Catholic leaders call on Supreme Court to preserve union rights for public employees

On February 26 oral arguments began in Janus v AFSCME, the most important Supreme Court case in decades for American labor unions. A majority of employees in the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services have voted for union representation by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and the AFSCME contract with the state requires all employees covered by the contract pay union dues or “agency fees” to cover the costs of bargaining and grievance handling. Mark Janus, a Department employee, wants to opt out of paying these agency fees and is asking the Supreme Court to rule that the First Amendment gives him the right to refuse. If Janus wins, he will bring “right-to-work” to every state and local government agency in the United States. That will almost certainly be catastrophic for public employee unions – after all, why pay dues if you can get all the benefits of the union’s contract without it?

The case has inspired an outpouring of Catholic support for labor. In January, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops weighed in with an amicus brief in support of AFSCME. The remarkable brief cited the long history of Catholic Social Teaching defending the right to organize and pointed out that Janus, like Roe, was asking the Court to declare Catholic Social Teaching unconstitutional. (The Catholic Labor Network joined an interdenominational alliance that filed an amicus brief of its own, also supporting the union.)

In the weeks since, numerous bishops, priests, and Catholic lay leaders have spoken out to defend the union. Don’t miss, for instance, Michael Sean Winters’ excellent essay in the National Catholic Reporter, Don’t Let ‘Janus’ Case Axe Root of American Labor.  Fr. Michael Seavey, speaking at a rally before the Supreme Court building, reminded listeners, reflected on reports describing the network of deep-pocketed pro-business interest groups that financed and promoted Janus’s challenge:

In our nation’s history, there has been one institution and only one institution that has consistently advocated for, defended and promoted working people. That institution is not the government, it is not any political party, nor is it any think tank or corporation. The only institution that has consistently stood by working women and men at all times and under all circumstances are labor unions….The dark forces of economic exploitation, condemned by Pope Leo in 1891 and consistently condemned by popes ever since still face us today. They are fueled by amassed wealth and power; and move against the forces of justice, true community, and true freedom. Their true identity, covered by a veneer of concern for liberty and individual rights, becomes readily apparent when the real agenda comes to the forefront.

Fr. Clete Kiley, a Catholic Labor Network board member, addressed the issue at a solidarity rally in Chicago.

Because solidarity is at stake today the Catholic Bishops of the United States stand with AFCSME, with the Labor Movement and with the millions of union members across this country. The Catholic Bishops of the United States have filed an amicus curiae brief in the Janus case in support of AFCSME. The brief draws upon more than 125 years of Church Doctrine that supports workers, upholds their right to form unions and to bargain collectively… Unions are a positive good for society in Catholic Doctrine.

My personal favorite was the intervention by Bishop David Zubik, who penned an insightful column in the Pittsburgh Catholic. He recalled how his father’s union membership had provided a family-supporting wage during his youth, as it does for many today. He concluded,

 “Solidarity!” is the great rallying cry of organized labor, and one of the most important theological principles of the church. We are all in this together. Those of us who are strong need to stand with those of us who are weak, so that we can all thrive together. We in the church need to support our sisters and brothers in unions, as together — in both private sectors and public sectors — we work for a more just, pro-life and pro-family society.

Have any Catholic leaders in your community impressed you with their witness for public workers’ rights in the face of Janus v. AFSCME? Please email with the details, or share them in the comment section below!

Georgetown, Grad Student Employees Take Step Toward Compromise

Last month we reported in this space how Georgetown’s response to research and teaching assistants seeking union representative had generated a crisis in campus labor relations. Georgetown’s much-admired Just Employment Policy provides for living wages for campus employees and defends all workers’ right to organize, as established in Catholic Social Teaching. But when the graduate student employees formed a union, the administration dismissed their right to a union and promised to fight their right to organize before the National Labor Relations Board. Happily, in the past month the two sides have taken steps toward a compromise solution: the union has proposed holding a certification election outside the auspices of the NLRB, and the university is considering the proposal. It’s a promising development: a number of K-12 Catholic Schools, such as those in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, bargain with employee unions outside the NLRB system. The Catholic Labor Network will keep you posted as negotiations continue.

US Bishops: No to Janus, No to “Right-to-Work”

In the labor movement, all eyes are on the Supreme Court and Janus v. AFSCME, where a member of the union is arguing that paying “agency fees” to pay for its services violates his freedom of speech. If Janus wins, all of state and local government employment will be rendered “right-to-work” and unions critically weakened.

On January 19, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops weighed in with a powerful amicus brief defending the right of workers to organize and opposing Janus and “right-to-work.” Read more

Pope Vows to Eliminate Temp Labor at Vatican

Every year, before the holidays, Pope Francis gathers the Vatican’s lay employees and their families to honor their service. He gives a short address praising their work and offering spiritual and temporal guidance for the year to come. This year, though, he also veered into a conversation about temporary workers. The Holy Father, who frequently preaches that workers deserve secure and dignified employment, had learned from one of the career employees that the Vatican itself employed temporary workers, and this concerned and alarmed him.

The Pope did not seem to be referring to temp workers in the American sense (i.e. workers obtained from temp agencies) but the Italian one. Under Italian law, workers who have passed a probation period have considerable employment security – and employers seeking to evade this obligation often choose to employ “temporary” workers on fixed, short-term contracts shorter than the probation period. Francis vowed to eliminate the practice in the Vatican as a matter of conscience.

