Christmas, So Soon?

The Working Catholic: Christmas So Soon?
by Bill Droel

The grocery store was more congested than usual this morning because Christmas has taken over two aisles—miniature lights, extension cords, wreaths, decorative boxes, greeting cards and wrapping paper. Plus there are several gift displays at the front and back of several aisles—trays of chestnuts/hazelnuts/pecans and holiday sausage plus winter ale, which I bought for Thanksgiving and which I’ll get more of later. My regular grocery cashier, who is also a floor manager, mentioned that she spent her first hour in a Christmas meeting: How to adequately staff for these next weeks, how many turkeys to order, etc. I had to also stop quickly at the drug store where the same items are prominent. (Yes, my drug store sells festive beer.) There is a radio station in Chicago that from November 3rd exclusively plays Christmas music until 11:59 P.M. on Christmas Eve.

Who started all this? Who invented Christmas?
One correct answer is Our Blessed Mother Mary. Another answer might be St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), who is credited with inventing, or at least popularizing, the Christmas Pageant. But Christmas in the sense of shopping, office parties, mounds of presents and the like is less than 175-years old.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was into a major writer’s block in 1843. His last three stories were duds and he was in debt. Walking the streets of Manchester that fall, Dickens thought about children and Christmas. Back home in London he wrote A Christmas Carol in a fury. The publisher didn’t like it. Dickens decided to pay for the publishing, thus increasing his debt. Of course, it took off and many editions and adaptations followed. The 1992 Muppet Christmas Carol is my favorite.
Dickens didn’t exactly invent Christmas. But Dickens “played a major role in transforming a celebration dating back to pre-Christian times, revitalizing forgotten customs and introducing new ones that now define the holiday,” writes Les Standiford in The Man Who Invented Christmas (Crown, 2011). Dickens “complimented the glorification of the nativity of Christ with a specific set of practices derived from Christ’s example: charity and compassion in the form of educational opportunity, humane working conditions and a decent life for all.” Dickens’ influence links “the birth of a holy savior into a human family to the glorification and defense of the family unit itself.”

Obviously, the themes of Christmas associated with the original Bethlehem setting, with St. Francis’ pageant and with A Christmas Carol can be lost in the frenzy of shopping. It is silly, however, for Christians to wage a culture war on behalf of our holy season. For example, no one needs the permission of President Donald Trump to greet anyone in friendship by saying “Merry Christmas.”
Instead of grousing about commercialism, why not use the weeks of Advent to implement Christmas themes in the neighborhood, in the workplace and in one’s family? In particular, why not—as many people already do—use these days to fight poverty, even with small gestures? Pope Francis declares November 19, 2017 as World Day for the Poor. Each of us can make an anti-poverty resolution on that day, and evaluate our effort on January 6, 2018, the Epiphany. For a booster shot of the Christmas theme, read again A Christmas Carol. There is a decorative edition with an introduction from pastoral theologian John Shea available at Acta (4848 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60640; $14.95).

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

Health Care

The Working Catholic: Health Care
by Bill Droel

Larry Keogh, a fellow teacher at our community college, began each semester by telling his students: “Life is not fair.” He used various techniques and examples to make this point. To master his course (social science) our students needed this maxim, Keogh believed. They likewise needed it to navigate their careers and their personal lives.

Atul Gawande is a surgeon in Boston and author of best-selling Being Mortal (Picador, 2014). He recently interviewed a couple in his Ohio hometown. The 47-year old wife had health problems since high school graduation. She had a medical discharge from the Army because of fatigue. Doctors were not getting at her precise ailment. They prescribed opioids for her joint pain. She became addicted and had to start withdrawal treatment. Then her liver began to fail. Finally, doctors at the famous Cleveland Clinic named the problem and found effective medication. This woman, Gawande reports, “got her life back.” Meanwhile her husband fell and was out of his job as an electrical technician for six months.
The couple has “amazing insurance,” says the wife. Maybe so, writes Gawande in The New Yorker (10/2/17). But their policy has “a $6,000 deductible and hefty co-pays and premiums.” During their setback, the annual health care costs to the family reached $15,000. They did not tell their extended family that they had to file for bankruptcy; which brings us to the curious part of this story.
Bankruptcy is “a personal failure,” says the husband, even though medical costs caused the bankruptcy. “Everybody should contribute for the treatment they receive,” the husband says. His wife is ambivalent about the Affordable Care Act, but she does not think adequate health insurance is a human right. “I work really hard,” the wife says. “I deserve a little more than the guy who sits around.” For this couple, any articulation of a right is accompanied by unwanted government regulation and allocation. They are also convinced that many people cheat the government. They have anecdotal “evidence.”
This couple’s “feelings are widely shared,” says Gawande. Many people in our country are uncomfortable with human rights talk. They are adverse to government programs. And in a defining characteristic of their thinking, these people make a distinction between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor.

