catholic high school. If I was reading this instead of the pablum that was being served up, I would have paid more attention in class. This set me on a course of using every elective I had as an undergraduate to take political science courses that focused on Catholic Social Teaching and work.

In 1978, I became an honors philosophy student at The Catholic University of America. While there, I was blessed to be taken under the wing by Don Slaiman, a Jewish socialist who worked in the Organizing Department of the AFL-CIO. He worked hard to mentor young men and women who were interested in the labor movement. He introduced me to Frontlash, the AFL-CIO’s outreach program to college students. Soon after I joined Frontlash, Jessica Smith became the director, and she led the organization in many dynamic ways. She is still a close friend, and an assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Through Frontlash, I was able to make a number of lasting labor connections that led to other connections later in life.

Frontlash also made it possible for me to be a summer intern with the International Association of Machinists Union. During the summer, I worked in the political action committee office. IAM President William Winpisinger backed Ted Kennedy’s primary run against President Carter. This allowed me to be a go-fer at the Washington, D.C. Mayflower Hotel where all the pre-1980 Democratic Convention committee hearings were held.

All these experiences helped me to develop many strong local and national labor ties. Being ordained to the priesthood in 1986, I soon began a volunteer ministry to seafarers calling at our ports, and also I began to attend the Sabine Area Central Labor Council meetings. Through these meetings, I began to meet the business agents and officers from our different unions, and found them very welcoming. I also began to learn more about a Chicago priest named Msgr. George Higgins. For years, I had seen his column “The Yardstick” appear in our local diocesan newspaper. Articles about the grape and lettuce boycotts, the formation of the United Farm Workers, and many other labor issues were chronicled in Msgr. Higgins’ column in our bi-weekly diocesan newspaper.

I do not remember how, but I became aware that a number of theological faculties including Catholic University, the Dominican House of Studies and Oblate College were sponsors with the AFL-CIO in a conference entitled: A Dialogue Between The Religious and Labor Community on Social and Ethical Concerns in Changing Economy. At this January, 1989 program were Catholic leaders like Archbishop Weakland, Fr. William Byron, S.J., Fr. Ed Boyle, S.J., Sr. Nancy Sylvester, and Msgr. George Higgins.The conference addressed mutual labor and religion issues like: Human rights in the workplace, Living/just family wage, Plant closings, Organizing unions a moral right, and what can be done through Religion-Labor understanding and cooperation.

This conference was followed by a second conference in 1991, to observe the 100th Anniversary Rerum Novarum. In June of 1991, religious organizations and the AFL-CIO hosted in Atlanta: On the Condition of Workers in 1991: A Continuation of the Dialogue Between the Religious Community and Organized Labor. In the opening plenary session, Bishop John McCarthy, then bishop of Austin, Texas, wove a story of the how socio-economic conditions had frayed the ties between Catholic seminarians and unions.

In the 1920’s, an Irish boy’s father was in the union. In addition, all his uncles were union members. That boy fought in World War II, and because of the GI Bill was able to go to college, and thereby move into a white collar job. His son went to a better university, and became a lawyer or doctor. In addition, he became more affluent and had no contact with labor unions. This man then meets with his Pastor at the country club, who also has had no experience with unions either. Because the pastor’s grandfather had been a union member, but his father went to college on the GI Bill, and he had lived in the suburbs with his father working in an office. The affluent Catholic parishioner with is suburban well educated pastor had forgotten what labor did to put them where they were. Unions were just “Things that were important in the past, but were no longer necessary in the modern world.”

In 1993, Msgr. George Higgins with the assistance of William Bole published, Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a “Labor Priest.” This book gave me a great insight into Msgr. Higgins, and the elaborate and active relationship that had existed in the United States Catholic Church and the labor movement. In this book, I was introduced to the great Msgr. John A. Ryan, and Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, Fr. Raymond McGowan, and many other priests who dedicated a significant amount of their priestly ministry to promoting our Catholic Social teaching, especially as it related to worker and unions.

Reading Higgins’ reflections, I learned that there had been a strong relationship between the US bishops and labor, that there had been labor schools in hundreds of parishes, and parish priests were actively engaged in both helping to organize their workers into unions, while simultaneously working to stymie efforts by communist union members to take over the locals. This was such a different environment from what I had grown up in Port Arthur, where we could be having a knock-down-drag-out strike at Texaco that could last months, with about 20% of our parish men on the picket line, and 20% locked in the plant, and nary a word was spoken from the pulpit about the labor/management clash that was dividing our community.