The other day I had a meeting with Cardinal Marx, who is the President of the Council of the Economy, and with Monsignor Ferme, the Secretary, and I said: “I don’t want illegal work in the Vatican.” I apologize if this still exists…It’s a problem of conscience for me, because we can’t teach the Social Doctrine of the Church and then do these things that aren’t right.

Thank you, Francis, for affirming that employment is not just a matter of economics or even of law, but of conscience. You can read the Holy Father’s full remarks HERE.

Fordham Adjuncts, Instructors Vote Union Yes

In an election concluded in November, contingent faculty at Fordham University have voted overwhelmingly to form a union and bargain collectively. The bargaining unit will include both adjunct faculty and others not eligible for tenure, such full-time lecturers and postdoctoral research fellows. After much hesitation, the flagship Catholic university in New York City had joined Georgetown University and many other Catholic schools across the nation in consulting Catholic Social Teaching on labor and work, and adopted a neutral position during the vote, recognizing it was the right of the employees to decide for themselves whether they wanted to join a union. Today the faculty are represented by SEIU Local 200.

Sadly, a few schools in this position seem to have consulted “union avoidance” attorneys rather than CST. They are determined to prevent their employees from getting a union and are asking the NLRB and the courts to respect their “union avoidance” as an expression of their religious identity (!). Duquesne University, Manhattan College, Seattle University and St Xavier University have chosen this unfortunate route.

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.

Catholic Cemeteries of San Antonio strips workers of union rights

In an unfortunate setback for worker justice at Catholic institutions, Catholic Cemeteries of San Antonio has moved to strip cemetery workers of their union rights. The cemetery workers had been represented by the CWA for more than a decade when the union received a letter from the Catholic Cemeteries administrator Fr. Martin Leopold stating that they would no longer recognize the union after the current contract expired June 30.

Fr. Leopold’s letter made no attempt to reconcile the action with Catholic social teaching. It did, however, advise the employees they had no legal recourse, arguing that the First Amendment puts Catholic Cemeteries beyond the reach of U.S. law. The union is pursuing an appeal before the National Labor Relations Board.

Garbage Justice

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

Martin Luther King (1929-1968), one of our country’s foremost leaders in race relations, is less remembered for his advocacy of the dignity of work.

The City of Memphis is sending a tax-free grant of $50,000 each to 13 retired sanitation workers, plus one more still on the job. This gesture, N.Y. Times (7/26/17) reports, is “an improvised fix to one of the most bitter legacies of Memphis’s labor history.”
In February 1968 two Memphis garbage workers died, crushed in a compactor. Their fellow workers caucused; lamented their low pay; detailed their unsafe work conditions; discussed joining AFSCME, a union; and called for a strike.
As the days passed, threats and confusion dominated the Memphis scene. King went there on March 18th to support the workers. He returned on March 28th for the same purpose. This time violent young adults roamed the streets. A curfew was imposed. King retreated to Atlanta and then to Washington.
King’s advisors discouraged further involvement in the Memphis situation, but he returned there. It is the lesson of the Good Samaritan parable, he said. “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers,” I am like those who passed by. Aware of threats against him, he preached: “But it doesn’t matter to me now… I may not get there with you… [But] we as a people will get to the promised land.” On April 4, 1968 King was murdered in Memphis.
The city reached a settlement with the workers on April 16th. Some details were hastily left incomplete, specifically about retirement. Thus all these years later, the 14 living workers who participated in the 1968 strike get $50,000 toward retirement.

Back during the 2001 New York City mayoral campaign, candidate Michael Bloomberg made what the press treated as a major gaffe: “Being a sanitation worker in this day and age is more dangerous than being a policeman or fireman.” His point could have been better made, but Bloomberg was correct—more injuries, more deaths. Garbage collectors fall from trucks, get hit by traffic, get cut by objects in bags, get injured or killed as they repair or clean equipment.
Robin Nagle was a driver for a 35-ton New York City garbage truck that she nicknamed Mona. Pedestrians obliviously walk in front of and behind Mona, she writes in Picking Up (Farrar, Straus, 2013). Residents think nothing of throwing out all manner of hazardous material. Plus the complaints.
In December 2010 New York City was paralyzed by snow. Sanitation workers were on the front line of storm clearance. Frustrated residents said that workers intentionally went slow during the recovery, as a passive-aggressive protest about work conditions. Nonsense, Nagle details. “Sanitation pride wraps around many things, but snow fighting is one of the biggest.” To punctuate her retort, Nagle tells about Mona in a five-truck caravan clearing an expressway. After an arduous push down a lane, the foreman led the trucks off a ramp. He gathered the drivers for a very profane pep talk—maybe unaware that one was a woman. The determined convoy quickly went up the opposite ramp and, says Nagle, “we did indeed bust the [vulgar noun that the foreman used for highway], just as we had on the northbound.”

These days health care delivery is a major topic. What two occupations most contribute to the delivery of our health? Plumber and garbage collector.

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

Pope Francis addresses Italy’s AFL-CIO

On June 28, Pope Francis addressed Italy’s CISL/Confederation of Trade Unions, an umbrella organization of labor unions much like America’s AFL-CIO. The pope had much to share, especially for those of us called to pursue justice in the labor movement. The Holy Father observed that today’s market economy is anti-union precisely because it has cast off ethical and social responsibilities.

The capitalism of our time does not understand the value of the labor union, because it has forgotten the social nature of the economy, of the company. This is one of the greatest sins. Market economy: no. We say social market economy, as Saint John Paul II taught us.

Read more