On Wednesday, August 8, people across the country saw the terrible scenes on their television: hundreds of ICE agents raiding several poultry plants in Mississippi, leaving crying children in their wake. The response from Church and labor was immediate. The state’s Catholic Bishops condemned the raid, and Catholic Charities set up headquarters in parishes near each plant. The United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union (UFCW) also rushed to the aid of the workers and their families Read more
On Tuesday, 58 airline food service workers and their supporters were arrested for blocking the entrance to the American Airlines headquarters at their Dallas-Fort Worth area hub, calling for a living wage. American Airlines has subcontracted food preparation there to LSG Sky Chefs, which pays entry-level workers less than $10 per hour – that’s an annual salary of less than $20,000 for a full-time worker, below the poverty level for a parent with two children. Meanwhile, American Airlines is running billion-dollar surpluses. Read more
As a hot August began, leaders from the National Farm Workers’ Ministry gathered in Washington to explore ways to extend solidarity to the men and women who harvest our food. The NFWM is an interdenominational Christian organization that supports farmworker unions and alt-labor formations with prayer and action. Their work supports the United Farm Workers, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, to name a few.
Hill visits in 2019 focused on two critical pieces of legislation. The Fairness for Farmworkers Act seeks to redress a historic wrong: when New Deal reformers passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, which establishes overtime wages and other protections, farmworkers were excluded from coverage. Fairness for Farmworkers would extend overtime and other standard labor protections to these workers, and currently has 14 co-sponsors. The Agricultural Worker Protection Act, which the UFW has made a special priority, would offer undocumented farmworkers the opportunity to obtain a “blue card” giving them legal work status – and eventually to earn a green card. The bill has 13 co-sponsors.
The Catholic Labor Network is exploring opportunities to expand our work with NFWM and the nation’s farm worker organizations.
In late June, hundreds of priests from across the country gathered in St. Louis for the annual meeting of the Association of US Catholic Priests (AUSCP) and elected Fr. Andy Switzer, a prominent West Virginia labor priest, to join the organization’s leadership team.
Fr. Switzer introduced himself to the assembly in a speech reflecting on his upbringing as the son of a coal miner and his ongoing commitment to bring the good news to West Virginia workers. Switzer first came to the attention of the Catholic Labor Network when he was arrested alongside more than two dozen retired mineworkers and union activists in a civil disobedience action. (The mine operators were attempting to use restructuring and bankruptcy proceedings to escape health care obligations for some 23,000 retirees.)
Other high points of the conference included a keynote address by Cardinal Blase Cupich exploring how both lay and ordained Catholics share a common priesthood through their Baptism, and a colloquium led by Bishop John Stowe on the topic of “Prophetic Obedience and Prophetic Action.” Finally, Fr. Rich Creason, recently retired Pastor of Holy Trinity Church in St. Louis and a longtime member of the Catholic Labor Network, was honored for his life’s work at an award banquet (alongside Sr. Norma Pimentel, whose work caring for migrants in McAllen, TX, has brought her national recognition).
The AUSCP’s Labor Working Group has supported Catholic Labor Network initiatives for several years, and today the organization is providing valuable assistance in our new Church-Labor Partnership Project.
Today, June 22, marks the tenth anniversary of a remarkable document. Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Health Care Workers and Unions was released on June 22, 2009, signed by a roster of 10 Bishops, union leaders, and Catholic hospital administrators.
Throughout US history, nuns belonging to a variety of religious orders had made care for the sick a focus of their work in the world, and their institutions came to account for some 15% of the nation’s hospital beds. The sisters became a model of Catholic and Christian charity known especially for their care for the poor – unlike many competitors, their nonprofit institutions could focus on the needs of patients rather than the demands of shareholders.
The last years of the twentieth century witnessed an explosion of organizing in the nation’s hospitals and nursing homes. Had nuns still been staffing the Catholic hospitals this movement would surely have had little effect: the sisters, who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, did not pursue personal wealth, had no families to support, and a vow of obedience that made strikes unlikely. But by the 1980s and 1990s, the dwindling number of sisters in these communities dictated that most employees were laypeople, who had taken no such vows and were supporting spouses and children.
