The Working Catholic: Wages

The Working Catholic: Wages
by Bill Droel

The living wage movement improves family life for targeted workers but has little spillover effect on wages, employment rates or poverty in the wider region, concludes researcher Benjamin Sosnaud in Social Service Review (1427 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637).
In June 1993 BUILD (2439 Maryland Ave., Baltimore, MD 21218; www.buildiaf.org) launched what is considered the first living wage campaign. It came out of frustration over the federal minimum wage; fixed at $7.25 since 2009. Many leaders in BUILD, active in their churches, observed growing use of church-based soup kitchens and pantries by the working poor. These church members concluded that minimum wage jobs at $7.25 were not sufficient to escape poverty. Since the 1993 campaign, several cities, towns or counties have enacted an ordinance that requires a living wage for its own employees and those of its contractors. However, a living wage ordinance leaves the federal minimum in place for other workers and, as Sosnaud details, it does not encourage other employers to improve wages.
Thanks to Fight for $15 (www.fightfor15.org) and to several other groups the positives of the living wage campaign are now extended. A national restaurant chain, for example, can agree to raise the minimum for all its workers. And notably, there are campaigns to raise the minimum across the board in specific locales. In fact, at least 37 cities or counties, plus California and New York have a local minimum wage that supersedes the federal. Similar legislation is pending in four more states.
Contrary to the Republican philosophy of local control, several Republican-dominated state legislatures are blocking state or municipal wage ordinances with what is called preemption bills. The pushback includes attempts to reverse existing wage ordinances.

Add a longstanding Catholic term to this discussion: a family wage. This concept somewhat differs from federal minimum wage, living wage and local wage. Saint John Paul II (1920-2005), among several Catholic commentators, defines a family wage as “a single salary given to the head of the family…sufficient for the needs of the family without the spouse having to take up gainful employment outside the home.” Interestingly, even though the family wage principle is found in official Church documents, it is mostly a contribution from the United States. It was promoted by Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945) of Minnesota. See for example his book, A Living Wage, MacMillan, 1906.
Nowadays, Catholic moralists have backed away from the family wage in favor of calls for job training, tax reform, affordable day care and wage increases. That’s because proposals for a family wage sound sexist. In itself the principle does not say only men should work outside the home and women must be full-time homemakers. It does not say that a family wage cannot be supplemented with the earnings of the second parent. Further, it applies equally to single-parent families. In some applications of the family wage certain allotments count toward the total. For example, several countries have a family allowance program in recognition of children as a social resource. These allotments are not related to the family’s regular income; they are not like welfare.

Those who desire justice might focus on one or more issues: real estate practices, civil liberties for gays, social service delivery, criminal court reform, treatment of mentally ill and many more topics. In Catholicism justice begins and ends with wages. “In every case a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system,” writes John Paul II.

Take a hospital as one example. Its managers and board members are good people who contribute to the wider community whenever possible. Its workers sign-on with eyes wide open. Communication throughout the hospital flows as openly as possible. Employee birthdays are routinely celebrated. The hospital matches employee contributions to a pension plan to a degree. Grievances are treated seriously. There is, all things considered, a minimum of gossip. The wages for some workers, however, do not meet the criteria of a living wage or a family wage. Keep in mind: everyone has good intentions—administrators, supervisors, janitors, technicians, security guards, everyone. That hospital, Catholicism says, is operating unjustly and contributing to an unjust economy… Wait a minute.
Moralizing is counter-productive. The hospital in this example is part of insurance reimbursement systems with rates that don’t always cover the hospital expenses. In fact, our hypothetical hospital serves many poor patients whose insurance is minimal. The excellent doctors and nurses at our hospital are free to take their services to a “competitor.” Our hospital does not control costs for new equipment. In other words, to achieve just wages many sectors of the economy must improve. One executive here and another there can lead by example, but each is powerless without efforts across the industry and maybe around the globe.
Moralizing is worthless. Justice starts this afternoon with a small group. The ripples of justice gradually find one another to eventually form a tidal wave. Meanwhile, tomorrow afternoon another small group devises a plan for improvement and likewise seeks other groups interested in their plan.

Droel is editor of John Paul II’s Gospel of Work (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $8)

Catholic Labor Network Calls on St. Martin’s University to bargain with adjunct union

The adjunct instructors at St. Martin’s University have made clear that they want to be represented by a labor union and bargain collectively with their employer, a right expressly protected in Catholic social teaching. The university administration has refused to do so, arguing that bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act would constitute an assault on their religious liberty.

