Shareholder Showdown at Wendy’s, Part II

Peltz fends off “vote no” effort

Despite a vigorous “vote no” campaign, Wendy’s Chair Nelson Peltz and his Trian Partners colleagues held on to their seats at Wendy’s late-May annual shareholder meeting.

Wendy’s has been under public scrutiny for some time as the lone fast-food chain to spurn the Fair Food Program, a third-party certification program monitored by workers to enforce basic labor standards in farms supplying produce.

The Fair Food Program was created by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farm labor organization based in the tomato fields of Immokalee, Florida, who recently visited Trian Partners’ headquarters in New York City, calling on shareholders to vote no on Peltz and his team (pictured).

The origins of this year’s “vote no” campaign can be traced to a 2021 shareholder resolution submitted by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, New York. Sister Margaret Magee, OSF explained how the sisters “met with members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers on zoom calls, learning about labor conditions in the fields.”

“We often hear the expression that we are the voice of the voiceless,” Magee continued. “But these people have voices; it’s that our institutions and corporations and government are socially deaf. We add our voice to their voices so the deafness can be overcome.”

The Sisters held shares in Wendy’s, and, working through Investor Advocates for Social Justice (IASJ) submitted a shareholder resolution calling for a review of the company’s procurement practices. Pointing out that human rights violations in their agricultural supply chain could pose a risk to shareholders, the Sisters asked specific questions about third-party audits of labor standards at farms that supplied produce to Wendy’s.

When other shareholders got on board, management decided to endorse the effort, and the 2021 shareholder resolution passed overwhelmingly. But the report management ultimately produced was a puff piece that dodged the hard questions, leading IASJ and other shareholders to deem management nonresponsive.

Management’s dismissive response to the shareholder resolution drew public attention to another corporate governance issue at Wendy’s. Trian Partners, Peltz’s investment group, holds less than 20% of the stock but dominates the board’s leadership positions; Wendy’s is badly in need of independent directors.

IASJ and another shareholder group, Majority Action, led the charge for Peltz’s removal at the May 18 shareholder meeting. A number of public pension funds lined up in support of the no vote. The AFL-CIO Office of Investment included the “vote no” campaign in its 2022 Key Votes survey.


Social Doctrine

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine Part Seven
by Bill Droel

There are scores of books explaining Catholic social doctrine. The outline for many of them is a chronology of papal encyclicals (from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 On the Condition of Labor to Pope Francis’ 2020 On Social Friendship). Or the author might pick issues like peace, health care delivery, labor relations and the environment; quoting relevant official documents in each chapter.
The Church’s Best-Kept Secret by Mark Shea (New City Press [2020]; 16.95) is different. In 159 pages written for a popular audience, Shea reflects on four social principles, giving two chapters to each: the dignity of each life, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity. The encyclicals are referenced along the way. However, Shea prefers to illustrate the principles with lots of Scripture, some quotations from the early church and citations from C.S. Lewis (1898-1963).
Ethical consistency is Shea’s recurring theme. Some Catholics agree with our doctrine on some issues but not others. Other Catholics, including some bishops, claim to be consistent but mistakenly say one issue has greater moral weight than another. And some Catholics disingenuously claim to support Catholic doctrine, but they only use it to oppose policies or politicians they don’t like. “If your focus is on abortion, fine,” Shea writes. “But do not pretend to focus on it while actually spending your time and energy fighting against the Magisterium…and in favor of policies that harm the environment, fighting against a living wage and in favor of laissez faire capitalism.” The tone of The Church’s Best-Kept Secret is easy-going, not technical. But, as this riff shows, Shea can hammer points as needed.
There’s a difference between the world-as-it-is and “the way it is supposed to be,” Shea writes. Everyone has at least a dim notion of perfectibility, of a better situation, of the world as we hope it could be. He goes on to quote G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936): In the here-and-now people “do not differ much about what things they will call evil; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.” For example, some people justify torture during wartime (though doing so became harder in the United States after the publication of photos from Abu Ghraib Prison). Yes, says Shea, soldiers sometimes have to kill combatants in self-defense. But the moment an enemy becomes a prisoner, torture is absolutely forbidden “as gravely and intrinsically immoral.”
In the same way some people excuse abortion because in their calculus the unborn are less equal. “Hairsplitting arguments about when a fetus becomes a person are meaningless,” Shea says. Each person has a right to live “the whole of human life for the whole of life.”
Over and over, Shea insists that a moral person cannot say that one issue must take priority over others. Concern over 20 or more issues does not dilute or fracture the brand. Yes, “there is plenty of room…for specialization and focusing on specific issues and ills.” But, to make one issue morally higher than another is to make some people in some situations more equal than others. A moral person cannot deliberately excuse evil.
There is obviously imperfection in the world-as-it-is. Yet the moral person retains a vision of a world as it is supposed to be and consistently strives to lessen evil and enhance good. At the same time, Shea concludes, one must refrain from becoming a justice warrior in the sense that they presume to create a perfect world. Such a person will likely be ineffective. Always “begin where you are, and not where you are not,” he advises. You are inside a family, inside a voluntary group, in a union, at a protest or rally. Then challenge yourself and others to move a step outside your comfort zone.
Shea is not the last word on social action, its history, its principles and its current applications. Most readers will quarrel with him on some pages; which is a sign of a good book. The Church’s Best Kept Secret is fresh, accessible and challenging.