Modernity teaches that hard work leads to success; failure is at least partially related to a personal defect. For example, John Calvin (1509-1564), one of modernity’s influential leaders, wrote in a typical Scripture commentary: “Adversity is a sign of God’s absence; prosperity of his presence.” This thinking is deep in our culture. TV talk show hosts, preachers, self-help writers, political candidates, technology entrepreneurs, sports stars, education gurus and more, all tell us that we are responsible for the outcome of our lives. Life is what we make of it, or don’t make of it. Some people might experience an unfortunate, temporary setback. They deserve help. But others create their own misery. They do not deserve help.
It is common in a bar, a barbershop, a neighborhood restaurant, a church club, a family gathering to hear in so many words: “Being charitable is important to me but I don’t owe assistance to anyone. Some people need a handout, but my taxes should not go into assistance programs.”

Is health insurance a corollary to the right to life? That is, something that is unalienable and not hinged to one’s social status or lifestyle. Or is health insurance a privilege, something that some people deserve more than others? That is, health insurance is not unalienable and is only begrudgingly extended to the careless. Is life fair?

Droel’s booklet, What Is Social Justice?, is available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Is Pope Francis “reviving the workers’ church” in America?

In the American Prospect this October, John Gehring presents the argument that Pope Francis, by elevating Catholic teaching on social and economic justice, is breathing new life into an old alliance: the Catholic Church and organized labor. As I described in a Commonweal article this month, early 2017 saw several notable instances where Bishops and Catholic Conferences joined with labor to defend immigrants, the right to organize, and other worker justice causes in the state legislatures. In Francis Revives the Workers’ Church, Gehring paints a larger picture of the Church under Francis re-engaging with the labor movement in the United States. Catholic Labor Network board members Fr. Clete Kiley of UNITE HERE and Prof. Joe McCartin of Georgetown University make appearances explaining what this moment means in the life of the Church and organized labor. Check it out!

Of course, it’s not just in America that Pope Francis is reviving “the workers’ church.”  On October 26 the Holy Father sent a video message to Italian Catholic social activists gathered in Sardinia. As Crux reported,

Working for economic growth based on increased consumption without concern for creating dignified jobs and protecting the environment “is a bit like riding a bicycle with a flat tire: It’s dangerous,” Pope Francis said. The dignity of workers and the health of the environment “are mortified when workers are just a line on a balance sheet, when the cries of the discarded are ignored.”

For details, see coverage in Crux: Communion, not competition, is key to job growth, pope says.

Loyola University Chicago President Responds to Just Employment Task Force

How should we implement our Catholic faith in our employment practices? It’s a challenge faced by all of us – especially those administering Catholic institutions. In early 2017 Loyola University Chicago created a Just Employment Task Force to consider this question, evaluating Loyola’s personnel policies in light of Catholic social teaching and offering recommendations to bring them into alignment. The Task Force submitted its report to President Jo Ann Rooney in June, who published a response on Sept. 21.

On the positive side, the university will be exploring the task force’s proposal to adopt a living wage policy. From the time of Leo XIII’s Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum, Catholic Social Teaching has expressly enjoined employers to pay a wage sufficient “to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner,” even if the labor market permits them to get away with offering less – indeed, if they pay less they make the wage earner “the victim of force and injustice [45].” A few other Catholic Colleges and Universities, such as Georgetown, have done the hard work of trying to determine a “living wage” in their communities and have insisted that not only university departments but also university contractors (such as those providing cleaning and food services pay a living wage. A living wage policy at Loyola would be an impressive expression of Loyola’s Catholic identity.