Although many other Catholic colleges and universities, such as Georgetown, Trinity Washington and Saint Louis University, have bargained with adjunct employee unions under these conditions without incident, the adjuncts —  not wishing to place a stumbling block (1 Cor 8:9) in the administrators’ path — offered to bargain outside the framework of the Act as many Catholic K-12 schools do. Sadly, the administration has refused to do this as well.

The Catholic Labor Network recently addressed a letter to President of St. Martin’s, urging him to reconsider. CLICK HERE to read the letter.

 

Saint Louis University, adjuncts reach first contract; St. Martin’s refuses to bargain

Congratulations to Saint Louis University and its adjuncts! A little more than a year after adjunct instructors voted for union representation by SEIU Local 1, the two sides negotiated a tentative contract in late April. Saint Louis University has joined Georgetown, Trinity Washington and other Catholic colleges and universities that demonstrate their commitment to Catholic Social Teaching by bargaining with unions their employees have chosen. Some other schools, however, seem to look for ways to avoid compliance with Catholic teaching on the rights of workers.

SLU, Georgetown and Trinity have found no contradiction between exercising their faith and bargaining with unions under the National Labor Relations Act, but St. Martin’s has expressed concerns that doing so would endanger their religious liberty. The adjuncts, so as not to place a stumbling block in the administrators’ path (1 Cor 8:9), offered to bargain outside the framework of the Act as many Catholic K-12 schools do. The university has steadfastly refused.

The Catholic Labor Network recently addressed a letter to President of St. Martin’s, urging him to reconsider. You can find the letter posted HERE.

Layoffs at Privatized NJ Catholic Hospital

The Bergen County Record reports that St. Mary’s hospital is laying off 20 nurses and techs, members of JNESO, a regional healthcare union affiliated with the IUOE (International Union of Operating Engineers). The Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth established the Passaic NJ hospital more than a century ago, but in recent years it had struggled financially, paving the way for a sale. The controversial corporate hospital chain Prime Healthcare acquired ownership in 2015. Prime committed to honor the Ethical and Religious Directives guiding Catholic healthcare as a condition of the sale. As the Record reported:

News of the cuts comes during National Nurses Week, the largest event recognizing nurses and their contribution to health care. “It’s kind of like saying, ‘Thank you, you’re fired,’ ” said Doug Placa, executive director of JNESO District Council 1, the union representing more than 400 nurses and technicians at St. Mary’s.

The hospital blamed the state of New Jersey, saying that the state had reduced its support for the hospital’s Charity Care provided to the poor and uninsured.

(Hmm — I always thought when hospitals reported “charity care” on their balance sheets it was because they were providing care to the poor without payment, not that they were getting paid by the taxpayers. I guess at least at Prime that’s not the way it works.)

Common Good

The Working Catholic by Bill Droel

“Your sad story doesn’t obligate me or anybody else to pay for somebody else’s health care,” says a former Congressman from Illinois. He has apparently forgotten the definition of insurance (a hedge or cushion against risk), which is normally achieved by spreading the cost of a problem (a car accident, a fire, a surgery) among a more-or-less random pool of people. More importantly, this former legislator (now a radio commentator) and many others like him have forgotten an crucial part of moral philosophy.

Our United States culture prizes liberty. It is marvel the way our country’s founders and its citizens to this day have woven liberty into our laws, our civic affairs, our business practices, our expressions of faith and more. This is something new in the long history of civilization. We correctly invoke the virtue of liberty or freedom at sports events, in schools, in discussions of military deployment, in TV commercials, in policy debates and more. Frequently, however, we forget that liberty is a social virtue and that it is part of a constellation of other virtues. Instead, we too often equate liberty with ragged individualism.
Individualism is now the default position of our culture. It says that goodness is achieved when at the end of the day (or the end of the financial quarter or fiscal year) the greatest number of people gets the best results possible. The mechanism is individual choice. The maximum number of choices, says individualism, will somehow yield maximum benefits—though not for all people, but for the most people. This is a philosophy for lazy thinkers. It reduces liberty or freedom to choices or options. Should we install a dish or connect with cable? Should we marry or simply live together? Should we help one another with health insurance or allocate for our own family exclusively?
Individual liberty is an achievement, but individualism, particularly as currently presented by some ideologues in our society, is destructive. Yes to communitarian individuals; no to extreme individualism.

