Mary’s Observations on Social and Economic Justice

In late December, the Washington Post published an interesting column, “Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ in the Bible is revolutionary. Some evangelicals silence her.” The Magnificat is Mary’s joyful reflection on how she, a poor young woman, was bearing the Christ-child. The author, an Evangelical Christian woman, felt that her brothers and sisters persistently overlooked one of the prayer’s most compelling elements – Mary’s pointed observations on social and economic justice. The Gospel of Luke tells us how Mary said:

He [the LORD] has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.

While we as Catholics have a great reverence for Mary and frequently invoke the Magnificat, I’m not so sure we do that much better. I certainly read and prayed the Magnificat for many years before taking note of what Mary was saying about God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Ms. Mayfield, the author, notes that Archbishop Oscar Romero favored this text, but I can’t recall ever hearing a priest or deacon preaching on this text explore what it means to have a God who fills the hungry with good things but sends the rich away with nothing.

And hats off to Ms. Mayfield for introducing me to Ben Wildflower’s amazing woodcut print inspired by the prayer!

Providence Hospital in DC Curtails Services

As we reported in October, Catholic hospital chain Ascension Health was moving to close the financially stressed Providence Hospital, located in an underserved, largely African-American DC neighborhood. The action prompted outcries from hospital employees – especially nurses represented by National Nurses United – as well as the community and DC government.

Ascension was created by the 1999 merger of the Daughters of Charity National Health System and the Sisters of St. Joseph Health System, but it’s evolved a long way from its roots in those religious orders.  The dispute has also drawn attention to the enormous salary commanded by Ascension CEO Anthony Tersigni: the Wall Street Journal listed him as the highest paid nonprofit CEO in the nation in 2014, pulling down $17.6 million that year. (His current salary information is not available.)

Under pressure from the City Council, Providence moved ever so slightly, agreeing to keep the ER open through April and keep 10 or 15 beds. DC Attorney General Karl Racine filed suit, arguing that Providence was violating the terms of its DC operating license with the abrupt reduction in care, but the DC Superior Court rejected the city’s argument.

Government Shutdown Penalizes Public Servants, Poor

2019 opened with a partial government shutdown underway as the president and Congress failed to reach agreement on a budget. Congress wanted to continue funding the government under current program funding levels, while the president said he will keep the government shut unless Congress adds a $5 billion budget item to pay for a wall on the Mexican border to prevent illegal border crossings. Some 800,000 federal employees are now facing dire straits. Many, such as law enforcement personnel and Coast Guard sailors are working without pay; many at the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes for Health, and Food and Drug Administration have been sent home. In past shutdowns, Congress made whole employees who missed paychecks due to such political gamesmanship, but there’s no guarantee that these workers will ever see their money.

Like many Americans, a lot of these workers are only a paycheck away from missing mortgage, rent and bill payments. The Office of Personnel Management has advised them to “consult with their personal attorney” (!) to fend off creditors, or to offer landlords a hand with painting and small repairs in exchange for missed rent payments (!!). It’s no wonder that the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is filing suit on behalf of prison guards and others forced into unpaid labor, which certainly sounds illegal.

The effects are rippling well beyond the federal employees themselves, and not only in the ugly pictures of overflowing trash piling up in our national parks. Government buildings run on the labors of security guards, custodians and food service workers employed by contractors – many of these employees have been laid off and will almost certainly not get back pay. And now comes news that the food stamps and WIC programs that feed the poor are being disrupted.

Please keep in your prayers all those who have had their lives turned upside down by the shutdown, and urge our elected leaders to stop holding our public services and public servants hostage for their political agenda.

Five million low wage workers just got a raise

The federal minimum wage is set at $7.25 per hour, giving a full-time worker an annual salary of less than $15,000. That’s hardly a living wage anywhere in the country, and many states and cities, prodded by community organizations, faith groups, and labor unions, have moved to boost their minimum wage to a more reasonable level. CBS reports that five million workers in 20 states will receive a raise January 2019 thanks to those actions. Some highlights from the past year:

  • The Massachusetts legislature voted to bump the state minimum wage from $11 to $12 Jan. 1 2019, followed by annual increases that will bring it to $15 per hour by 2023.
  • Voters in Missouri voted 62-38 for Proposition B, which increased the state minimum wage from $7.85 to $8.60 in 2019, and schedules subsequent increases to reach $12/hour in 2023.
  • Arkansas voters approved an increase from $8 in 2018 to $8.50 per hour today, and to $11 per hour by 2021.
  • In New York City fast-food workers and employees of businesses with 11 or more people saw their minimum hourly pay jump from $13 to $15 with the new year. That will have New York City joining Seattle and San Francisco as the major American cities where the “fight for $15” has won the day.