I suspect that this experience gap between the sisters who still dominated the hospital corporate boards and the new lay workforce — many of whom were not Catholic in any event – explained much of the bitterness that accompanying some of the organizing campaigns. (Adam Reich’s 2013 study examining one of these organizing campaigns, With God on Our Side: The Struggle for Workers’ Rights in a Catholic Hospital, is illuminating on this issue.)
Catholic Social Teaching on the right to organize offered a framework for the two sides to begin a dialogue in 1997, hosted by the USCCB. In 1999 the group issued a Working Paper describing their shared principles, “A Fair and Just Workplace: Principles and Practices for Catholic Health Care.” But it would be another decade before the discussants issued the final product, Respecting the Just Rights of Workers. The guidance document urged that management and labor debate the issue of collective bargaining in a spirit of charity, each assuming the goodwill of the other party – and stressed that under Catholic Social Teaching the right to organize or not to organize in a union belongs to the workers alone.
The document has not put an end to bitter union organizing fights in Catholic hospitals – to work, both hospital administrators and unions must agree to honor its principles. Today, most Catholic hospitals in the Northeast and on the West Coast are organized, but the situation in the Midwest is mixed, and few Catholic hospitals in the South engage in collective bargaining with unions representing their employees. As workers in nonunion hospitals continue to seek union organization, and hospital management must decide how to respond, Respecting the Just Rights of Workers offers an important resource for both parties to consider.
Supreme Court decision opposed by Bishops, unions impacting labor movement
Last year, in a narrow 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck a critical blow against social solidarity in Janus v. AFSCME. The conventional practice of American labor relations holds that workers in a particular place of employment are a community with shared concerns, so they choose as a group whether they wish to form a union and engage in collective bargaining. If a majority of the workers vote yes, the union represents everyone in the shop in bargaining and grievance handling, and everyone may be required to pay dues for its support. If the workers become dissatisfied with their union, they may vote to dissolve it – again, by majority rule. The workers go in together, and out together. Besides fostering social solidarity, this method addresses a practical issue that economists call the “free rider” problem: the union contract benefits everyone in the shop, whether they pay dues or not.
Mark Janus didn’t much care about social solidarity or the desires of his co-workers. An Illinois state employee covered by a union contract, he argued that his personal freedom of speech was violated if he had to pay any fees for the union’s services and maintenance. Naturally, the AFL-CIO and AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) opposed Janus. Moreover, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) filed an “amicus brief” reviewing the history of Catholic Social Teaching on labor unions and supporting the union. The brief even compared the case to the notorious Roe v. Wade ruling, in that a decision for the plaintiff would in essence rule Catholic teaching unconstitutional. Nevertheless, the Court sided with Janus, and overnight so-called “right-to-work” policies were imposed on every public workplace.
Predictably, the year saw the number of “free riders” multiply. AFSCME and other unions representing public employees vowed to redouble their efforts to persuade “free riders” to join the union, with some success. A recent Politico story indicates that these “internal organizing” efforts, combined with (member-authorized) dues increases, prevented expected financial losses for the affected unions, at least in the early running.
Nevertheless, the spirit of individualism — the spirit of the “free rider” — is abroad in the land, and we are the poorer for losing one of our remaining frameworks for social solidarity.
The Minnesota State legislature is on track to make wage theft a felony in the North Star state, thanks to efforts by unions, community groups and support from the Minnesota State Catholic Conference. Workday Minnesota reports that
The Jobs, Economic Development, and Energy omnibus budget bill will include provisions to make wage theft a felony, penalizing employers who retaliate against employees who report it. The bill also provides funding and investigative power so that MN Attorney General Keith Ellison and the Department of Labor can enforce the new law.
Wage theft is surprisingly prevalent in the United States. In some cases it can be as blunt as refusal to pay for work performed or having a paycheck returned “insufficient funds.” In other cases, it involves harder-to-detect schemes: demanding that employees do extra work after they have clocked out, paying at straight time for overtime work, or paying an employee as an independent contractor so that the employer can duck required social security contributions.
Hats off to the Minnesota AFL-CIO and CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha, a CCHD-supported workers’ center) for their leadership on this issue – as well as to the Minnesota Catholic Conference for supportive testimony on the issue.
