New Cardinal has Keen Interest in Worker Justice

blase_joseph_cupichEarly in October, Pope Francis announced his intent to create 17 new cardinals. The Catholic Labor Network was pleased to learn that Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago was among them – the Archbishop’s deep commitment to Catholic social teaching on labor and work is quite evident.

Archbishop Cupich is surely familiar to readers of the Catholic Labor Network newsletters and blog. When the Illinois legislature was considering so-called “right-to-work” legislation, the Archbishop challenged its political supporters to reconcile their proposal with Catholic social teaching – which calls for “the promotion of workers’ associations.” This summer he adopted a paid parental leave policy for Archdiocesan employees – in a single gesture, acting to advance worker justice, setting a good example for Catholic business leaders, and promoting Catholic teaching on life and the family.

Please keep our newest Cardinal in your prayers!

Seattle U.: Give me unions and give me social justice, but not yet

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A Jesuit university with an Augustinian approach to worker rights

The adjunct faculty at Seattle University voted 73-63 for union representation by SEIU 925. The Seattle University administration has announced its willingness to recognize and bargain with an adjunct faculty union outside the NLRB process. Hooray! Problem solved, right? The administration and the union can sit down and bargain an agreement and agree to disagree about the NLRB matter.

Not so fast. Readers of the Confessions will recall how the young and randy Augustine asked God, “Give me chastity and give me continence… but not yet.” Seattle administrators, likewise, say they are willing to honor Catholic social teaching on the rights of labor…after the litigation is finished and their claim to immunity from NLRB jurisdiction is resolved.

Meanwhile, the long-impounded votes have been counted at St. Xavier University. (The adjuncts voted on union representation in 2011 but SXU legal objections have delayed the count for five years.) The contingent faculty, by a vote of 29-25, have chosen to join the Illinois Education Association.

The most important union you’ve never heard of

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Clayton Sinyai (CLN) with NACST President Rita Schwartz

On October 8, I was fortunate enough to attend the annual convention of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers (NACST) as a guest. The teachers were interested in learning more about the Catholic Labor Network, and after offering a few words on our work I was kindly invited to witness the proceedings.

The NACST is a union of Catholic schoolteachers with nearly 4,000 members. Wait a minute, you are probably asking… didn’t the supreme court rule in NLRB v. Catholic Bishop (1978) that the National Labor Relations Act didn’t apply to Catholic elementary and high schools because of the first amendment?

Well, yes. But the court didn’t rule that the teachers couldn’t have a union, just that the Labor Board couldn’t get involved. In 1986, America’s bishops affirmed that, Supreme Court jurisprudence notwithstanding, we answer to a higher law. Catholic social teaching required that “all church institutions must fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with the institution through whatever association or organization they freely choose.” Hundreds of Catholic schools bargain with unions representing their teachers.

The local unions of the NACST stretch from Massachusetts to Missouri. They include major school systems such as those in Buffalo, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, and single-school bargaining units that dot the Northeast and Midwest. Their members are deeply committed to their Catholic faith. They must be: wages and benefits are substantially lower than those offered in the public schools. At a surprising number of Catholic schools, teacher salaries start below $25,000 per year. These teachers have chosen significant material sacrifice to deliver our children a quality education rooted in our faith.

Indeed, the union was established by teachers who found it difficult to reconcile their faith and commitment to Catholic education with the politics of the national teachers’ unions. Although powerful unions like the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) could provide resources and support, they are firmly opposed to tuition voucher programs and have adopted positions on social issues (such as contraception and abortion) putting them at odds with Catholic teaching. In 1978, a group of local unions representing Catholic schoolteachers broke away from the AFT to form the NACST.

Without the protection of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), this was no small matter. The officers of NACST locals are working teachers who pursue union business on their own time; without the resources of a large union like the AFT or NEA they lack powerful political friends or large strike funds. For survival they rely in large measure on their employer’s fidelity to Catholic social teaching. If a bishop or school system decides to bust the union – as happened in the Diocese of Scranton, in 2006 – they have few tools at their disposal to resist.

