This year some Ohio legislators proposed excluding undocumented workers from workers’ compensation protections. Not so fast, said the Ohio AFL-CIO and the Buckeye state’s Catholic bishops. Both joined the chorus community groups, immigrant organizations, safety advocates and others fighting this unfortunate and counterproductive proposal. (Since workers’ compensation insurance premiums are based on a company’s claims history, forbidding undocumented workers from filing claims would create an incentive to hire more of them!) Congratulations to the Ohio labor movement and Church for this important act of witness.
Catholic social justice advocates are well familiar with the concept of “sanctuary,” from its ancient expression in Mosaic Law, to the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s that protected refugees fleeing violence in Latin America, to the present movement for “sanctuary cities” that prioritize protecting immigrants over deporting the undocumented. Now labor journalist David Bacon has published an article about how unions are working to make the workplace a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.
Perhaps most interesting are the efforts to bargain protective language into contracts. Bacon describes how the hotel workers’ union in Oakland, UNITE HERE Local 2850, is seeking contract language requiring employers to notify the union immediately in the event of an immigration raid – and to deny ICE agents access to the premises if they lack a warrant. CLICK HERE to read Fighting for the Sanctuary Workplace: Unions Mobilize to Protect Undocumented Workers in its entirety.
In April, Cardinal Blase Cupich delivered an important address at Loyola University Chicago, reflecting on the legacy of his famous predecessor Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Bernardin had earned fame in some circles – and notoriety in others – for promoting the idea of a consistent ethic of life that bound together Catholic teaching on life issues such as abortion, euthanasia, war and the death penalty. By insisting on preserving the integrity of Catholic teaching against the tides of political division, Bernardin called on us to make sure our faith identity, not our partisan attachments, came first in our lives. Cardinal Cupich, reflecting on the signs of the times, told his listeners:
I am convinced that just as Cardinal Bernardin proposed that an ethic of life be consistently applied to unite all life issues, we need in our day to mine the church’s social teaching on solidarity… an ethic of solidarity, consistently applied to the full range of issues that impact our human living, has the potential of reshaping the debate at a time the nation and the world are deeply divided, and vulnerable to influences that only deepen the fears at the heart of that division.
A “consistent ethic of solidarity” linking our concern with the unborn, the immigrant, and the displaced worker holds great promise as a form of Christian witness in our polarized political climate. Cardinal Cupich’s address was published in Commonweal in May; our friend Michael Sean Winters offered a thoughtful commentary in his Distinctly Catholic blog at the National Catholic Reporter.
Our friends in the United Farm Workers and the National Farm Workers Ministry are urging support for the Agricultural Workers Program Act, a bill designed to help the workers who harvest our foods secure legal residency. The bill, submitted to Congress in May, would enable undocumented workers who can demonstrate they have worked 100 days in US agriculture for two years can obtain a “blue card” conferring legal status. Law-abiding farmworkers who continue to work in agriculture would eventually be able to earn a green card and permanent legal residency. These men and women, whose backbreaking labor feeds all of us, deserve our protection. CLICK HERE to email your legislative representatives to support this bill.
The Working Catholic
by William Droel
An imprecise distinction can be made between the working poor and the poor; between episodic poverty and persistent poverty; between functional poverty and totally debilitating poverty. Matthew Desmond compelling portrays the downward slide from “stable poverty” to “grinding poverty” in his study of housing in Milwaukee, titled Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Penguin Random House, 2016). Although several interdependent factors weave in and around his report, Desmond shows that eviction causes poverty (not the other way around). Further, eviction is contagious—each one dragging relatives and neighbors into deeper poverty. And, each eviction degrading nearby housing and putting stress on nearby institutions.
From one perspective those working poor who slide into deep poverty can be faulted. Some of them abuse drugs; some choose irresponsible sexual partners; some physically attack a partner or friend and some are into petty crime. Desmond is upfront about self-defeating behavior, including buying premium food items rather than staples, investing too much in pets (or in one case, keeping a cat with an asthmatic child), and seeking advice (legal, parenting or spiritual advice) from people who obviously have failed. However, Desmond is patient as he explores the psychology of those on the margin, that tenuous area between working poverty and desperate poverty, between unpleasant housing and eviction.