Finally, by 1995, Decatur, Illinois had become the battleground for the future of industrial and manufacturing unions. In this one city, Staley had locked out its workers, and Bridgestone/Firestone and Caterpillar had forced its workforce out on strike because of demands for major contract concessions. In response, “Road Warriors” traveled throughout the country attending labor union and central labor council meetings.

One group came to Port Arthur, and showed a video and made a presentation at the Sabine Area Central Labor Council. In that video, a Decatur parish priest, Fr. Martin Mangan, was pepper sprayed during a sit-down strike at Staley’s main gate. Being the chaplain to the central labor council, and by now a member of the Seafarers International Union, and having a desire to see the old alliance between the US Catholic Church and America’s union movement reestablished, I decided that on my motorcycle ride home from my canon law studies at Catholic University that summer, I would stop off, and visit this priest, and find out how does one do “Labor Priest.”

I cold called Fr. Martin, and he welcomed me to stop by at the end of July. When we sat down at a local restaurant, I was all ready to ask Fr. Martin how to be a labor priest, but before the words got out of my mouth, he was asking me how to be a labor priest. It was apparent that if there ever had been a manual on how to be a labor priest, it had long since been lost.

Also in the early 1990’s, I met an ex-Franciscan brother, Steve Donahue at a Central Labor Council picnic. He was working for SEIU Local 100 out of New Orleans, and doing organizing work. I was so excited to meet someone trying to live the spirit of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, I struck up a friendship with him and his fellow Baton Rouge Catholic Worker, Tim Vining.

I also came to learn that there was a prison chaplain named Fr. Don Brooks in Tulsa, Oklahoma who was active with local unions. There was also Msgr. Charles Rice of Pittsburgh, Jack Egan of Chicago, Ed Boyle, S.J. of the Boston Catholic Labor Guild, Mary Priniski, and there was Deacon Bob Miller, who worked for the AFL-CIO as its United Way liaison. But there was no single, place where clergy, religious, Catholic Workers, or just Catholic union members could work together to continue the Catholic/Labor cooperation of the past. It is important to note that Msgr. Higgins had retired from the USCC, and though there continued to be an office of social justice, there was no one who specifically had the labor portfolio.

To both give spiritual support to the dispersed group of Catholic labor ministers, to promote Catholic Social Teaching relating to worker and unions, and to be a sign of solidarity with the striking and locked out workers in Decatur, I suggested to Fr. Martin that we hold a meeting in Decatur. Dates were set for March of 1996. Union families opened their doors to the attendees, and for three days, the 30 or so participants learned about the three Decatur labor struggles; they learned what each person was doing in their own corner of the country; and they received a lesson on the Labor Priest through a panel of people who lived it: John Cort, Msgr. George Higgins, Msgr. Charles Egan, and Fr. Ed Boyle, S.J.

The results of this first meeting were the establishment of a loose affiliation of Catholic clergy, religious and laity who promoted Catholic Social Teachings relating to work and unions, and the building and launching of a web page: catholiclabor.org.

In 2001, the Catholic Labor Network was invited to host a wrap-around seminar at the USCCB Catholic Social Ministry Gathering. I was attending a Interfaith Worker Justice Board Meeting with Tom Shellabarger on September 11, 2001. Tom invited me to attend a USCCB planning meeting for the 2002 CSMG. The committee approved CLN being part of the wrap-around sessions. From 2002 to the present, CLN has met on the Saturday of the CSMG. The program consisted of:

      • Mass or morning prayer
      • Discussion on the state of Church/Labor Questions
      • Speakers
      • Lunch with a keynote speaker
      • And in more recent years, it is followed by the Administrative Board’s meeting

With the hard work of Clayton, first as a volunteer director, and later as a paid director, the Catholic Labor Network has grown to be the only Catholic association that is completely dedicated to promoting our CST regarding workers and unions, and to rebuild the classic Catholic/Labor coalition.