Droel is the author of What Is Social Justice (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

CLN presents to seminarians at CUA Theological College

This March, the Catholic Labor Network was invited to present on Catholic Social Teaching to the Social Justice Committee at the CUA Theological College. CLN Executive Director Clayton Sinyai reviewed the history of Catholic Social Teaching on labor and work, the historic impact of Catholic thought on American public policy, and the ABC’s of labor unions with the seminarians (pictured, with Fr. Martin Burnham).

The seminarians were intrigued to learn the role that Monsignor John Ryan played in the movement for minimum wage laws in the United States. Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Rerum Novarum argued that every worker was entitled to a living wage, and that if the labor market failed to provide for this, society should intervene. Msgr. Ryan, the bishops’ first Social Action Director, popularized the principles in Rerum Novarum by promoting public policies consistent with them. These included minimum wage laws (first at the state and later at the federal level) and laws protecting the right of workers to organize (the Wagner Act of 1935).

The College draws seminarians from across the country, and the seminarians had a rich discussion, combining what they learned in their theology classes with the economic and historical data in the presentation. Seminarian Michael Marincel later observed,

To integrate what I have learned about Thomistic Natural Law with what you discussed with us in your talk, because all the material goods of the world (things) are ultimately intended to meet the needs of people, if some people’s needs are not being met, and other people have far more than they need, we need to find ways to assure that the material goods of the world (things) get to those who are in legitimate need. It seems that unionization is one of the best ways to do this, because it allows more equal wages to come out of a conversation between employers and employees that is conducive to management and labor learning to relate to one another as real people with legitimate needs rather than just another cog in the system.

Social Justice committee leader Jack Kristensen saw a practical application for the discussion.

The talk helped me be aware of how Catholic Social Teaching on labor and work applies to people who work in a parish: that they need a healthy salary and enough time to be with their families and for rest. Also, I will probably be more aware of the services I use as a future pastor, making sure they are from companies that treat their employees and the environment according to Catholic Social Teaching principles.

The Catholic Labor Network was pleased to engage these future priests and looks forward to similar discussions at other seminaries.

Senate Cafeteria Workers Deserve Living Wage, Health Care

Will the Senate Act?

Last November, in a “card check” election validated by Fr. Martin Burnham, some 150 cooks, cashiers and utility workers in the Senate Cafeteria formed a union by joining UNITE HERE Local 23. Now these workers are fighting for a living wage and affordable health care – but will the Senate act to make it happen?

The workers in the Senate cafeteria serve Senators, their staff, and guests visiting the Capitol. They love their work, but many struggle to get by in the expensive Washington DC area. Many are paid the DC minimum wage or scarcely more, and premiums for the bare-bones health insurance are so costly that fewer than one in five workers participate in the employer-provided plan.

“I recently broke my hand and need hand surgery,” explained Anthony Thomas, a utility worker in the cafeteria kitchen. “But I don’t have health insurance because the company’s plan is expensive.”

The workers are employed by Restaurant Associates, the vendor that operates the Senate Cafeteria under contract with the Capitol building’s administration, known as “the Architect of the Capitol.” But their issue isn’t with the company – union research has established that the root problem is the contract itself. The cafeteria is no cash cow, and under terms of its current agreement Restaurant Associates simply can’t afford just wages. To fix this, the Senate needs to act.

