From Mobilizing to Governance

The Working Catholic: Mobilizing and Governing
by Bill Droel

The young adult activists who inspired the world this past summer now have the challenge of translating their fervor into practical reform. It is the transition from mobilizing to governance.
The founders of our country were more prepared for the transition to governance than other revolutionaries, argues Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). She compares France to the United States in her classic On Revolution (Penguin, 1963). By the time of their 1787 meeting in Philadelphia, our founders were able to craft a democratic system that endures to this day. Our system, as detailed in our glorious Constitution and in its Bill of Rights and 17 subsequent amendments, is obviously imperfect. It has suffered through rebellions, a Civil War, a tyrannical-like presidency and more. Yet ploddingly and with setbacks, our experiment in democracy inches toward its goal of full liberty and justice for all.
Back in France however, the 1789 revolution was followed by turmoil for a decade and by instability thereafter. Bastille Day was a triumph, but onto the next step the French revolutionaries “had no experience [of governance] to fall back upon, only ideals and principles untested by reality,” says Arendt. The French Revolution was “an intoxication whose chief element was the crowd.” The difference, Arendt concludes, is that the U.S. revolutionaries, in contrast to the French, had the experience of political assembly, long before 1776. Or as John Adams (1735-1826) said: The U.S. Revolution was well underway months and years before Lexington and Concord.
Again, assembly in our 13 North American colonies was imperfect; a right for only some. Black slaves could not initially enjoy that right and women could not vote for or serve in governing bodies. Yet our revolution was not the product of chaos. It was not an accomplishment of solitary heroics urging a rabble forward. For example, Paul Revere (1734-1818) and William Dawes (1745-1799) did not ride as strangers through towns at midnight, randomly knocking on doors. They had advance planning that allowed them to alert small mediating institutions. They knew the leaders of churches and other voluntary associations. Revere himself belonged to five clubs or lodges in the Boston area. Samuel Adams (1722-1803) belonged to the North Caucus, the Long Room Club and others. The same is true for the other founders. In their church committees, lodges, town halls and taverns our founders practiced the arts of governance—deliberation, compromise, balancing interests, public speaking, correspondence and the like.
Outsiders don’t always make for good insiders. Andrew Nagorski in The Birth of Freedom (Simon & Schuster, 1993) examines the monumental movements against communism in Eastern Europe, particularly the 1989 revolt in Poland. He describes the difficulty of transitioning from “dissidents into established politicians.” Lech Walesa’s problems as president were in part related to “the general difficulty of making the psychological switch from the politics of resistance to normal democratic politics,” Nagorski concludes.
The Arab Spring of 2011 was like the revolution in our country in that groups, not solitary individuals, led the way. Yes, Wael Ghonim launched a Facebook page to promote opposition to the Egyptian government. Yes, his and other internet sites helped plan actions. But the leaders came from small groups: lawyers’ circles, engineers’ clubs, the Arab Doctors Union, groups within the Muslim Brotherhood, Coptic churches, trade unions, alumni groups and soccer teams.
The Arab Spring was on the other hand unlike our U.S. revolution. Its leaders did not have prior training in the arts of governance. The young adults involved did use their friendships to temporarily smooth over their religious and ideological differences under the stress of the moment, reports Robin Wright in Rock the Casbah (Simon & Schuster, 2011). However before 2011, they had “limited—and largely unsuccessful—political experience,” she continues. In fact, their prior experience with the government was mostly limited to detention and jail. The Arab Spring was largely over by summer of 2012. External factors, including governments’ use of internet blocking and propaganda plus government counter-force, doomed the promise of the revolt. But internal factors played a major part in the demise, specifically the rebels’ lack of experience in governing.
Choices await the young adult activists in our country. They must decide: Is it better to go it alone; to start fresh? Or is it better to draw upon decades of experience from like-minded reform groups, including some labor locals, some churches, some professional associations, some civic organizations and more? Can our idealistic young adults employ sufficient arts of governing to really implement better policies and institutions?

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

Wins on Right to Recall in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington DC

The pandemic has spurred a national worker justice campaign called “right to recall.” Its premise is simple: when employers reopen after a pandemic-driven closure they should offer their furloughed employees their old jobs back. The hotel workers’ union UNITE HERE has been leading efforts to promote “right to recall” laws in cities and states across the country, and victories are beginning to stack up, including recently in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington DC.

Why hotels? Workers in the hospitality industry – hotels and restaurants – were among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Business and leisure travel alike ground to a crawl, and dining establishments were shuttered for extended periods. Workers with years and even decades in the industry are hoping that as vaccine distribution enables their employers to scale up operations they will be recalled to work – but some firms are threatening to hire cheaper replacement workers instead.