Catholic schools may not have the resources that public school districts do, but they can certainly recognize their employees’ right to organize and bargain collectively. Surely that is the least we owe our teachers.

Who is Linna Eleanor Bresette?

Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact

CUA Archives

I didn’t know either until a few days ago. Our friends at the Catholic University of America Libraries have put together a fascinating profile of this early twentieth century labor activist who worked as a factory inspector in her home state before joining the Bishops’ Social Action Department. CUA archivist William Shepherd writes:

Linna Eleanor Bresette (1882-1960) was a teacher and pioneering social justice advocate in her native Kansas for nearly a decade before serving for thirty years as the field secretary of the Social Action Department (SAD) of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). It was with the SAD that she worked with legendary labor priests John A. Ryan, Raymond McGowan, and George G. Higgins as a tireless field worker on behalf of the working poor regardless of race or gender…

Visit the CUA Archivists’ Nook to read the whole story!

Roundup of Labor Day 2016

How did those of us who weren’t voting in a union representation election celebrate Labor Day? Well, I joined the Labor and Income Inequality team at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Arlington VA – they organized a special Mass with AFL-CIO President Emeritus Thomas Donahue serving as a lector. Later I read John Gehring’s thoughtful essay “A Catholic-Labor Revival?”  in CommonwealFr. Anthony Shonis (a CLN member) gave the keynote speech at the Owensboro, KY Central Labor Council. Ed Langlois wrote up a fine history of labor activity in the Archdiocese of Portland, OR in the Catholic Sentinel. (Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the diocese hosts one of the nation’s largest concentrations of unionized Catholic hospitals!)

Did you do anything interesting to put your faith in action this Labor Day? Tell us!

NJ, CA Catholic Conferences take action for worker justice

In each U.S. state, the Bishops have established Catholic Conference exists to coordinate faith-based advocacy at the state level. The conferences are not partisan organizations that endorse candidates, but issue-oriented groups that testify to our Catholic values in the public policy arena. This year has witnessed an important effort by the NJ Catholic Conference to support a minimum wage increase in the Garden State and the California Catholic Conference backing legislation extending overtime protections to farmworkers.

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Farmworkers Lobby for Overtime Bill ( UFW)

The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay premium wages for work beyond 40 hours per week – but many people don’t realize that the Act excludes some categories of workers, including agricultural workers. In California, the AFL-CIO and the California Catholic Conference have backed a determined effort to change that. It met with success this September when erstwhile Jesuit seminarian Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation making farmworkers eligible for overtime pay.

Meanwhile, in the Garden State, the New Jersey Catholic Conference joined with the NJ AFL-CIO and several state labor unions to bring the fight for $15 to the floor of the NJ State Legislature in Trenton. “We must always remember Pope Francis’ wisdom on the importance of the worker as he reminds us that labor is “not a mere commodity,” but has “its own inherent dignity and worth,” said Bishop Sullivan of Camden. NJ Catholic Conference representative James King brought the message to Trenton, testifying

On behalf of the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey, I ask the Senate Labor Committee to release Senate Bill 15 favorably. S15 would incrementally increase New Jersey’s minimum wage from $8.38 per hour to $15.00 per hour over four years while maintaining an annual increase based on the Cost of Living Index. Catholic Social Teaching supports workers’ rights for a just wage…. We realize that increasing the minimum wage will not eliminate poverty. However, Senate Bill 15 would  be an important step towards helping the working poor and providing the opportunity for them to enjoy a greater sense of self -worth and dignity.

Sadly, the bill was vetoed by Governor Chris Christie. Backers promise that the issue will return in 2017.