The cafeteria workers have been rallying outside the Capitol, calling on the Architect of the Capitol to reissue the contract with terms that provide for just wages and benefits for workers. “At my current salary, I cannot afford the cost of everything going up this year—or even the cost of health insurance,” said cafeteria cook Ludwing Torres. “I want to stay in this job and earn enough to pay for gas, food, and rent in the DC area. We are waiting on the Senators to take action so we can afford to live a better, healthier life.”

The legislators ultimately run their own house. Recently a Catholic Labor Network delegation met with staff for Senator Amy Klobuchar, whose Rules and Administration Committee supervises the work of the Architect of the Capitol. We were told that the committee had directed Capitol staff to draw up alternatives for addressing the issue. That’s good news, but we aren’t there yet.

You can help. CLICK HERE to tell your Senator that the US Government should be a model employer, and that Senate Cafeteria workers deserve just wages and affordable health coverage.

Pope Francis continues this tradition of voicing strong support for organized labor

Ingrid Delgado of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops was scheduled to participate in a recent panel at the AFL-CIO on the legacy of Monsignor Higgins, but contracted covid. However, she shared her prepared remarks with the Catholic Labor Network:

Thank you so much for the opportunity to be here with you today. I am honored to join you at this event to honor Monsignor Higgins’ life and legacy. It is not lost on me that it is an incredible privilege for me to have the labor portfolio and be a small part of continuing his work at the USCCB.

The importance and effectiveness of unions personally touched my life through one of my closest friends, my son’s godmother, who is a teacher. I remember her going through a really difficult time with a situation that came up at work which caused her a great deal of anxiety and many sleepless nights. But I remember her calling me, feeling very thankful and relieved after a meeting during which her union rep accompanied her and advocated for her throughout a process that ultimately resulted in her favor. Because of her positive experience, I later joined the teachers’ union myself.

The Catholic Church has a long history of calling for workers’ rights and supporting union organizing. As many of you know, Catholic Social Teaching drives the Church’s advocacy efforts and, from its beginning, from its foundation, it has been rooted in workers’ rights. Catholics recognize Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum – or On the Condition of Labor – as the birth of Catholic Social Teaching, the first in a long and continuing series of papal documents on socio-economic problems. This letter to the Church throughout the world was published in 1891, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, and strongly reaffirmed the Church’s support of the right to organize and emphasized the need for a strong and effective labor movement. Since then and to this day, his successor popes have continued to echo this message.

Pope Francis continues this tradition of voicing strong support for organized labor. He called the right to unionize, “a fundamental right” when, in a message to the International Labour Organization last year, he said, “It is fundamental that the Church…support measures that correct unjust or incorrect situations that condition labour relations, completely subjugating them to the idea of ‘exclusion’, or violating the fundamental rights of workers.”

He compared trade unions to prophets when he stated that they are, “an expression of the prophetic profile of society.” He said, “Unions born and reborn every time that, like the biblical prophets, they give voice to those who do not have one, denouncing those who would ‘buy the poor … for a pair of sandals’ as the prophet (Amos) says, exposing the powerful who trample on the rights of the most vulnerable workers, defending the cause of foreigners, the least and the rejected.”

He said there is no good society without good unions.

And he wrote that, “people’s movements…are sowers of a new future, promoters of the change we need: to put the economy at the service of the people…”

But beyond continuing to reiterate the Catholic Church’s message of support for unionizing, Pope Francis has called Catholics to action. Just this past January, reflecting on Jesus and St. Joseph as carpenters, he said, “Today, we should ask ourselves what we can do to recover the value of work; and what contribution we can make, as the Church, so that work can be redeemed from the logic of mere profit and can be experienced as a fundamental right and duty of the person, which expresses and increases his or her dignity.”

Pope Francis regularly reminds us of the Church’s vision for a just economy that prioritizes people over profits. But, rather than speaking of it as an unattainable ideal, he has challenged us to reimagine how we can make it a reality. He has gone so far as to identify ideas from two economists, Mariana Mazzucato and Kate Raworth, as “prescient and relevant,” giving us hope that economies that work for all without leaving anyone at the periphery are no longer dismissible as idealistic or unrealistic.