Unfortunately, President Rooney dismissed the task force’s proposal to set up an advisory committee that would monitor university contractors and contracting practices – the very mechanism that makes the program work effectively at Georgetown. And the report’s language about employee unions and collective bargaining was vague at best during a time when Loyola is arguing that adjunct faculty who have voted to form a union don’t merit protection under the National Labor Relations Act. (The report was crystal clear about students who do paid work for the university, who have also voted for union representation – it said they are “not employees” and not to be afforded living wage protections.)

Georgetown University’s extensive Just Employment Policy did not appear at once in its entirety; it was the result of more than a decade of action and reflection by students, workers, faculty, and administrators. The Catholic Labor Network will keep you posted as this process moves forward at Loyola University Chicago as well.

Shop Talk

Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

Lousy writing is intentional, insists George Orwell (1903-1950). Shoddy writers may not be aware of their bad intentions. But our writing “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish,” he continues. And “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

I was a teacher at a community college for nearly 33 years. I tried to help students be better writers by presenting Orwell’s virtues and vices of writing. I would then ask students to correct phrases and sentences contained in memos from administrators. I did not save those memos for a subsequent semester. Plenty of new ones regularly arrived in my faculty mailbox.

Here are some tips. Keep in mind that we write poorly because at some level we don’t want to communicate. Though also keep in mind that acquiring a discipline for clear writing improves our virtues and decreases our vices.
Be concise. It comes from self-confidence and its regular use will increase confidence. Conversely, verbosity is related to insecurity. One discipline for conciseness is to chop off all false limbs like to the effect that or in order that or to serve the purpose of.
Eliminate jargon. In a medical setting, for example, get rid of all the buzz words and most of the acronyms. Jargon is pretentious. Simple nouns and verbs are related to humility and the desire to connect.
Avoid clichés. The virtue here is originality or creativity. The vice is laziness.
There is a sports program on cable TV during which the hosts replay an interview with an athlete beside their “cliché counter.” The other evening a baseball player used 11 clichés within 65 seconds.
A terrific example comes from the 1980’s movie Bull Durham. “It’s time to work on your interviews,” says veteran player Crash Davis to the younger Nuke LaLoosh. “You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends. Write this down: We gotta play it one day at a time.”
Got to play… it’s pretty boring,” says Nuke. “Course it’s boring, that’s the point. Write it down,” commands Davis.
One more tip for now: Use the active voice. This is the virtue of responsibility. The passive voice betrays a writer’s cowardice. For example, a workplace memo says: “It has been decided…” In other words, the memo writer wants to hide responsibility for the decision.

What pertains to writing is also true of speaking. Jeff Haden, author of The Motivation Myth (Penguin, 2018), keeps a list of executive nonsense phrases. For example, his boss constantly used the phrase “You need to square the circle.” Haden did not alter his behavior because he didn’t “know what this is supposed to mean.” The boss, we can assume, didn’t either. Thus both the employee and the boss stuck to behavior as usual.
Also on Haden’s list: “We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift.” To Haden this means: We “have no idea what the hell is going on.” I recently participated in a church meeting where the chairperson said: “It is of paramount importance that a significant step in contextualized hermeneutic be taken.” I got up for more coffee.
“We need to focus on adding value,” is another on Haden’s list. This too means nothing. If anything at the company is not adding value, a deep question arises: Why the hell are we doing it?
One more example of nonsense: “It is what it is.” To Haden this means “I’m too lazy to make it different.”

The point here is not simply to bash administrators or the boss. All of us can improve writing and speaking. We thereby improve our character and—believe it or not—make our company, our college, our hospital, our community group and even our sports team more efficient. Responsible workers grow in an environment of clear writing and clear speaking. Good use of language reinforces clear thinking which informs efficient behavior.

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

World Series

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

Back in March 2017 I picked the Dodgers in our usually friendly betting pool. I have admired the team, dating from the era that Roger Kahn describes in The Boys of Summer (Harper Collins, 1971). I wasn’t around to experience the debut of Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) in April 1947. In time, however, I followed Robinson and his teammates. (Full disclosure: the Dodgers were never my absolute favorite team, nor are they now.)