The principle of the common good recognizes that many important things cannot be obtained by individuals. Many good things can only be obtained in common: public safety, effective fire-fighting in urban areas, roads and airports, libraries (including all cyber-research), clean water and access to health care. No matter how wealthy the former Congressman might be, he cannot have all these good things unless he cooperates. In fact, many people never use an airport but their taxes subsidize the airport that the Congressman uses. Many never go to college, but taxpayers underwrote his education. His tuition did not fully cover the costs of running those schools.
The common good, which was always part of the United States experiment in democracy, complements the so-called free market and in fact it makes the market better. The common good is not reducible to the sum total of individual choices. It imposes considerations on those who are expressing an opinion and acting on a calculated choice. If we forget about the common good, we sooner or later lose society.
Of course, the common good does not give wholesale endorsement to the Affordable Care Act. It does not endorse Trump/Ryan Care. Reasonable citizens can reasonably differ about the delivery of health care. In fact, the common good does not even necessitate a health insurance system. Theoretically, normal health care (the requirement of the common good principle) could be inexpensively available to all if pharmaceutical executives, doctors, hospital administrators and others were paid the same wage as their patients.

The former Illinois Congressman, who lists himself as a Catholic, puts the matter of health care delivery under the virtue of compassion. “It is compassion for me to voluntarily help someone else,” he says. It is not a virtue for the government “to forcibly take the money I make.”
Here again, he and many others don’t realize that compassion or love is a commandment or a requirement. It is not merely optional. Likewise, he forgets to put compassion into the constellation of social virtues. For example, distributive justice is the virtue that obligates an authority, like the government, to allocate resources so that all have the common goods.

Extreme individualism is bad for our culture, bad for business, bad for United States image abroad and bad for legitimate debate about government meddling in health care, about tax incentives for domestic job creation, about improvements in education outcomes, about women’s reproductive health, about enforcing the civil rights of gays and lesbians, about reform inside civil service unions, about extraction and use of domestic natural resources. Extreme libertarians on the right and on the left are hurting our society.
From its earliest days, visitors to our country have been impressed with our teamwork, our sense of community, our voluntary associations, our inclusiveness and our collective dedication to the common good. We prosper and pursue our happiness to the extent that we pull together and that we refute mindless comments about “my own health care.”

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

April 28 – Workers’ Memorial Day

April 28, 2017 is observed across much of the world as Workers’ Memorial Day. On this day we pause to remember the millions of workers who give their lives each day planting and harvesting our food, building our homes and cars, paving our roads and shipping our goods. The International Labor Organization has estimated that more than 2 million workers each year die in traumatic accidents or from occupational diseases such as black lung, asbestosis and cancers caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Four years ago Pope Francis fixed our eyes on this issue with his sharp response to the Rana plaza disaster, when more than one thousand Bangladeshi garment workers were killed in a building collapse. But we don’t need to go to South Asia to find examples of this injustice. In America every year nearly 5,000 workers die from traumatic workplace injuries, and an estimated 50,000 from occupational diseases (cancers, heart disease and respiratory disorders caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals or other unhealthy working conditions).

Want details? Check out Death on the Job, the AFL-CIO’s annual report on worker safety and health.

May 1 – Feast of St. Joseph the Worker

America’s official Labor Day falls in September, but the world’s Labor Day is May 1. That includes the Church, which celebrates this day as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. This year’s Mayday is shaping up to be an especially active one, because immigrant workers have organized a day of walkouts, rallies and demonstrations to respond to recent executive actions targeting immigrants. The AFL-CIO and several national and local labor organizations have endorsed this action and provided critical support. How are you celebrating the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker? Share your plans in the comment section below!

Underfunding employee pensions: An exercise of religious freedom?

If you work for a secular employer, the DOL protects your pension from financial shenanigans.

America is being treated to another unedifying spectacle on the religious freedom v. worker justice front. Some Catholic hospital chains that have systematically underfunded their employees’ retirement plans are before the Supreme Court invoking religious freedom protections to evade accountability.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) protects the retirement of most private sector workers, requiring employers to set aside funds to cover their employees’ promised retirement benefits, so employees aren’t suddenly left destitute in their old age if the company runs into financial trouble. But Congress exempted church employee retirement plans from ERISA coverage – and for the past couple of decades, the IRS has permitted Catholic hospitals to claim this exemption.

If all Catholic hospitals had properly funded their retirement plans anyway – just because it’s good corporate governance and the right thing to do for your employees – there’d be nothing to see here. Unfortunately, some succumbed to the temptation to balance today’s budgets by reducing pension contributions or assuming unrealistic returns. Now Dignity Healthcare (formerly Catholic Healthcare West) has more than $1 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and employees have sued, demanding to be made whole. Dignity and two smaller religious hospital groups are in the Supreme Court arguing that religious freedom renders them untouchable.