Pope Francis also convoked young economists, entrepreneurs, and changemakers from around the world entrusting them to “change the current economy and give soul to the economy of tomorrow.” For two years, young professionals from the five continents have been gathering in small group dialogue as part of the Economy of Francesco – Francesco being St. Francis of Assisi, after whom Pope Francis chose his papal name. And when I say young, I mean young. I considered applying to join the culminating event in Assisi this upcoming September, and I am seriously too old. But what an exciting opportunity for the world to listen to the voices of young professionals, uplifted by the Pope, in their recommendations of how to genuinely and deeply reform the economic system.

For those of us who work at the USCCB, especially in the office of Domestic Social Development (or DSD), the Church’s support of organized labor is a significant part of our history. The National Catholic Welfare Conference, which was the USCCB’s predecessor, founded the Department on Social Action in 1919 as one of its original departments. While the name and scope changed a bit through time, it developed to what is now DSD. It is such a humble honor and privilege for us to continue Monsignor Higgins’ commitment to the rights of workers in today’s legislative context.

Our office takes the lead for the Conference on a long list of federal policy issues, including labor policy, before the three branches of government. Before the US Supreme Court, we filed an amicus brief in the Janus case in 2018. Before the legislative branch, the bishops are currently strong supporters of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. During infrastructure negotiations last year, the Conference called for long term job creation with a focus on adequate pay and decent working conditions, including a right to organize and resources for job training and apprenticeship programs. We encouraged members to avoid rewarding companies that engage in anti-competitive behavior and, instead, to favor various forms of employee ownership and profit sharing. We called attention to proposals such as quality and affordable childcare options, paid sick leave, and parental leave as ways to support working families.

While dignity of work might seem like only one of many issues our office monitors, there is great synthesis among all of our priorities. For example, our advocacy in favor of accessible and affordable housing and healthcare, including mental health care, greatly impacts workers. We also actively advocate in favor of strengthening child nutrition programs, consumer protection, reentry programs, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit.

As our office takes the lead on behalf of the bishops to advocate at the federal level, State Catholic Conferences take the lead on state policy. Up until last summer, I had the privilege of working for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops where we were very active on state legislation regarding wage theft, immigrant justice, predatory lending, human trafficking, and farmworker conditions.

The USCCB also supports the labor movement through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development which helps fund organizations advancing community building, organizing, and worker owned cooperatives. Additionally, Catholic Charities partners with unions for job placement, job training, and have collaborated with them for food distribution efforts during COVID.

The Catholic Church and the Catholic Bishops continue to be firmly committed to workers’ rights. It has now been over 130 years since Pope Leo XIII penned the open letter to the Church that cemented the Church’s alliance with the worker movement. And as long as there continue to be economic and labor injustices, the Church and those of us who work for her will continue to walk in Monsignor Higgins’ example, supporting organized labor and working towards a just economy. We look forward to continuing to do that alongside all of you. Thank you.


Shareholder Showdown at Wendy’s

Sisters’ supply chain resolution leads to call for no vote on Chairman Peltz

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and their campaign to compel Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program. On May 12 the CIW brought activists to the doors of Wendy’s Board Chair Nelson Peltz on Park Avenue in NYC, calling once again for Wendy’s to do the right thing for farmworkers (pictured). And tomorrow we will witness a shareholder showdown as social justice-minded investors call for a no vote against Peltz and his team at Wendy’s HQ.

The story began in 2021 when the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany filed a shareholder resolution urging Wendy’s to look into possible labor abuses in its supply chain. McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast food chains participate in the Fair Food Program, under which they purchase tomatoes only from growers that have signed on to a fair labor code of conduct. Wendy’s, the lone holdout, refuses to participate in the Fair Food Program. Given the abuses rampant in farm labor, it was fair for the Sisters to ask Wendy’s management: What are you doing to prevent forced labor and exploitation in your supply chain? Fully 95% of shareholders voted for the resolution.

But Wendy’s corporate leadership, dominated by Nelson Peltz and his investment firm Trian Partners, did not seriously address the questions in the shareholder resolution – tough questions about whether and how Wendy’s employed third-party monitoring and enforcement of labor standards. Instead it ignored input from shareholder activists and produced a feel-good “corporate social responsibility” report.

In response, activist investors are calling for a vote against Nelson Peltz and his team at tomorrow’s annual shareholder meeting. Stay tuned!