42, Brian Helgeland’s inspiring 2013 movie about Robinson and the Dodger’s president and general manager Branch Rickey (1881-1965) downplays the role of Christian faith in the integration of Major League Baseball. That’s the opinion of Eric Metaxas, the author of Martin Luther (Penguin, 2017) and other biographies. It is also the opinion of Carl Erskine, a Dodger right-hander from 1948 to 1959.
42 Faith: the Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story by Ed Henry (Thomas Nelson, 2017) brings Robinson’s and Rickey’s Christian faith to the center of the drama. Both men were evangelicals who prayed the Scripture. Both men kept holy the Lord’s Day; Rickey by not working on Sunday, first as a player and then as an executive. And, both men took Christianity beyond the strictly private realm and applied their faith to their workday lives.
Henry writes about each man’s doubts. Would Robinson hit and field at the major league level? Would the Dodger players and staff unify behind him? Would Robinson stay calm in the face of taunting? Would the owners of other teams tolerate integration? At a moment of serious doubt, Henry reveals, Rickey drew upon his faith. All the preliminaries for signing Robinson were accomplished, Henry continues. Just then, Rickey had an anguished “dark night of the soul.” His reading of Scripture did not calm him. And so, he walked a short distance from his office to Plymouth Church. There with visible hesitation he “sought spiritual guidance” with Rev. L Wendell Fifield (1891-1964). Rickey, as history knows, then decided to act.

Don’t get the wrong impression. Yes, Christianity was a major motive behind the integration of baseball, as it was during the subsequent Civil Rights era. But keep in mind that everyone does everything for mixed motives. Robinson wanted to further his athletic achievements and he wanted to use baseball as a means to financially support a family. In principle Rickey favored integration but he also wanted to make money by fielding a winning team.
Jimmy Breslin (1928-2017) features faith in his biography Branch Rickey (Penguin, 2011). But faith had to mix with money to make the April 1947 breakthrough possible. In 1943 the Dodgers were $800,000 in debt to Brooklyn Trust Bank. Rickey needed more money to scout colleges and minor leagues for prospects, including blacks. So Rickey, an evangelical political conservative, went to the bank to meet its president George McLaughlin, a Catholic political liberal. Neither man was into moralizing or into converting individuals. So Rickey consciously avoided the morality of integration at the bank meeting. He simply said the scouting would include black players. “What McLaughlin believes doesn’t matter,” Rickey felt. “How he behaves is what counts.”
Here is the liberal bank executive’s interesting reply to Rickey: “If you want to do this to get a beat on the other teams and make some money, let’s do it. But if you want to do this for some social change, forget it.” Both the bank executive and the baseball executive were men of faith and both believed that Christianity compelled racial inclusion. But both men were realists who knew that a black (eventually Robinson) was not being scouted to preach integration. He was paid to play baseball excellently and in the process to offer an example to bigots.

It is wrong to say that baseball would not have integrated without the faith of Robinson and Rickey. This notion does not fully appreciate mixed motives. Other executives and players would have integrated the sport. In fact, Bill Veeck (1914-1986), who became a Catholic, was prepared to have black players on the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943—four years ahead of the Dodgers. Owners of other teams blocked Veeck at the time. In July 1947, less than four months after Robinson’s debut, Veeck signed Larry Doby (1923-2003) and thereby integrated his Cleveland Indians.
The faith of Doby, Veeck, Robinson and Rickey, as prudently applied in their workaday settings, is still instructive these weeks and months as professional sports and our entire culture grapple with race relations.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Siena College Adjuncts Have First Contract; Boston College TAs Say Union Yes

Good news from New York’s Siena College! Adjunct faculty at the Catholic College near Albany voted for representation by the SEIU two years ago – and have reached their first contract. Both sides pronounced themselves satisfied with the outcome. The secret of their success? Negotiating in a spirit of charity and mutual respect.  As the Times-Union reported…

“Siena College and the union’s bargaining committees worked together diligently and in good faith to come to a fair and equitable resolution,” said Siena President Edward Coughlin. “I’m pleased that the new contracts have been ratified, and that we can continue the new academic year with this matter resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.”

