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!
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.”
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.
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)
While many of us see paid sick leave as a standard employment benefit, a surprising number of low-paid service workers have no such benefit (a number that likely includes the cooks and waitstaff who served you the last time you ate out – think about that for a moment). But no one, whatever their job, should be working when they or a child are seriously ill. The Maryland AFL-CIO, the Maryland Catholic Conference, and dozens of other labor and faith-based organizations are working to address this problem with an “earned sick leave” law.
Activists have been pushing for a sick leave law in Maryland for five years. The Maryland Catholic Conference made sick leave law a legislative priority this year, and area Catholic activists were a visible presence in Annapolis pressing for the bill. Both the House and Senate have passed bills requiring employers with more than 15 employees to provide limited paid sick leave to their workers (up to one week per year). Maryland Governor Larry Hogan wants to limit coverage to firms with more than 50 employees, and has threatened to veto the current legislation if it reaches his desk.
Similar efforts to promote paid sick day laws have been seen in many cities and states across the cross the country. Have you been part of one? Tell us about it in the comment section!
Do you remember the breakthrough Sea-Tac referendum in November 2013? Inspired by the fight for $15, voters called for a $15/hour minimum wage at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, delivering a living wage to thousands of underpaid airport baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, and wheelchair attendants. Last fall 1,000 of these workers cemented their gains by winning recognition of their union, SEIU Local 6. Since that time, America’s airports have emerged as a central front in the fight for a living-wage economy.
In city by city, union organizers have assembled local coalitions bringing together workers, community groups, faith leaders and elected officials. The coalitions have been pressing for both union rights and wage floors at airports across the nation, understanding that neither one alone is sufficient to secure lasting gains for many low-paid service workers. In recent months 8,000 workers at Newark, LaGuardia and JFK won their first union contract; workers at Boston’s Logan Airport won a raise; and 600 workers at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport won recognition for their union, SEIU Local 26. Organizing efforts and living wage campaigns continue in Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Washington DC.
Have you been part of one of these coalitions? Tell your story below in the comments section!
The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel
Nearly every business leader agrees with the idea of corporate responsibility, said Stefano Zamagni at a Catholic Social Tradition conference held at University of Notre Dame late this March. To the extent that they know about Catholic doctrine, every Catholic business leader accepts our social doctrine. It would be the rare executive or board trustee who says, “I oppose corporate responsibility.” Or the rare Catholic in business who says, “I dissent from Catholic doctrine.”
However, behavior is different from language, continued Zamagni, who teaches at University of Bologna and who advises the Vatican. Many companies and executives (with exceptions) practice “moral disengagement.” They know how to neglect or turn off true moral standards. In other words, “they know how to make excuses,” said Zamagni.
The default position for business is utilitarianism or simple efficiency. A decision is proper if at the end of each day (or at the end of the fiscal year), that decision has produced more good than bad. Good decisions are those that create the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
“Utilitarianism is not an economic theory,” said Zamagni. It is not an objective morality. A business leader who uses this default method presumes that she can mathematically calculate good and bad outcomes. She brings her subjective opinions to a moral matter.
Here is an example. According to our 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, a just wage cannot merely be an “agreement between the parties,” between the employer and employee. Such an agreement, even when signed by the employee, “is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.”
Oh come on, many Catholic businesspeople will moan. The employee exercised freedom of choice. The agreement is binding. Not so fast, said Zamagni. In many situations, including in the restaurant industry or at a bank, the employee cannot freely consent to the consequences of the pay rate because the wage structure rules were made by someone else. Maybe it wasn’t the manager of this or that restaurant; maybe not the local bank manager. But someone else (a multitude of others) brought their subjective opinion about outcomes to the wage structure.
The justice of a wage must be objectively determined, the Catechism says. Even within “the provisions of civil law,” employers can be morally guilty of exploitation in paying less than a family wage.
Here is a second example of moral disengagement. A religious order sponsors a Catholic institution, administered by a board and some executives. None of these people would ever say, “We don’t believe in Catholic doctrine.” Now, let’s say, some employees within the institution express interest in a union. Many of the leaders of that institution suddenly express a negative opinion about unions: “The Catholic doctrine is fine, but the union you are considering is not a proper fit.” Or: “When Pope/Saint John Paul II (1920-2005) devoted an entire encyclical to labor relations, he meant Poland not the United States.” Or: “Our religious order supports workers in Latin America but we know best when it comes to our students or our patients in the United States.” Those leaders (who are exemplary people in their private life) know how to, in Zamagni’s phrase, “turn off deterrents” and assert their calculated yet subjective opinion.