Religious hospitals are hardly the only institutions to exhibit this weakness. Public employee retirement programs are also excluded from ERISA, and many state and local governments made similar irresponsible moves. And our efforts as Catholics to protect the boundaries of religious freedom are valid and important. But for heaven’s sake, this is poor evangelization. When Catholic employers invoke religious freedom to deny their employees the right to organize, or to bargain, or to receive promised retirement benefits, certainly no one in America is saying “see how they love one another.

Union News from Boston College, Loyola U. Chicago

BC TAs want UAW

In March graduate student research and teaching assistants at Boston College filed a petition to join the United Auto Workers union. This may sound peculiar at first glance, but in fact the UAW has organized among graduate student employees for many years. The union already represents TAs and RAs in the University of California/CSU systems, at New York University, Columbia University and even at the University of Massachusetts. The NLRB will set an election date and the student employees will have an opportunity to vote yes or no on the proposal.

This follows a February vote at the University of Loyola at Chicago, where the TAs and RAs voted to join the SEIU, which already represents the university’s adjunct instructors. In the case of the adjunct instructors, the NLRB recently ruled that while most of the faculty enjoy union rights under the National Labor Relations Act, the theology department is shielded from labor board jurisdiction under the religious freedom protections in the First Amendment. We in the Catholic Labor Network urge Loyola to bargain with the theology adjuncts anyway: Catholic Social Teaching protects workers’ right to organize, and that doesn’t go away just because we are fortunate enough to live under a government prizes religious freedom.

Resentment

The Working Catholic
by William Droel

Following each presidential election, a cottage industry of analysis appears—maps, tables, articles and books. This time around the industry is mansion-sized; it is huge, I tell you. Resentment is mentioned as a factor in some election commentaries. (Though written before the election, The Politics of Resentment by Jeremy Engels is particularly insightful.)
Resentment is unrefined reaction to loss. Let’s face it, things are dying—slowly or maybe quickly. Perhaps it is a fading dream parents have for their children; that their young adults will get a college degree and enjoy a professional career. Perhaps it is a lowered opinion one has for the neighborhood; the past was great, but not now. Perhaps it is the seemingly random illness afflicting one’s spouse. Perhaps it is even awareness of one’s own mortality.
When the grief that comes from such inevitable losses is left unprocessed, the door to resentment opens. Resentment, by the way, is new to the modern age. People have always bemoaned their situation and have long suspected that the rich or the good looking did something bad to have it better off. That is called jealously and envy. But resentment admires up and blames down.
Resentful thinking usually concludes that wealthy families worked hard, just as did those who mined natural resources, toiled in a factory, labored on a farm or tended to a town’s needs in an honest small business. Hard work is a common phrase in resentful thinking. And, according to the original dream, hard work yields success. And when it doesn’t, resentful thinking looks around (but generally does not look up) for a flaw. Resentment blames down. There is, this thinking continues, a group just below people like us that gets ahead undeservedly and even gets ahead at our expense. Left alone, resentment settles into low burn anger, a murky fear, a dragging suspicion. Every now and then it finds expression in the corner bar or at a family gathering. But left alone, resentment is incapable of building an organizational alternative to what feels wrong.
Resentment is like an addiction, explains Fr. Henri Nouwen (1932-1996). It is not an effective posture; it only pulls down. “Resentment is the paralyzed complaint,” he writes. It is parasitical because its anger is directed scattershot at institutions (the government, the media, the environmental movement, the church) “on which you have made yourself totally dependent without being able to do anything about it.”
Of course, local and national figures can play on a group’s resentment by promising a vague alternative to the status quo. However, no lasting reform policy or improved organization comes from the promise, only more alienation. When resentment gels around a public figure, it becomes more strident, righteous and pessimistic. It accomplishes the opposite of what it intends.

Resentment is not the only possible reaction to loss. The alternative is processed grief, creative forbearance and strategic anger or cold anger. It is a deliberate process of naming the loss and doing something good in order to give meaning to the seemingly senseless. It is, as young adults now say, paying it forward. This alternative, perhaps surprisingly, presupposes resentment’s opposite: gratitude. Dealing positively with loss is based on the belief that the world is an undeserved blessing. Gratitude comes from a confident belief that our common life makes sense, no matter how things turn out.
Gratitude, in this context, is not merely the child’s good habit of thanking people for kindnesses. It is not simply politeness. This is a public gratitude. It is a lifestyle, or better yet a culture, patterned on gift exchange or reciprocity. And although cynics do not see it, there is already a gratitude economy and gratitude politics weaving in and out and around our global capital economy. To be continued…

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