Blessing of new Teamsters officers in Washington DC

We all need God’s blessing in our work – especially those of us who serve in elected office, including union office. On May 11, in a beautiful ceremony at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington DC, the newly elected leaders of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters sought God’s blessing as they took up their responsibilities. At the Cathedral’s midday Mass rector Monsignor Ronald Jameson was joined by area labor priest Fr. Brian Jordan as he blessed recently sworn in General President Sean O’Brien and General Secretary-Treasurer Fred Zuckerman. O’Brien, who comes to Washington from Teamsters Local 25, is a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi in Boston; Zuckerman, from Local 89 in Louisville, is a parishioner at St. Timothy in Hebron, Kentucky.

The blessing read:

God of power and might, wisdom and justice,

through you, authority is rightly administered,

laws are enacted and judgment is decreed.


Assist with your spirit of counsel and fortitude

the President and Secretary-Treasurer of the

International Brotherhood of Teamsters,

that their administration may be conducted in righteousness,

and be eminently useful to their members

over whom they preside.

May they encourage due respect for virtue and religion.

May they execute the union laws and regulations

with justice and mercy.


And may we all be preserved in union and in that peace

which the world cannot give,

and after enjoying the blessings of this life,

be admitted to those which are eternal.


We pray to you, who are Lord and God, for ever and ever.



Higgins Legacy Events Now Available on Video

In the first days of May, the Catholic Labor Network teamed up with the Archdiocese of Washington and the AFL-CIO to mark 20 years since the passing of legendary “labor priest” Monsignor George Higgins. Higgins, who hailed from Chicago, came to Washington DC to serve as Social Action Director for the nation’s bishops in the late 20th century and became a fixture on picket lines and at union halls. He was the living link between the American Church and the American labor movement in those years, regularly instructing the faithful in Catholic Social Teaching through his “Yardstick” columns in the Catholic press.

The first event was a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Wilton Gregory. Higgins passed away on May 1, 2002 – 20 years ago on the international labor holiday recognized by the Church as the Feast of St Joseph the Worker. On Sunday May 1, 2022 Cardinal Gregory recalled Higgins’ memory and greeted California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski, leading a delegation representing the labor movement. Fr. Evelio Menjivar, a DC-area “labor priest”, served as homilist, noting Jesus’ ministry to workers and how this informed more than a century of Catholic Social Teaching. CLICK HERE to view the video of the Mass.

The next day AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler and CLN Board member Patti Devlin welcomed a panel that explored Monsignor Higgins’ legacy at the AFL-CIO. Fr. Clete Kiley, as moderator, introduced the topic with reflections on Higgins and the Chicago environment that produced him and other “labor priests” of his era. He then introduced the three panelists: Fr. Evelio, Dr. Meghan Clark of St. John’s University, and Chuck Hendricks of UNITE HERE. Fr. Menjivar spoke of the pastoral role that priests play in accompanying workers in their pursuit of justice, while Dr. Clark pointed out how unions protected the dignity of all workers and fostered their participation in the workplace. And in a moving testimony, Hendricks related how his organizing career informed his faith journey to lead him into the Catholic Church. (Ingrid Delgado of the USCCB was scheduled to participate – although she had to stay home due to illness, but shared her prepared remarks.)  CLICK HERE to view the video of the panel presentation.

A memory to be honored and a legacy to be continued

On May 2, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler introduced a panel exploring the career and legacy of “labor priest” Monsignor George Higgins. She told the assembled:

Hello everyone! I’m Liz Shuler, President of the AFL-CIO, and it’s my privilege to welcome you to the House of Labor. We are honored to have you with us as we mark the 20th anniversary of Monsignor George Higgins passing and celebrate his legacy with today’s panel, “The Labor Movement and the Catholic Church Then and Now.”

On behalf of the AFL-CIO, I want to thank the Catholic Labor Network … for making this event possible.

Looking at everyone who has come together today – and I see a lot of familiar faces out there, like AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Elissa McBride – we can see the true impact Monsignor Higgins had on our movement.

He really was “Labor’s Priest.” He dedicated his life to bringing the labor and faith communities together. And … wherever working people were lifting their voices…from the vineyards of California to the coal fields of Harlan, Kentucky… Monsignor Higgins was there.

He brought his ministry to local union halls, to picket lines, and even right here to the House of Labor. And everywhere he went he fought for policies people now take for granted: workers’ compensation, overtime pay, health and safety laws, our rights to organize and so much more.