A 2017 survey of Catholic Conference Directors and State AFL-CIO presidents by the Catholic Labor Network and Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative found that raising the minimum wage was a high policy priority for both groups. Want to see what’s happening in your state and region? Visit the Employment Policy Institute’s Minimum Wage Tracker.

Hotel Workers Win “One Job Should Be Enough” Strike

Merry Christmas ahead for Marriott Workers

In November, the Network reported on a hotel workers’ strike that had rippled across the nation. Hotel and motel industry workers in the United States earn an average wage of about $11 per hour, hardly enough to live on in a major US metro area – and many face intermittent employment with frequent interruptions in their employer-based medical coverage. Eight thousand hotel housekeepers, clerks and banquet waiters in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Hawai’i had walked off the job at Marriott – the world’s largest hotel chain – calling for major contract changes under the slogan “one job should be enough.” And city by city, the hotel chain agreed to workers’ wage and benefit demands, culminating in a Dec. 3 settlement in San Francisco, home of the last holdouts.

Read more

Supervisor to Pregnant Warehouse Worker: If You Can’t Handle the Lifting, Get an Abortion

A disturbing New York Times investigative story offers illustrates happens when the demands of the market conflict with the needs of families.

If you are a Verizon customer on the East Coast, odds are good that your cellphone or tablet arrived by way of a beige, windowless warehouse near Tennessee’s border with Mississippi. Inside, hundreds of workers, many of them women, lift and drag boxes weighing up to 45 pounds, filled with iPhones and other gadgets. There is no air-conditioning on the floor of the warehouse, which is owned and operated by a contractor. Temperatures there can rise past 100 degrees. Workers often faint, according to interviews with 20 current and former employees. One evening in January 2014, after eight hours of lifting, Erica Hayes ran to the bathroom. Blood drenched her jeans….

In Miscarrying at Work: The Physical Toll of Pregnancy Discrimination reporters Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Natalie Kitroeff tell the stories of several women working in physically demanding jobs who requested reassignment or accommodation during pregnancy, even with doctor’s notes, only to be ignored. Although they span different employers and industries, the Verizon warehouse operated by XPO logistics in Memphis was a repeat offender. Erica Hayes, Ceeadria Walker, and Tasha Murrell each lost children there.

Ms. Murrell said that she told her boss she was pregnant and asked to leave work early one day that spring because the lifting had become painful. Her supervisor told her to get an abortion, according to a discrimination complaint she filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in April 2018. Ms. Murrell woke up the next morning to find her mattress stained with blood. Her husband drove her to the emergency room, where doctors told her she had miscarried.

The reporters note that every year lawmakers introduce a bill that would give pregnant women the same right to reasonable accommodation that the disabled receive  under the Americans with Disabilities Act – and that the proposal has never received so much as a hearing.

The story also reminds us why workers need unions, even in this day and age. The market doesn’t care one way or another about families. If the law will not shield families from the market’s harshest edges, workers must come together and bargain collectively to fight for themselves. This fact was not lost on the women of XPO logistics. As the story continues, “Ms. Murrell left the job last year and is now an organizer with the Teamsters, which is trying to organize a union at the warehouse.”

CLICK HERE to read Miscarrying at Work: The Physical Toll of Pregnancy Discrimination.

TPS Holders: The Forgotten Immigrants in our Midst

While the national media focus on disorder at the border, 300,000+ immigrants are slated to lose their legal status in 2019 with the elimination of their Temporary Protected Status. Immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras and elsewhere were granted “temporary” haven in the United States after war or natural disasters displaced them from their homes, but as the years went on many have put down roots and raised families here. Now the Department of Homeland Security has announced that most will lose that status and face deportation, separating them from their American spouses and US-born children.

A friend of the CLN at Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor (KI) tells the story of TPS in a recent article. In Beyond the Caravan: Why We Must Protect Workers Covered by TPS, KI Program Manager Juan L. Belman Guerrero of tells the story of TPS and how recipients have contributed to the American economy and become part of our community. I know this all too well: many members of my local union, Laborers Local 11, are TPS holders threatened by the DHS action.

Belman Guerrero, by the way, identifies himself as a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient, born in Mexico. DACA protects undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children and grew up in the United States from deportation. In DACA and TPS, we together as a nation put into practice Christ’s call to welcome the stranger — and both are endangered by today’s ill political winds.