Catholic moral living is not easy because it is not based on what one feels or one assumes or one calculates. It is based on God’s objective revelation—which admittedly has to be applied with prudence in difficult situations.
For more on the Notre Dame conference, check out its Center for Social Concerns (www.socialconcerns.nd.edu).
Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work for NCL (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)
The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel
St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday this year. Thus, several Illinois bishops (though not all) and other bishops elsewhere “granted a dispensation” so that the faithful could thereby have corned beef on the feast. (Is there any evidence that workaday Catholics are incapable of making such decisions on their own? I met no such person during my evening out.)
By way of two bishops, here is an alternative to fretting about shamrocks and dispensations. Pope Francis suggests we read On Naboth by St. Ambrose (340-397), bishop of Milan. It is a 32-page commentary on a parable recounted in First Kings 21. St. Ambrose invites us to consider fasting in a more substantial manner than foregoing meat on seven days each spring—only six days if St. Patrick or St. Joseph intercedes.
St. Ambrose does not have to search far in Scripture to conclude that God is not interested in superficial fasting. “The fast that I have chosen,” as St. Ambrose paraphrases God, is to “undo every tie of injustice, loose the bonds of contracts made under duress, set free the broken and break every unjust obligation. Break your bread for the hungry and bring the needy and homeless into your house.”
St. Ambrose continues with a saying that is often reprinted: “Nature, then, knows no distinction when we are born, and it knows none when we die. It creates all alike, and all alike it encloses in the bowels of the tomb.” Go to any cemetery. “Open up the earth and [see] if you are able [to] discern who is rich. Then clear away the rubbish and [see] if you [can] recognize the poor person.”
As for the Old Testament story in First Kings, St. Ambrose cuts no slack for King Ahab, who perhaps had an advance copy of The Art of the Deal. Ahab seems to offer Naboth a deal for his vineyard. I’ll give you either a different vineyard or cash, says Ahab.
St. Ambrose is not fooled. It is arrogance, writes St. Ambrose. Give me, Ahab says. For what purpose? “All this madness, all this uproar, then, was in order to find space for paltry herbs. It is not, therefore, that you [Ahab] desire to possess something useful for yourself so much as it is that you want to exclude others… The rich man cries out that he does not have.”
The First Kings story, St. Ambrose concludes, “is repeated everyday” as we in our dissatisfaction covet other people’s goods.
It is not too late to adopt a Lent discipline. We can try to fast from envy and greed. We can try to be rich in contentment; not only between now and April 16, 2017. But we can practice contentment every day until that day when our last mortal possession is taken to a cemetery to join all the other look-alikes.
It wouldn’t hurt these Lent days and in the coming months to also give something away. Here St. Ambrose has a final piece of advice. “You are commonly in the habit of saying: We ought not to give to someone whom God has cursed by desiring him to be poor.” Or as this is expressed in the United States: We should refrain from helping the undeserving poor. There are no cursed poor, St. Ambrose concludes. There is no divine distinction between the deserving and undeserving. Read the Scripture: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a printed newsletter.
“Work gives dignity, and managers are obliged to do all possible so that every man and woman can work and so carry their heads high and look others in the eye with dignity,” the Holy Father told employees of Sky Italy at his weekly General Audience. The Italian broadcaster had announced plans to lay off 300 workers.
Pope Francis has addressed layoffs and restructuring in the past, always with the same message. While there are times layoffs are necessary to the survival of an enterprise, boosting profits is not sufficient justification to take away another’s livelihood. Contrary to what contemporary business theory would have us believe, the worker takes priority over the shareholder, not the other way around. For the full story, see Pope Francis: It’s a grave sin to lay people off carelessly on the Catholic News Service.
We are pleased to report that Loyola University Chicago has established a Just Employment Task Force to examine university labor and employment practices in light of Catholic Social Teaching! Loyola has witnessed a number of labor disputes in recent years. Food service workers there, who belong to UNITE HERE and are employed by a university contractor, tangled with their employer over health benefits. Loyola’s adjunct faculty (right) voted to join the SEIU and are in the process of negotiating their first contract. And last month graduate teaching assistants voted to join the SEIU as well.
Too often, employers and administrators become defensive when workers organize and turn to professional union-busters for advice. Loyola, it seems, is instead consulting Catholic social doctrine to determine how to move forward. Jo Ann Rooney, Loyola’s new President, said: Read more