And his impact is still felt whenever working people find the courage to proclaim our dignity and worth as human beings and children of God, from athletic fields to production shops and from Mexcio’s auto plants to Starbucks coffee shops.

As we mark this anniversary, I’d like to read from the AFL-CIO Executive Council statement issued shortly after his passing:

Msgr. George Higgins was the unsurpassed standard-bearer of his Church’s solidarity with underprivileged and average working families … the 20th Century’s leading advocate of a religion/labor alliance on their behalf … and the inspiration for a new generation of faith champions of worker rights.

 [He] was consistently at the side of workers, be they farm workers, auto workers or hospital workers, when they needed a clear, strong, strategic voice calling for respect and dignity on the job…

We need to remember this lifetime carefully, not simply as a memory to be honored, but a legacy to be continued.

So today, we gather to recommit to carrying on his legacy – one that recognizes that solidarity is the core value of our movement and the root of Catholic scripture.

We are unified through not just an economic vision, but also a moral vision of justice for the greater good.

I am proud to say that here at the AFL-CIO, where we represent more than 12.5 million people in 57 unions, we are recommitting to our coalition between faith and labor by forging new partnerships in communities across the country.

We are going to follow First Thessalonians, and “encourage one another and build each other up.”

That is, in fact, what unions do. It’s what both of our movements do.

Together, the labor movement and our faith partners can be the most powerful forces for progress in the United States… not just for union members, but for everyone. And we’re going to talk all about how we can continue to join forces today.

We have a great line up for you, including our panel moderator  Father Clete Kiley of UNITE HERE and the Archdiocese of Chicago, and our panelists:

  • Father Evelio Menjivar from the Archdiocese of Washington
  • Meghan Clark, from St. John’s University
  • Chuck Hendricks of UNITE HERE and the Catholic Labor Network…and last but not least
  • Ingrid Delgado from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Thank you all for being here.

I am also honored to share the stage with my beloved sister Patti Devlin from the Laborers International Union of North America, who will speak on behalf of the Catholic Labor Network.

Patti, the floor is yours.

Unions have always been a crucial part of participation by workers

The Catholic Labor Network and the AFL-CIO recently hosted a panel on the legacy of “labor priest” Monsignor George Higgins. Theologian Meghan Clark of St. John’s University reflected on the dignity of labor and the role of unions in fostering worker participation.

Thank you, Fr. Clete – and thank you to both the Catholic Labor Network and the AFL-CIO for inviting me to be part of this moment of reflection and celebration of Msgr Higgins and the relationship between the Labor Movement and the Catholic Church.

It is a personal pleasure to be here – my grandmother, a librarian, became a union organizer. The director at her library had become increasingly erratic and dictatorial. A welcoming community center had been transformed into a hostile work environment. Teaming up with the local teacher’s union, she began to organize the librarians to seek justice and participation. On the day that I was born, they held the official vote to unionize. In the same day, she became a union leader and a grandmother.  (She waited the day to come see me in the hospital to be at and work the vote, they voted for a union and she became president).

For my grandmother, as for many of you here, her work with the union was deeply connected to her faith. This connection was obvious to Msgr Higgins, for whom working with labor unions was his ministry (and it is an honor to be on this dais with two labor priests who carry on that legacy). Msgr Higgins would often talk about the “unbroken” support for workers’ rights to unionize in Catholic social teaching and the Church’s understanding that if we look at the historical record, workers can’t defend their rights without unions.

During the Industrial Revolution, Catholic social teaching as we now know it began precisely because the Church needed to address the worker question – it needed to take a stand on unions. The rise of factories and industrial labor radically changed the way in which men, women, and then – children “worked” and this fundamental change brought with it new forms of exploitation, inequality, and inadequate social protection. Here in the United States – archbishop Gibbons in Baltimore and others found themselves asking what to do about Catholics who wanted to join unions –- – Rerum Novarum was the answer and in it Leo XIII firmly and unequivocally put the moral weight of the Roman Catholic Church behind the worker’s right to unionize.

The Church and the Labor Movement have collaborated and strengthened each other through many ups and downs in the ensuing hundred and thirty-two years. This collaboration has been seen in the legacy of Msgr Higgins and countless Labor priests, in the deep faith of labor leaders like Cesar Chavez, John Sweeney, and Richard Trumpka.