Want to take action to defend TPS Holders? Visit the National TPS Alliance to learn how you can help.

 

 

ONE JOB SHOULD BE ENOUGH: What the Marriott Strike Is All About

Over the past two months, hotel workers in our nation’s major metropolitan areas have walked out of Marriott hotels in a nationwide strike. As of October 8, nearly 8,000 members of the hotel workers’ union UNITE HERE were on the picket lines in Boston, Detroit, Honolulu, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay Area. What do they want? Well, it’s simple really. They are tired of working multiple jobs to earn enough to support their families. Their placards say it all: One Job Should Be Enough.

There was a time in this country when a man or woman who was willing to work hard and put in a forty-hour week would earn enough to live, modestly but comfortably Read more

When it comes to organizing, farmworkers face special challenges

Few U.S. workers face more challenging circumstances than farmworkers. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed in 1935 to guarantee workers the right to organize and bargain collectively without retaliation, excluded agricultural workers from its coverage – so these workers enjoy no protection from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) if disciplined or fired for their union activity. Add to this the fact that recent immigrants make up the bulk of the workforce, and that relatively few are U.S. citizens, and you have a recipe for exploitation. Despite the odds, organizations like the United Farmworkers (UFW), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) continue to organize in the fields and dairies – and need solidarity from allies in the Church and the labor movement to back them up.

The UFW is probably the most familiar to readers. In their 1970s heyday, the largely Mexican and Mexican-American workforce that harvested California’s grapes organized under the leadership of the legendary Cesar Chavez. Chavez, deeply motivated by his Catholic faith, led a grape boycott and hunger strikes to draw attention to working conditions in the fields. With extensive support by Catholic clergy and laity and by the unions of the AFL-CIO, the UFW persuaded the state of California to adopt an “Agricultural Labor Relations Act” that gave farmworkers in the Golden State the basic rights guaranteed in the NLRA. In a current campaign among dairy workers, Washington State Darigold Workers who belong to the UFW demanded their legally mandated lunch breaks — and were fired for doing so. Starbucks Coffee is a major buyer, so the union is asking supporters to contact Starbucks and demand they meet with the workers.

Under the H2A visa program, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service permits growers in the United States to sponsor guest workers from Mexico (and elsewhere) who come to do the heavy work of planting and harvesting – then are sent home when the work is done.  Because these workers can be deported if they displease their sponsoring employer, they are highly vulnerable to exploitation. Nonetheless, some have been successful organizing through the FLOC, a union that has operations in both Monterey, Mexico where the workers are recruited and in the US tobacco fields where they work. FLOC is asking Reynolds tobacco to source their tobacco from farms adhering to a code of conduct. The workers are asking allies to boycott Vuse e-cigarettes  – and asking convenience stores like Circle K, 7-11 and Wawa to drop the product – until Reynolds takes responsibility for labor rights and working conditions on their contract farms.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is not a union at all but has achieved remarkable progress in the tomato fields of Florida. The farmworkers of Immokalee came together in the 1990s to fight for improved wages and working conditions, but soon learned that only the large buyers had the power to enforce lasting changes in the fields. Building a network of allies in the Church, labor and community organizations, the workers persuaded McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell to buy only from growers who have signed the CIW code of conduct. Today they are leading a boycott of Wendy’s, the stubborn holdout of the fast food sector, demanding that the chain do the right thing and use its market power to secure justice for farmworkers.

The men and women who harvest the food we eat need our support. Please pray for them, and make your voice heard by signing on to these campaigns.

Missouri voters reject “Right-to-work”

In a dramatic win for workers’ rights, Missouri voters rejected a law aimed at crippling labor unions by a lopsided 2-1 margin in an August referendum.

Though called “right-to-work” by supporters, these laws do not in fact create a right to a job. Rather, they create a “right” to be a free rider, to enjoy union wages and benefits while one’s co-workers carry the freight by paying their dues. “Right-to-work” laws undermine solidarity among workers, tilting the balance toward employers at the bargaining table.

In 2017 Missouri legislators – saying that they wanted to make the state a more inviting target for business investment – passed a “right-to-work” bill, which was duly signed into law by the governor. NOT SO FAST, responded Missouri’s working families. Missouri union members fanned out across the state, telling their friends and neighbors what “right-to-work” was all about and collecting 300,000 signatures to put the question to a voter referendum.

Missouri residents voted 63-37 against “Right to Work.”