I have a concern about the ongoing support among the US bishops regarding their strong and clear support for the right of workers to organize in secular and church institutions as laid out in the 1986 pastoral Economic Justice for All. There have been some worrying trends:

Catholic Hospitals not supporting directive #7 in the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services; the erosion disappearance of diocesan building guidelines that considered collective bargaining as a value when bidding contracts; disturbing instances were dioceses have unilaterally dissolved their collective bargaining agreements with their unions.

Workers’ Memorial Day Homily by Fr. Clete Kiley, UNITE HERE

The Catholic Labor Network observed Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28, 2020 with a Mass remembering the thousands of workers who die on the job each year — including, this year, so many felled by covid-19. Fr. Sinclair Oubre (Seafarers) was our celebrant, while Fr. Clete Kiley (UNITE HERE) offered the homily. You can view highlights from the Mass on the CLN YouTube Channel. Below find the text of Fr. Kiley’s homily.

More than 125 years ago in his groundbreaking Encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII exhorted Catholic bishops and their clergy “to go to the worker”. And he promised working people all over the world they should always count on the pastoral solicitude of the Church. Today in this mass we gather as a testimony to that pastoral solicitude. We are grateful to the Catholic Labor Network for bringing us together. We come together today virtually in a mass we are celebrating from different parts of the country – all reflective of this challenging time of COVID-19 pandemic and economic upheaval.

For more than 129 years the Church and the Labor Movement have been building bonds to serve the Common Good, to promote solidarity, and to incarnate the principle of subsidiarity in the formation of local labor unions. Both the Church and the Labor Movement believe in the right — and actually fight for the right — of workers to form unions, to bargain collectively, to secure a living wage (not a minimum wage), and to be able to work in safe places. In these difficult times this Church-Labor collaboration is more important than ever.

In our Holy Mass today Church and Labor come together to remember those union members who have died in the past year. In a special way we remember those who have succumbed to the COVID-19 virus in these recent months. Each in our way holds these beloved dead, our union sisters and brothers, to sacred memory. To remember signifies that we hold them in our minds. In Spanish, the word is recordar, which signifies that we hold them still in our hearts. Each of these beloved dead was a person destined to be, as the Church says, “an agent of their own development”. Each was destined to be a fully integral human person. Each had a name, a family, friends, neighbors. And each is held in communion with us in this mass.

As we remember them, we recognize that working people living today still face significant challenges. Too often today workers are denied those very rights the Church and Labor say are inherent. Too often today work conditions in some places reflect the same unsafe and uncaring environments that Leo XIII condemned more than a century ago. Too often today workers are put in risky situations resulting in catastrophic accidents. Too often still today, just as back in 1891, workers lose their lives at work. Too often today grieving families and co-workers, all of us really, wonder if such deaths weren’t avoidable. Today, as in former years, workers are confronted by a prevailing culture of profit over people- a culture that quantifies work and robs it of its humanity and inherent dignity–a culture that treats workers as cogs on a production line rather than the precious human beings they are.

In this COVID-19 crisis, all the raw underside of our economy is being revealed. We cannot help but think of healthcare workers, and meat packers, and other workers who risk their lives and perhaps the lives of their families and co-workers. They have no protective gear to wear. There is no social distancing in their workplaces. And in spite of their pleas, there are employers who would still cut corners. This reflects what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture”.  This dishonors our Beloved Labor dead and it threatens the humanity of us all.  For that reason, our remembrance of our union dead today must move beyond any grief and remembrance to a renewed commitment and call to action. As Mother Mary Harris Jones would exhort us today: “mourn the loss of the dead, but fight like hell for the living”.

The gospel today shows us exactly how we are to fight like hell for the living.  Did we feed the hungry? Give drink to the thirsty? Welcome the stranger? Clothe the naked? Shelter the homeless?  Care for the sick? Visit the imprisoned?

As we remember our Beloved Union dead let us feel joy for them. They worked hard, supported families, and as union members, they stood up for fairness, for the least of these, and they put solidarity into practice. And we can trust the Lord says to them: “Come, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

That promise is held out for you and me too. But the gospel is utterly clear about how we are expected to answer those questions. In this gospel, Christ is showing us a pathway for living. He is showing us precisely how we are to fight like hell for the living. He is showing us the way of solidarity. As Pope Francis says: “Solidarity, this word that strikes fear in the more developed world. They try not to say it. It’s almost a dirty word for them. But it is our word!” I Brothers and sisters, it is the word that belongs to the Church and it is the word that belongs to the Labor Movement. Together let us call the world to solidarity.