That’s why UNITE HERE has asked city councils and state legislatures to enact “right to recall” laws, and the Catholic Labor Network is organizing solidarity with these workers in the Catholic community. The campaign first took off in California where cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland passed “right to recall” ordinances. Recently wins have been stacking up in the Mid-Atlantic region. On Dec. 7 the Baltimore City Council passed a right to recall bill, overriding a veto by outgoing Mayor Bernard Young. On Dec. 10 the Philadelphia City Council passed right to recall. On Dec. 15 the DC City Council unanimously passed a similar bill that is headed to the Mayor’s desk for signature.

Right to Recall has had a more difficult time at the state level. California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a state right to recall law despite appeals from Jesuits throughout the Western Province (Newsom is Catholic and was educated at a Jesuit university). Similar state efforts in Massachusetts and Connecticut have come up short.

We at the Catholic Labor Network believe every successful business enterprise is the result of a partnership between labor and management. Right to recall laws do not require employers to hire workers when they don’t need them, but justice requires that employers who are reopening after interruption by the pandemic offer available positions to the employee partners who helped them build their business in the first place. The Catholic Labor Network will continue to support this important movement as our economy recovers from this terrible illness and recession.

Senators: Vote Yes to COVID Relief Package

Although the vaccines are at last moving, millions of workers, especially in hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues, remain unemployed. These sectors will not resume normal operations until the Summer, but the supplementary unemployment benefits that help them survive the interim expired at the end of July. The Catholic Labor Network and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops have been calling for a second round of covid relief for months.

We are pleased that a bipartisan group of Senators have put together a new covid relief proposal. Today the Catholic Labor Network addressed a letter to all 23 Catholic US Senators asking that they support the compromise package and urge the Senate leadership to bring it to the floor for a vote. The text of the letter is below…

Dear Senator,

This year’s pandemic has devastated working families, with millions of essential workers serving us in jobs that put them at risk of exposure to COVID, and millions more displaced from employment, facing poverty, hunger and homelessness.

In March, both political parties came together in an admirable show of unity to provide relief in the CARES Act, a measure that provided funds to fight the disease and also the economic hardship families faced as a result of pandemic-driven shutdowns. Unfortunately, much of this relief has already expired and the remainder soon will. This calls for renewed action.

“Earlier this year, the leaders of our government reached a bipartisan deal that provided significant relief to those suffering from the health and economic crises that we continue to experience,” observed Bishop Paul Coakley, Chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development in September. “Today, I ask our leaders in Washington to once again set aside their differences in order to reach an agreement that prioritizes the poor and vulnerable…May God grant all those participating in negotiations a heart that eagerly responds to the cry of the poor.”

We in the Catholic Labor Network are pleased to see that – after much delay – a bipartisan group of Senators is proposing a new round of COVID relief. With millions of displaced workers facing an end to unemployment benefits and protections against eviction, we believe that this comes none too soon.

As fellow Catholic Christians, we ask you to appeal to the Majority Leader for a speedy vote on this new COVID relief package, and to support its passage when it comes to the floor.

Thank you for your consideration.

The Catholic Labor Network

ACT NOW to Support Right to Recall for workers in the nation’s capital

The Catholic Labor Network asks our members and friends based in Washington DC to act NOW to support the Displaced Workers’ Right to Reinstatement and Retention Amendment Act of 2020, currently before the DC Council. This critical bill will be up for its first Council twice, on Dec. 1 and Dec. 15, before going to the Mayor for her signature.

This important legislation directs employers who are reopening after pandemic-driven closures to offer furloughed employees their old jobs back before hiring replacement workers. It promises a lifeline to workers laid off as hotels, restaurants, sports arenas and entertainment venues shut down in the early months of the pandemic, a hope that as their employers resume normal operations they will be able to resume their service.

If you represent an organization based in the District of Columbia, we ask that you add your organization’s name to the Sign-On Letter in Support of Right to Return to Work. CLICK HERE to read and sign the Letter!

If you are an individual living in Washington DC or represent a DC-based organization, and are willing to contact your local elected officials directly in support of this important bill, please contact me ASAP at No experience necessary! I will provide additional information about the issue and the legislation, as well as any assistance needed to prepare and submit your comments.

Thank you for your support for DC workers displaced by the pandemic!