He finds “a hazy depression” on the downside of that divide. Eviction saps confidence and convinces people that they are destined to be poor forever. Those sliding down are overtaken by small tangible problems and lose any appetite for political agency. A righteous observer, including an elected official or a minister in Desmond’s story, can say that a person is poor because she frivolously spends her money on steak or lobster. The other way around is probably more accurate: The person spends frivolously because she is poor.
Desmond goes inside the daily experience of landlords—vividly in one case. This woman is intelligent and clocks many hours. She is enterprising, acquiring her first 36 rental units within four years. She uses each property as collateral for a loan on the next. She is compassionate in some situations, or so it can seem.
Yet, the landlord welcomes each new tenant to one or another apartment that has a door off its hinges and/or a cracked window and/or serious plumbing issues and/or mold and/or furnace problems. Why? First, as Desmond explains, because landlords (at least in Milwaukee) are “allowed to rent units with property code violations…as long as they were upfront about the problems.” Second, because landlords know it is “cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties.” The eviction court processing fee is $89.50. Third, these landlords can sometimes make more money from an eviction (by way of penalties and a lien, for example) than from collecting delinquent rent. This is why some landlords, including one of Desmond’s main subjects, do not screen out apartment seekers who have prior evictions or misdemeanors. Though it is counter-intuitive, there is “a business model at the bottom of every market.” Providing housing for the poor is only a sideline in the model that Desmond details.
The essential character of Desmond’s principal landlord, along with the nature of this business, is gradually revealed. Early in the book she is whining about a tenant who is $30 short on monthly rent. She is more disturbed, however, because of an earlier “bad job for the painting.” The tenant, the reader learns, is disabled. At one point the landlord agrees to forgive $260 in back rent in exchange for painting the apartment. Upon inspection, the landlord reneges on the agreement with a passive-aggressive sentence containing two profane adjectives. Eventually, the tenant is evicted.
What this landlord says about her purchases of foreclosed houses applies to her attitude toward tenants: “You know, if you have money right now, you can profit from other people’s failures.” Yet for all her aggravation and irregular hours, this landlord gains unappealing rewards: a modest home and occasional gambling excursions to the Caribbean.
These predatory landlords, famously including Jared Kushner (see N.Y. Times Magazine, 5/28/17), are impervious to moralizing. They are part of a larger business and a culture that, as Desmond explains, goes back to the late 1400s. In the modern economy “piles of money [can] be made by creating slums” and thereby compounding poverty. Through the detailed stories of a handful of Milwaukee individuals, Desmond opens readers’ minds to the bigger dynamics of real estate and poverty.
Are there alternatives to exploitative rent situations? A subsequent blog will present some positive examples.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.
The big news in Catholic employment relations this month: Fordham University President Joseph McShane, SJ announced that out of respect for Catholic social teaching on the rights of workers the university would not oppose their adjuncts if they wished to form a union and bargain collectively.
Adjunct faculty at universities across the United States, Catholic and secular, have sought to form unions in recent years to remedy low pay, poor benefits, and job insecurity. Some Catholic universities, such as Georgetown and Trinity Washington, have adopted a neutral stance, leaving the decision to the workers themselves – a stance conforming with Church teaching on the right of workers to join trade unions. Others, however, such as nearby Manhattan College, have refused to recognize and bargain with adjunct unions – and then invoked First Amendment protections to escape legal consequences, seeking to associate “union avoidance” practices with the preservation of religious freedom.
Fordham adjuncts and administrators spent the spring in tense confrontations over the instructors’ union aspirations, and it often seemed that Fordham would follow the example of Manhattan, Duquesne and other schools denying employees their right to organize. But instead, after a long process of discernment, Fr. McShane announced in an email:
After much consultation and reflection, I have decided that the University will not oppose the unionization of adjunct faculty. As you receive this email, we have initiated discussion with the union over the University adopting a stance of neutrality regarding the organization of our adjunct faculty.
I have become convinced of the rightness of this course of action over the last few months by conversations with my fellow Jesuits. After all, organized labor has deep roots in Catholic social justice teachings. And though this is an issue that many universities are facing—not all of which have come to the same decision—given its Jesuit traditions and historic connection to first-generation and working-class students, Fordham has a special duty in this area.