Finally, in his letter to the Corinthians St. Paul uses the same phrase twice, which is always significant in the scriptures. It is like underlining something in red.  Paul says to the Corinthians as well as to us: “we are courageous”.  This is as much an exhortation to dig deep to find courage, as it is a statement about our existing courage.

To honor our Beloved Union dead, and to forge the pathway of solidarity, to build a more just and equitable world, to create a culture of encounter will take courage. For that we turn to the Lord. We draw courage from the Eucharist we celebrate here. We draw courage from the spiritual communion we share now through this Zoom conferencing. We draw courage from the examples of our Union dead. And we draw courage when our Catholic community and our Labor unions work together to renew solidarity throughout the world. May the Lord who began this good work in us bring it to fulfillment!


Walter Reuther: A Memorial

Labor historian Kim Baker submits his reflections fifty years after the untimely death of Walter Reuther, pioneering leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW).

A half-century ago, on May 9, 1970, America lost one of its greatest heroes, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, in the crash of a plane whose engine, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, was missing parts and had parts wrongly installed–including one part installed upside down.

This tragedy, and several similar tragedies, occurred amidst a time like today, when progressive reformers are battling valiantly to promote social justice in every area of economic life.  Therefore, it behooves us to take a fresh look at Walter Reuther and what he fought for, and to realize the large extent to which today’s workers and worker-justice activists are standing on Reuther’s shoulders.
Reuther, in turn, was standing on the shoulders of the workers and worker-justice reformers who preceded his rise to dominance as a leader in the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during their organizing and 1935 founding.  Reuther and his fellow workers and activists saw industrial unionism as a direct outgrowth of a democratic-socialist vision for the United States, a vision in which workers and other Americans can thwart income inequality and play larger roles in determining their economic and political destinies.

One cannot fully understand worker justice in the 1930s and 1940s without exploring the extent to which unions in those decades were affected by the relationship between the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and its allies, and U.S. socialists and their allies (including the Catholic social-action movement).  Communists and socialists were bitter foes long before the 1930s, and except for a brief period of cooperation during the Popular Front era of the 1930s (cooperation which ended with the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939), UAW and other CIO unions were constant battlegrounds.

Communist workers everywhere had to follow a line of complete subjugation of worker interests to the war aims and foreign-policy objectives of the Comintern (the Communist Party globally), which still and always included world domination.  During World War II, CPUSA-led union factions hampered collective-bargaining activities (already hampered by corporate domination of wartime union-management relationships) by demanding no-strike pledges and extreme production speed-ups, and by downplaying workers’ concerns with low pay, meager benefits, lack of worker input, and unsafe working conditions.

From UAW’s founding, Reuther courageously led the union’s democratic-socialist coalition.  He was a member of the Socialist Party in the 1930s until 1938, when he joined the Democratic Party, and he played a major role in UAW going from 30,000 members in 1935 to 400,000 members in 1938.  He sought cooperation with the workers of every union faction, and was a veteran of the sit-down strikes and of the bitter three-year-long struggle to organize Ford Motor Company (featuring the famous photo of Reuther being bloodied by company goons).

Walter Reuther’s World War II innovations, however, most dramatically exemplify his leadership.  His defense-readiness plan was extremely effective, and could serve as a model for dealing with today’s coronavirus.  And most significantly, in June 1945 he filed a brief with all war-production agencies recommending that in postwar, “increased production must be supported by increased consumption, and increased consumption will only be possible through increased wages.”

Indeed, he made this recommendation part of UAW’s then-current round of negotiations with General Motors by proposing that the company’s workers be given a 50-percent wage increase and that it not be accompanied by an increase in the price of GM cars.  Reuther’s proposal did’nt go through, but it was a ground-breaking challenge to economic inequality in a ground-breaking manner and promises to play a key role in today’s crucial national debates.

Poet Robert Frost speaks of the importance of “the road not taken”; and America’s not taking the road championed by Reuther set a discouraging tone for the country’s postwar years, when labor had to yield to corporate dominance and the country entered an era of excessive consumer abundance.  Reuther was disappointed, but he still fought hard for worker justice (such as by supporting Cesar Chavez and farmworker organizing and by promoting public-sector unions), and he expanded efforts long made
on other social-justice fronts, including civil-rights struggles, Vietnam War protests, and a greater voice for young people.