In May, Connecticut became the latest state to move toward making the minimum wage a living wage. Legislators passed a bill phasing in a $15 minimum wage by 2023. Commonweal editor Rand Richards Cooper, a Connecticut resident, reviews the debate and explains why this issue is important to Catholics in Why the Fight for Fifteen Must Succeed:
The Catholic Church has provided a strong voice in support of a living wage for well over a century. Since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum (“Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor”), popes have called for wages sufficient to sustain working families… John Paul II asserted in Laborem exercens (On Human Work) (1981) that the fundamental soundness of any economic system—and indeed its legitimacy—depends in large part on its ability to provide a living wage. “[A] just wage is the concrete means of verifying the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly,” John Paul wrote. “It is not the only means of checking, but it is a particularly important one and in a sense the key means.”
On May 15, 1893, Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical Rerum Novarum, ushering in modern Catholic Social Teaching. In Rerum Novarum, the Holy Father reflected on the industrial revolution and the wholesale transformation it brought, with peasant farmers and artisans who previously owned their land and shops converted wholesale into employees working for wages. He concluded that workers had a right to organize in trade unions to improve their condition and hoped more would organize — 42 years before the US Congress recognized this and passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. He also said that every worker has the right to a living wage and if necessary the government would have to regulate the labor market to ensure this happened — 45 years before the US Congress recognized this and passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, establishing the federal minimum wage.
In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI observed that in an era of globalization,
The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights, must be honoured today even more than in the past .
In much of the United States, hotel and food service work is not just grueling but poorly paid. But thanks to decades of worker organizing through Culinary Workers Union Local 266 (an affiliate of UNITE HERE) tens of thousands of workers in hotels on the famous Strip and downtown enjoy family-supporting wages and benefits. The less fortunate workers employed in the ten Station casinos scattered around the city and suburbs are determined to secure the same for themselves and their families, and the Church is Las Vegas has been accompanying them.
In 2016, when Boulder Station Casino managers pressured employees to vote “no” on union membership, UNITE HERE’s Father Clete Kiley and a delegation of “labor priests” visited the workers to hear their story and express solidarity. The workers voted 2-1 to form a union with Culinary Workers. Today workers at four of the station casinos have voted for the union – although management is refusing to recognize the election results at two of them and using endless legal appeals to delay the process further.
While visiting Las Vegas for the Church-Labor Partnership Project (CLPP), I was able to meet with workers discussing organizing strategy at two additional Station Casinos. The workers told me that high premiums made the employer-offered health care unaffordable, relaying stories of ill family members or children who went without care. They also said that management was laying off food service employees, then expecting the survivors to pick up the work of their colleagues with no increase in pay.
Far larger than a typical local union, Local 226 (and its sister bartenders’ unit, Local 155) is a critical player both in the industry and the community. In a practice more familiar in the construction unions, Local 226 and its signatory employers operate a Culinary Academy where those interested in a career in hospitality can take preparatory classes – and current members who want to pursue a better-paying job in the hotels can get training for a move up. The center trains nearly 1,000 per year.
On May 8, the Diocese of Las Vegas hosted CLUE NV (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice – NV), an interfaith group of clergy supporting worker justice. Dave Love, who does faith outreach for Local 226, helped build strong turnout for the event, at which some Station Casino workers shared their stories with the assembled religious leaders.
Deacon Tim O’Callaghan, Social Action Ministry Director for the Diocese of Las Vegas, was very generous with his time during my visit, and connected me with both the impressive Diocesan Catholic Charities facility and a young Las Vegas workers’ center, Arriba. Along with running a homeless shelter and SROs, Catholic Charities works with both the homeless and with refugees in order to teach them work skills and habits and place them in jobs. (It didn’t surprise me to learn that they send a fair number of students to the Culinary Academy.) Arriba organizes among the hundreds of day laborers in the Las Vegas area, who too often fall victim of wage theft by unscrupulous employers, and is under review for a possible CCHD grant.
I rounded out my time in Las Vegas with a visit to the Southern Nevada AFL-CIO, whose leaders expressed enthusiasm for the CLPP and are looking forward to new initiatives in the area.
Please pray for the Station Casino workers and for the Church in Las Vegas!
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