(The complete text of the email can be found online courtesy of Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative.) We at the Catholic Labor Network applaud Fr. McShane and the Fordham administration on this important decision, and the witness it offers to Catholic business leaders nationwide. We fervently hope and pray that this begins a new chapter in labor relations at the university, one of mutual respect and cooperation for the common good.
In other news: The NLRB has announced that Manhattan University adjunct faculty voted 59-46 for union representation! Well, it may not be “news” news – the faculty voted in 2011, but the Manhattan administration’s legal arguments kept the ballots impounded for six years. Now that Manhattan knows that its adjunct instructors want union representation, will they honor their employees’ choice? Perhaps the vote results, and events at Fordham, will provide the Manhattan administration aids to discernment as well.
In 1974, Congress passed ERISA – the Employee Retirement Income Security Act – to protect worker pensions from employer default. Under ERISA, employers need to set aside money in a trust fund to cover future pension checks, so innocent retirees don’t get hurt if their employer has an unexpected cash crunch, or even goes bankrupt.
Congress exempted “church plans” from the law, an exemption that Catholic hospitals also claimed. Unfortunately, a number of Catholic hospitals have used that exemption to skimp on necessary pension contributions for their nurses, techs and other staff. Their retirement trusts are woefully underfunded, and some hospital workers have sued, arguing that hospitals are not churches and must meet ERISA funding requirements.
In Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, a decision that also covered Dignity Healthcare of California and St. Peter’s of NJ, the court unanimously agreed that Catholic and other religiously-affiliated hospitals are exempt from ERISA. Some are celebrating Advocate Health Care v. Stapleton for as an important legal victory for religious freedom. Be it so: but what lesson are lay business leaders taking from this? That it’s OK to raid your workers’ pension fund if you can get away with it?
Too many executives at for-profit corporations are already disposed to do anything the law allows to their workers or consumers, just or not, if it boosts profits. Unless Catholic employers model better behavior, they are Catholic in name only.
On May 27, Pope Francis visited Genoa’s ILVA steel works, addressing managers, steelworkers, and unemployed members of the community about Christian values and business operations. Francis praised Christian business leaders who treated workers with justice and respect, but feared that creative entrepreneurship was giving way to speculation. Crux reported:
“An illness of the economy is the progressive transformation of businessmen into speculators,” Francis said. “A speculator is a figure similar to what Jesus in the gospels called “money-changers” as opposed to pastors. He doesn’t love his company or his workers, but they’re solely a means for making profits. He fires people, relocates the company, because it’s instrumentalized and eats up people and products.”
The Pope also insisted that work is essential to human flourishing, so we must address technological unemployment in a way that preserves work for all, not just income. As Vatican Radio summarized:
“It is necessary, therefore, to look fearlessly and a sense of responsibility on the technological transformations of the economy and of life, he said, “without resigning ourselves to the ideology that seems to be gaining a foothold wherever one looks, which envisions a world in which only a half or maybe two-thirds of employable people actually work, and the others maintained with a welfare cheque.”
“It must be clear,” Pope Francis continued, “that the true objective to reach is not ‘income for all’ but ‘work for all’.”
The Texas AFL-CIO has spent months trying to stop SB4, a bill forbidding local police departments from following “sanctuary” policies. They prepared this video to explain why:
Phil Murray belongs on the short list of any Catholic union activist’s heroes alongside Cesar Chavez and Msgr. John Ryan. The devoutly Catholic immigrant Pennsylvania coal miner would leave his own union (the United Mineworkers) in the 1930s to lead organizing efforts in the steel industry, creating the United Steelworkers Union (which celebrated its 75th birthday on May 22!). Murray also served as the leader of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO in AFL-CIO).
During the 1940s Murray pressed (unsuccessfully) for a system of industry councils where labor organizations and employers could meet and cooperate, a system of industrial democracy based in large part on his reading of the Papal Social Encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. After World War II, Murray played an important role in labor’s campaign for civil rights. Murray’s papers reside in the Catholic University of America Archives – to learn more about Murray, check out A Pennsylvania Scot in Big Labor’s Court by CUA Archivist William Shepherd.