Unfortunately, this road called for but not taken has received woefully insufficient attention in the few major biographies of Walter Reuther.  Nelson Lichtenstein, for example, in “The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit”, portrays Reuther after World War II as a champion of corporatism and consumer abundance, a portrayal which insufficiently accounts for Reuther having to row against the anti-labor current of that era and for his increased efforts in non-labor directions.  Also, Lichtenstein neglects the positive anti-Communism which Reuther displayed and which helped propel him to the UAW presidency in 1947, helping bring about CIO’s expulsion of 13 CPUSA-led unions in 1949-50.  Sadly, positive anti-Communism was soon replaced by the negative anti-Communism of the right wing and of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his ilk.

Ironically, during Reuther’s fight for his innovative challenge, James Matles, President of the CPUSA-led United Electrical Workers-CIO (UE), secretly negotiated with GM on behalf of the 30,000 company workers which it represented.  The UE-GM agreement unfortunately became a basis of the much weaker agreement which UAW eventually had to settle for.

In “The Wage Earner”, a highly-regarded Detroit labor newspaper, the paper’s editor, Paul Weber, commented in October 1945 on the Reuther challenge: “If Reuther succeeds in forcing GM, one of the country’s largest industrial empires, to redivide the fruits of its production, the day of gigantic profits in American business will be done … {T}he result may not be the end of capitalism, but it will certainly be the beginning of a new kind of capitalism.”

The actual result, as we know, was swallowed up in the machinations of runaway capitalists and right-wing politicians, who then gave us decades of assaults on worker’s rights to organize and bargain collectively–including, in 1981, President Ronald Reagan’s firing of 12,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association, or PATCO (see Collision Course by labor historian Joseph McCartin, Oxford University Press, 2011).  Such assaults continue today, but thanks to the renewal of the democratic-socialist vision for America’s future, Walter Reuther’s “road not taken” promises to become a wide highway of worker justice and of social justice in general.


Who is the Catholic Labor Network? Meet Adrienne Alexander, AFSCME Activist

Adrienne Alexander, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in Illinois, serves as Vice President of the Catholic Labor Network. Adrienne’s union activism and Catholic faith share a thread in her family’s history as both are a source of pride and dignity for her family.

Her great-grandfather was a floor refinisher by trade but found work hard to find as a Black man in the segregated south. However, the local nuns gave him work, which led him to convert to Catholicism. His son — Adrienne’s paternal grandfather — became one of the first of many in the family to make a career in the US Postal Service and become a member of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU).

Like so many Black folks from the south, Adrienne’s maternal grandparents headed north looking for economic opportunities.  Adrienne’s grandfather got a job in Flint and joined the United Auto Workers (UAW) while her grandmother worked at a local hospital represented by the Service Employees union (SEIU). Being members of their respective unions, gave them dignity and financial resources they could not get in the south.

Adrienne’s parents live in Georgia where her father works for the Archdiocese of Atlanta newspaper as a photographer and her mother retired from work as a lobbyist. Because of her father’s job, growing up she had a unique exposure to the diversity of the church and got to know many priests and sisters. However, it was not until Adrienne attended a training at the Congressional Hunger Center and said out loud for the first time that her faith motivates her worldview, that she set about explicitly putting her faith into action through her work and began a career fighting for workers’ rights. In 2010, she joined AFSCME in Illinois and eventually became Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for AFSCME Council 31. AFSCME Council 31 was ground zero for attacks on the rights public employees because it was a Council 31 feepayer that filed the fateful Janus lawsuit.

Adrienne lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter. They attend St. Benedict the African in the Englewood neighborhood. She is a board member of Arise Chicago, a nonprofit organization that works at the intersection of faith & workers’ rights, and the Catholic Labor Network. Adrienne is a graduate of Agnes Scott College, a small, women’s college in Georgia, and earned her Master’s degree in Public Policy from the University of Minnesota.