As a Theologian, I’d like to propose in my brief time left – continued collaboration in the future is important for the Labor movement and is essential for the Church – and I want to highlight two elements of this relationship – the dignity of work and the centrality of participation to justice.

Dignity of Work

American society has a complicated relationship to “work.” When I ask my students to describe what comes to mind when they hear the words work, labor, or job…their immediate response is tied to wages, struggle, and a career. Good work and good jobs are often limited to the question of salaries – and salaries often bear no correlation to contribution to the common good.   The pandemic has revealed something the Labor movement has long understood – – some of the most essential jobs for our common life together are those that receive inadequate wages, protections, and fail to be understood as “good work.”  Here perhaps Catholic social teaching can redirect our public discourse towards an appreciation of the dignity of work. Work is not just how we “earn our bread” but it is how we are co-creators with God. In 2017, Pope Francis referred to work as a form of “civil love.”

John Paul II drew this out in his encyclical Laborem Exercens/On Human Work — work is for the human person, not the human person for work, for this reason, Catholic theology strongly maintains the priority of labor over capital. Similarly, over the last decade, Pope Francis has repeatedly called our attention to the problem of youth unemployment around the world –even in places with strong social protection – the lack of dignified work is a problem because it is through work we inhabit and develop our dignity.

In his January 2022 Angelus series on St. Joseph, Pope Francis noted that “Work is an essential component of human life, and even of the path of sanctification. Work is not only a means of earning a living, it is also a place where we express ourselves, feel useful and learn the great lesson of concreteness, which helps keep the spiritual life from becoming spiritualism.” (Jan 12).

This broader vision of the person  – the who and why of the dignity of work that Catholic social teaching offers to the Labor Movement. It is a vision that does not shy away from examining the changing nature of work in the twenty first century, does not only pull from the past but looking to a future and world that does not yet exist — as Leo XIII called for in Rerum Novarum (and as evidenced in Msgr Higgin’s ministry) – seeks to look @ the world as it truly is, and look beyond for solutions to its most pressing social problems. (RN14)

One place where the Church and the Labor movement can work together more is in developing a greater sense of global solidarity within our living out the dignity of work. In response to the Financial Crisis, Benedict XVI called on labor unions to think more globally: “the global context in which work takes place also demands that national labor unions, which tend to limit themselves to defending the interests of their registered members, should turn their attention to those outside their membership, and in particular to workers in developing countries where social rights are often violated.” (64)   This is something the AFL-CIO is committed to through its participation host of global union federations as well as the ILO.

 Justice as Participation

The last 20 years have been dominated in the US by significant anti-union legislation scattered around the country – these impact wages, benefits, and worker protections BUT it also manifests in lack of a voice for workers – Effective participation in shaping one’s working conditions and culture only happens when workers are able to come together. participation is about the inclusion of each, yes, but this only happens by coming together – participation is always relational and it is central not only to democracy but economic justice.

Unions have always been a crucial part of participation by workers…and the US Bishop’s 1986 pastoral, Economic justice for all goes so far as to define justice as participation, highlighting the importance of unions not just in securing fair wages and benefits but about having a voice, participation in decision making.

 It is this positive role of participation – which led my own grandmother to become a union organizer – out of concern not merely for their working conditions but the importance of a library as a welcoming and inclusive community space. It was a participation in the common good of the whole community. Unionization should not be reduced simply to a utilitarian calculus about wages and benefits (despite their deep importance) but also about this sense of that part of the dignity of work is participation in the bigger questions of the institutions within which we labor.

It is my contention that on this point the Church needs the Labor Movement to help it remember this particular aspect of justice and the dignity of work. I am a university professor in a unionized faculty (a member of the American Academy of University Professors – AAUP) – which is rare. It is deeply disturbing how often we see examples of Catholic schools fighting their worker’s attempts to unionize, whether they be contingent faculty or food service workers – time and time again we are seeing Catholic institutions seemingly forgetting our own teaching on worker’s rights.  Here is one place where for me, as a theologian, the relationship between the labor movement and the Catholic church is so crucial – – and can hopefully continue to call members of the church to embrace its own theological commitments more fully.


I conclude today with gratitude for all the work Msgr Higgins did in his ministry, for the work that continued over the last twenty years, and in hope for what the next decades might bring. I hope that it will be one in which both the Catholic Church and the Labor Movement will continue to be partners in the commitment to the dignity of work and for the common good of all. Thank you.