Meanwhile, in Boston College, graduate teaching and research assistants voted 270-224 in mid-September to join the UAW (which represents TAs and RAs on some other campuses in the Northeast).  The Catholic Labor Network hopes that BC will follow Siena’s lead, and bargain with the student employees in the spirit of Catholic Social Teaching.

Queen of the Valley Hospital (Napa, CA) refuses to recognize employees’ union vote

In late 2016, health techs and other employees at Queen of the Valley Hospital voted 60%-40% to join the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). Hospital administrators, however, don’t want to recognize or bargain with the NUHW. Having lost the mail ballot election, they are demanding a rerun held in person at the worksite. The union has filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge, and the National Labor Relations Board has upheld the union’s position. Simple fairness dictates so: the losing side doesn’t get to keep running elections until they get the outcome they want!

Catholic social teaching requires employers to honor the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, but Queen of the Valley continues to pursue ever-more remote legal appeals. More than 100 US Catholic hospitals model Catholic social teaching by recognizing and bargaining with the unions their employees have chosen.  In fact, the California Nurses Association represents nurses at Queen of the Valley! It’s time for the hospital to extend the same respect to their other employees as well.

CLICK HERE to review the NLRB proceedings in the case to date.

UNITE HERE, Teamsters Fight for Immigrant Members

The situation for immigrants in the United States continues to grow bleaker. The president has ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals; the administration is targeting cities whose police don’t want to serve as adjunct Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers; legislative proposals call for reducing legal immigration.

Our nation’s labor unions represent millions of immigrant workers, including some who are undocumented, and are moving forward to defend these brothers and sisters. Bloomberg News reports how the hotel workers’ union (UNITE HERE) is making it a key contract demand in negotiations with employers.

UNITE HERE says curbing collaboration with ICE will be a priority in bargaining for the 270,000 hotel, casino, and food-service workers it represents, almost half of whose contracts expire within the next year.  “We know the companies that we have relationships with are going to comply with the law,” says D. Taylor, the union’s international president. “We just don’t want them to do anything that makes it easier for ICE to come in and just take people away.”

New York’s Teamsters, meanwhile, are raising the cause of a long-time member, Eber Garcia Vasquez, who was deported to Guatemala after 26 years in the country. George Miranda, President of Teamsters’ Joint Council 17, explained to In These Times that they have become a “Sanctuary Union.”

Immigrants’ rights and labor rights are explicitly tied together. You can’t have one without the other. If you lose on one issue, whether it is immigrants or labor, you lose the other. It is obvious that we are tied together, and there is no way that we could say that we are not a union of immigrants… we have decided to be a sanctuary union, meaning that we protect our members. They are working, they are earning their living, they are supporting their families, and they are not doing anything that is criminal or whatever. We are not going to cooperate with the immigration service whatsoever in going after our members.

Scripture tells us, “You shall not oppress a resident alien (Ex 23:9).” The Catholic Labor Network salutes the Teamsters, UNITE HERE, and the many other unions that have stepped up to defend the rights of immigrants.

EPA Union Chief (and Catholic Labor Network VP) Speaks out on Climate Change

O’Grady cites Laudato Si in campaign to “Save the EPA”

The Environmental Protection Agency, established in 1970, is 47 years old – but will it make 50? Those of us old enough to remember smog-choked American cities and shocking environmental lead levels of the 70s recoil at the idea of an America without an EPA. Those coming of age in the 21st century, facing the risk of catastrophic climate change for themselves and their children, have even more to fear. Yet the new administration has withdrawn from the Paris Climate accords and proposed cutting the EPA budget by one third.

John O’Grady, President of the AFGE (American Federation of Government Employees) National Council representing EPA employees, has linked arms with the nation’s major environmental groups to lead a campaign to Save the EPA. O’Grady, who studies theology at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union and serves as Vice President of the Catholic Labor Network, is inspired by Catholic thought on labor – and the environment, drawing special inspiration from Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter on the Environment, Laudato Si. To learn more, read O’Grady’s blog post “Addressing Climate Change without the EPA,” on the Center for Concern website.