St. Joseph

The Working Catholic: St. Joseph Day
by Bill Droel

Some years ago I was part of a lobby group to change the feast of St. Joseph the Worker from May 1st to the first Monday in September. The change would apply only to dioceses in the United States; the country that has Labor Day in September. The proposal got a respectable hearing from some bishops but the liturgy police (smile) at the bishops’ conference said no.

In 1889 communist and other pro-worker groups in Europe designated May 1st as International Workers’ Day. It is today celebrated as such by many people in Europe, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. To counter the communists, the Vatican designated May 1st as St. Joseph the Worker Day. Ironically, the May 1st designation is not directly related to a communist event from Europe. It commemorates an event in the U.S., specifically here in Chicago. The issue was an eight-hour workday.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) was interested in an eight hour day. When he wrote about it in 1867 he referred to the situation in the U.S. A stateside group, National Labor Union, championed the cause. Move ahead to 1886. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions obtained a City of Chicago permit dated May 1st for a rally in support of the enforcement of eight-hour-per-day laws. This event, writes William Adelman in Haymarket Revisited (Illinois Historical Society, 1986), has uniquely “influenced the history of labor in the U.S. and even the world.” What happened?
Late in the evening of the rally someone threw dynamite. Police fired their guns wildly. Soon seven officers and four workers were dead. Eight labor activists were rounded up and arrested. Those apprehended included a lay minister, a printer and others. Within about three months seven of the activists were found guilty. One was sentenced to 15 years; two others got life sentences; one was killed in jail. The remaining four were hanged in November.
The issue didn’t totally disappear. Beginning in the last months of the 19th century various unions were able to include an eight-hour provision in contracts: the United Mine Workers, a Building Trades Council in California, the Typographical Union and more. Only in 1937 with the Fair Labor Standards Act did the restriction on working hours become a national standard. Even then, however, its application was only gradually extended to various sectors.
In recent times the Illinois Labor History Society (www.illinoislaborhistory.org) has refurbished the graves of the Haymarket workers who are buried in Forest Home Cemetery, located in Forest Park, Ill. The Society has several resources related to the Haymarket event and to the meaning of May 1st.
Haymarket Square itself, located just west of Chicago’s Loop, is today home to several trendy restaurants and relatively new condos. Tourists who go there would have to know some history to understand Adelman’s contention that an event occurred there that “influenced the history of labor in the U.S. and even the world.”

Parishes in the U.S. routinely include symbols and prayers about the dignity of work during the September Labor Day weekend. It would be an enhancement, in my opinion, to also have a feast day that weekend honoring that long ago tradesman, St. Joseph.
“O God, Creator of all things… by the example of St. Joseph and under his patronage may we complete the works you set us to do and attain the rewards you promise.” – Collect from Mass of May 1st

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter on faith and work.

CSPL Push Reopens Chicagoland Hospital for COVID Patients

Congratulations to our friends at the Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership (CSPL) for their successful push to reopen Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park, outside Chicago.

This intriguing organization does leadership development training and community organizing rooted in a Catholic model. Based in Chicago’s blue-collar Western suburbs, CSPL offers parish-based training for community activists. CSPL has drawn an outsized share of attention lately, first with coverage in a recent edition of Commonweal (“Modeling Change“) and then campaigning for Illinois Governor Pritzker to reopen a much-needed, shuttered community hospital as part of the area’s covid-19 response. As the Chicago Tribune noted,

[Rep Emanuel] Welch was joined on a conference call Friday morning by Maria Franco, a board member of the Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership, who also praised the Governor’s move.

“We are working together to address this crisis,” Franco said. “The community really came together for this. Many signed petitions and our CSPL members pushed to get allies and supporters. It was definitely a beacon of hope when the news came out that our governor was going to reopen this hospital.”

CLICK HERE for the Tribune’s full coverage!

Connecting Low-Income Workers with Middle-Class Careers in Nashville

Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville with MC3 grad Joseph Kenyawia

For more than a century, America’s building trades unions have prepared workers for skilled, family-supporting jobs in the construction industry. Today these unions are preparing for a wave of retirements, and are recruiting a new generation of workers through a pre-apprenticeship program aimed at diversifying their ranks. In Nashville, the Catholic Labor Network has been teaming up with Catholic Charities and local parishes to move low-income workers into these high-wage jobs.