The UFCW and the Grocery Industry

The right of workers to organize in unions is one of the earliest and most basic premises of Catholic Social Teaching. In most of the United States, every time you shop for groceries you have an opportunity to choose between shopping at a supermarket whose employees have the protection of a union contract, and one that doesn’t. That’s because the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) represents more than 800,000 supermarket clerks, cashiers, stockers and other employees at many of the nation’s leading grocery store chains – but they face tough competition from nonunion competitors in every community, competitors that offer substandard health care benefits and little retirement security.

At one time, the supermarket industry was largely organized, and UFCW members represented most of the industry’s employees. However, large new non-union actors entered the scene, such as Wal-Mart and Whole Foods, and successfully beat back efforts by their workers to form unions.

Want to support union workers and the right to organize? Look for these names:

  • Albertsons
  • Kroger
  • Ralphs
  • King Soopers
  • Fred Meyer
  • Albertsons
  • Safeway
  • Jewel-Osco
  • Stop & Shop
  • Giant

The UFCW is one of the nation’s largest unions, reporting 1.3 million members. Outside of the grocery chains, they represent cashiers and clerks at many drugstores and workers at meatpacking plants, as well as other segments of the economy.

UFCW 400: How a union saved retirement for thousands of Mid-Atlantic grocery workers

Two weeks before the COVID-19 crisis, 25,000 workers at Giant and Safeway grocery stores in the Greater Washington DC area overcame a push by the companies to end their pension plans and curtail health benefits. The members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) endured months of difficult negotiations and settled excellent contracts before facing a pandemic crisis.

Giant and Safeway are among the largest chains in the Washington-Baltimore region, but the rest of their competitors like Harris Teeter and Walmart are largely nonunion. At one time, grocery stores were heavily unionized and offered decent middle-class jobs with benefits for blue collar workers. Over time, the retail sector has become increasingly part-time low wage and insecure jobs and the unionized companies face stiff competition from retailers like Walmart, which constantly seeks to drive down labor costs by pushing part time workers to do more work with less help.

While workers in unionized grocery stores can face similar challenges, a union contract makes these jobs more secure with much better benefits than the nonunion chains. Though wages are comparable between union and nonunion grocers, the union contracts give workers healthcare and retirement as well as a voice in decisions by the company. Jean St. Louis, a Catholic UFCW member in Maryland, appreciates the protection and support being a member gives her and her coworkers at Safeway.

Jean, who was part of the negotiations team, saw early on that Giant and Safeway wanted big concessions including dismantling the pension plan altogether. Holding onto the pensions became the number one issue immediately for Jean and her fellow members. She and other members were worried about the members that already retired, many of whom are disabled, and could not go back to work. Jean wondered how she could make up for 28 years in a pension plan that would be suddenly gone.

Pensions have become increasingly rare because companies do not like to have liabilities on their books and prefer to push retirement savings entirely on the shoulders of workers. Mark Federici, president of UFCW Local 400, pointed out that this system of retirement is a big problem for hourly workers because they can see decades of savings erased in a day (as we just experienced) and then put off retirement or simply retire without enough to live in dignity.

UFCW members did months of talking to their coworkers and building their union in preparation for a potential strike in order to preserve their benefits. Ultimately, the members reached an agreement with Giant and Safeway that preserved their pension plan.  The settlement also included raises and minimal healthcare increases. Jean St. Louis and President Mark Federici both expressed pride in the new contracts and President Federici believes it is the best the local has negotiated in decades.

St Leo’s Announces Intent to Bust Faculty Union

Up until now, St. Leo’s University in central Florida bore witness to an important element of Catholic Social Teaching – the right of workers to organize – by bargaining with a union representing its faculty. No more. In a surprise move, the Board of Trustees recently decided to withdraw recognition from the faculty union, citing their exemption as a religious institution from coverage of the National Labor Relations Act.

As a matter of civil law, the university is not required to bargain with a union representing its employees. Catholic social teaching is another matter. Since the first modern Papal Social Encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891), the Church has taught that workers have the right to organize in unions. In his letter Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed this teaching, concluding that “The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must be honoured today even more than in the past [25].”

While the National Labor Relations Act exempts religious institutions from its protections, Catholic social teaching offers no such exemption. Lest there be any confusion on this point, the US Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on the Economy in 1986 (Economic Justice for All) explicitly stated that “all church institutions must fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with the institution through whatever association or organization they freely choose [353].”