The pre-apprenticeship program known as the Multi-Craft Core Curriculum (aka MC3) programs introduces those considering a career in construction to each of the trades in turn. Thanks to outreach work at area Masses by local CLN representative Aimee Shelide Mayer, four of the nine participants in the last MC3 class to precede the coronavirus lockdown were immigrants from Diocese of Nashville parishes — three from a large Hispanic congregation, Iglesia Sagrado Corazòn, and one from one of the oldest churches in the Diocese, Church of the Holy Name in East Nashville.

CLN’s Aimee Mayer joins the proud MC3 grads in February

At the close of the two-week program, all nine participants graduated with plans to enter the trade of their choice.  Graduation on February 7th was a joyous event.  Marisa Morales Perez from Sagrado Corazòn said in her address to the graduation attendees that she was there “for her siblings and her family,” and hoped that her aspired path with the Painters would help support her family so she would no longer have to work second shift.  Leo Martinez, also from Sagrado Corazòn, said he wanted to “show his children that anything is possible if you make the commitment.”  Leo had received electrical training in California before moving to Tennessee, but now—with the skills he learned with MC3—hopes to enter a full-time apprenticeship with the Electrical Workers.  Joseph Kenyawia, who moved to Nashville from Sudan twenty years ago and is a pillar of the Sudanese community at Holy Name, said that joining the Insulators Apprenticeship following graduation is his “opportunity to leave a firm foundation for [his] family.”

For now, coronavirus shutdowns are interfering with what is also known locally as MC3: Music City Construction Careers. CLN looks forward to additional recruitment when instruction resumes!

Who is the Catholic Labor Network? Meet Fr. Sinclair Oubre, union seafarer

Fr. Sinclair K. Oubre, J.C.L.  is the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in Orange, TX in the Diocese of Beaumont and a member of the Seafarers Union. Fr. Sinclair grew up in Beaumont and knew from about the 4th grade that he wanted to be a priest and entered the seminary immediately after high school. He said that while others were going through “spiritual discerning” in the seminary, “I was just there to get trained.”

The area around Beaumont has three major ports, which also drove Fr. Sinclair’s attachment to the sea. As a seminarian, he would spend two summers on merchant marine ships working in the Gulf of Mexico, and sailing between the Texas and Florida ports. In 1990, he joined the Seafarers Union, with which he continues to maintain his membership. He attended the University of St. Thomas in Houston and Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he received his bachelor’s degree. He did his graduate theological studies in Leuven, Belgium, and was ordained to the priesthood May 10, 1986. In 1997, he completed his license in canon law at Catholic University in Washington.

Fr. Sinclair has been active in the labor movement for more than 30 years. During the famed Staley lockout in Decatur IL. In Decatur, IL the workers were locked out by the AE Staley company after prolonged contract negotiations in which the company demanded large concessions. The Staley workers were soon joined by Firestone and Caterpillar workers on strike. The struggle came to represent the growing greed of global corporations and the decline of worker power.  Fr. Sinclair met Fr. Martin Mangan, a Decatur area priest who worked with the Staley workers during their fight. While doing graduate work for his JCL in canon law, he met Msgr. Higgins, who was living at Catholic University.

With the Staley lockout, working with Tim Vining and Steve Donahue of the Baton Rouge Catholic Worker House, and other prominent national labor priests, he organized a conference in Decatur, whose goals were to support the workers in Decatur, and promote the Catholic social teaching regarding work, workers and unions. This group coalesced into the Catholic Labor Network in 1996 as the group realized that the bonds between the church and the labor movement had to be reinvigorated.

Fr. Sinclair is now the Spiritual Moderator for the Catholic Labor Network and continues his labor activism as a Chaplain to the Sabine Area Central Labor Council. As a Diocesan Director of the Apostleship of the Sea in the Diocese of Beaumont, he ministers to local and visiting seafarers at the Port Arthur International Seafarers’ Center.  He is also active in the Port Arthur Area Shrimpers’ Association, which organizes among the local Vietnamese shrimping community.

Fr. Sinclair also maintains his connections to the water, as a member of the United States Merchant Marine, and holds a merchant marine credential as AB-Limited, and holds a 100 ton near coastal master license. He sails through the Houston Seafarers International Union hall. In the summer of 2019, he signed on the Training Ship Golden Bear with the cadets of the Texas A&M Maritime Academy for 29 days.