The expansive freedom enjoyed by religious institutions under the First Amendment is a great gift, but it is subject to abuse. Managers and administrators in all institutions – civil or religious, for-profit and non-profit – prefer to issue orders rather than bargain with representatives of their employees. It is to be expected that they will be tempted to do away with unions when possible and substitute their own judgment and authority in place of negotiating with their employees in pursuit of the common good. The civil law provides at least some restraint for employers at for-profit institutions; not so in the case of religious institutions.

The trustees of St. Leo’s, and others who use the impunity guaranteed by the First Amendment to evade their obligations under Catholic social teaching, bring our cherished right to religious freedom into ill repute.

Florida voters approve minimum wage increase

In a big win for just wages, 61% of Florida voters supported raising the state’s minimum wage (gradually) to $15 per hour.

Catholic Social Teaching holds that every worker deserves a living wage, and most everyone agrees that the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour – less than $15,000 per year for a full-time worker – is not a living wage anywhere in the country. That’s why a growing number of states have opted to set a higher one, either by legislative action or by popular vote as in Florida. Indeed, as the Washington Post noted:

Minimum wage increases are typically popular among the electorate. Since 2000, states have held 21 referendums on the minimum wage, and all have passed, according to a tally kept by Ballotpedia. Public opinion surveys have shown broad support; a 2019 Pew survey found that two-thirds of Americans supported raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Florida’s current minimum wage is $8.56 per hour. The constitutional amendment just passed would phase in a series of step increases, with a $10 minimum taking effect in September 2021 and climbing to $15 per hour in 2026. More than 2 million low-income workers are expected to get a raise due to the amendment.

Healthcare unions demand OSHA infectious disease standard

Despite what you might hear from business lobbyists about alleged “overregulation,” insiders understand that OSHA seldom issues a regulation unless pushed by worker advocates. Although there are thousands of toxic chemicals in use in industry, regulations only cover a few dozen – usually in response to lobbying or lawsuits by labor unions and public health organizations. Nurses and health care workers have been waiting more than a decade for a workplace safety standard governing infectious diseases, and the pandemic has been the last straw: three unions have filed suit demanding that OSHA lay out what employers must do to protect health care workers.

OSHA began exploring an infectious disease standard in 2009, responding to a petition by health care worker unions during the swine flu epidemic. The 2014 Ebola scare strengthened the case for action, but after President Trump’s 2016 election OSHA dropped the subject. Now, after dozens of hospital and nursing home employees have died from COVID-19 while caring for the ill, workers are no longer willing to wait.

AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), AFT (American Federation of Teachers), and the WSNA (Washington State Nurses Association) – each of which represent substantial numbers of health care workers – filed suit. The suit demands that OSHA prepare and issue an occupational safety and health standard protecting workers exposed to infectious diseases in the workplace.

Please pray for the safety of our health care workers, and rapid action by OSHA to keep them safe.

Workers Discuss “Right to Recall” in Online Forum

Some employers replacing furloughed workers with temps

The covid-19 pandemic required many hotels, restaurants, theaters and sports venues to close their doors, at least temporarily. Many were forced to furlough longtime employees. As they gradually reopen, will they call these loyal workers back to service – or take advantage of today’s depressed labor market to hire lower-paid replacement workers?

A recent WORKERS SPEAK OUT online panel discussion bringing together hotel workers and union representatives from Chicago, Boston and Baltimore revealed a range of responses, and a national movement to create “right to recall” laws that would require reopening employers to offer furloughed workers their old jobs before hiring off the street.

Justice would seem to require that firms gearing up after a pandemic interruption recall the career employees whose labor helped the employer build the firm in the first place. But in the absence of laws requiring this, the actual behavior of firms is hit-or-miss and often depends on the power of the workers and their union to secure fair outcomes.

In a striking contrast, participants in the panel heard from two Chicago-area hotel workers, one protected by a union contract and one who was not. Adrian Aguirre, a bartender at the Omni Chicago, had successfully organized in a union with his co-workers and secured a contract with two-year recall rights in the event of a layoff. Carlos Perez, a houseman employed at the Hyatt Century, has no union. The Hyatt told all the furloughed workers they were fired, and has hired replacements from a temp agency.

This is why the hotel workers’ union UNITE HERE is working across the country to pass city and state laws protecting workers’ “right to recall.” Readers of this newsletter will be familiar with the situation in Baltimore, where CLN and Catholic social ministry leaders recently organized an appeal to the Mayor to sign two “right to recall” bills approved by the City Council. The legislation would protect ALL hospitality workers in the city, whether they belong to the union or not. The CLN is working with the union in other jurisdictions to pass similar initiatives.

CLICK HERE to view a recording of WORKERS SPEAK OUT on Right to Recall after the Pandemic!