Labor Priests at their side, Boulder Station casino workers win union

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Bishop Pepe with Boulder Casino Workers

For workers at the Boulder Station Casino & Hotel in Las Vegas, Labor Day 2016 will always have a special meaning: after years of struggle, they won their union. By a margin of 2-1 the workers voted to join the Hotel and Restaurant workers’ union. And right by their side were their Bishop and a mission of Labor Priests organized by Fr. Clete Kiley, Director of Immigration Policy for their parent union, UNITEHERE. Fr. Bob Bonnott described their pastoral visit to the union hall:

I was privileged to attend the pastoral visit of Bishop Pepe to the workers in the Culinary Workers Union Hall. More than 200 workers gathered. They shared their stories –– their backgrounds, their work experiences, their labor with only two raises totaling 60 cents over six years, their lack of a contract, of benefits and of any pension after decades of work. Bishop Pepe listened. As he introduced Bishop Pepe, Deacon O’Callahan shared his own experience with labor and unions, starting with Cesar Chavez. Bishop Pepe then discarded his prepared text and spoke movingly from his heart. He shared his own immigrant story, concluding that “Catholic teaching affirms your dignity as persons and workers and supports your rights. The Church is with you and I am with you.” His words provoked tears and cheers from the workers, many if not most of whom are Catholic… Labor Day has always meant something to me, but never as much as it has this year. I invite my brother priests to consider becoming ‘labor priests’ themselves, and as well, ‘capital priests.’ We must help both workers and owners know Catholic Social Teaching.

To read Father Bob’s complete account, CLICK HERE

Now it can be told: Seattle Adjuncts say union yes

After two years, we have learned that Seattle university adjuncts voted 73-63 to join SEIU 925. Why the delay? The University was unwilling to bargain collectively with its contingent faculty voluntarily, and when the adjuncts turned to the labor board for help, the administration fought the board by invoking freedom of religion. The university, like Duquesne, St. Xavier and a handful of others, is trying to suggest it’s in the same situation as Catholic employers told to provide contraception under the Affordable Care Act – though unlike those employers, the colleges are not being asked to do anything in conflict with their faith.

The NLRB did modify its initial determination in deference to religious freedom issues. At both St. Xavier University and Seattle the NLRB announced that religion and/or theology instructors are not subject to the National Labor Relations Act on First Amendment grounds. It is indeed essential to preserve our freedom of religion, and to a layman this certainly sounds like a reasonable application of the law.  Still, I hope that these and other schools will choose to bargain with religion and theology faculty who want a union – not because of legal sanctions, but just to lead by example and conform with Catholic social teaching.

Major Settlements in Catholic Healthcare

Recent weeks have seen the end of two long-simmering contract disputes in the Catholic hospitals, one on each coast. After a year of tense negotiations, Buffalo’s Catholic Health system reached an agreement with workers at three area hospitals. The two sides stated that the agreement represented a sound basis to deliver quality care and retain good employees, and anticipated more positive labor relations going forward. “We’re proud to have come to an agreement that will promote patient care, offers the wages to retain staff and maintains important healthcare benefits,” said Dennis Trainor, Vice President of Communications Workers of America District 1. “I want to thank the bargaining teams for their extraordinary efforts and commitment to work through the complex issues we face in healthcare and find a positive way forward,” said Joe McDonald, President & CEO of Catholic Health. “We are committed to forging a new relationship with the union, built on mutual goals that reward and recognize our dedicated associates.”

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, in July Providence Health and Services and St. Joseph Health merged to form a huge health care system stretching from Southern California to Alaska: Providence St. Joseph. Providence has long been known for good labor relations and fair treatment of workers; St Joseph, not so much. Which management style will characterize the new system? A positive sign: within weeks of the merger, Providence St. Joseph and the California Nurses Association settled a long-running contract dispute that had embroiled four former St. Joseph hospitals.

Unfortunately, it seems the spirit of teamwork hasn’t reached St. Jude hospital in Fullerton. When nurses there sought to form a union, the hospital hired a “union avoidance” consultant and used heavy-handed tactics to fight the organizing campaign. They are facing unfair labor practice charges before the NLRB for surveillance and intimidation of union supporters.

Demographic news reflects decline of labor in USA

infographic georgetownTwo apparently unrelated demographic stories caught my eye in recent weeks — because they both described the declining place of labor in modern America. Out of Georgetown came a study showing that high-school graduates have been virtually locked out of the economic recovery. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control reported on suicide rates by occupational group: while most white-collar occupations fell well below the national average of 20 suicides per 100,000 population, characteristic blue-collar occupations such as agriculture, construction, and mining workers topped the rankings.

The suicide numbers appeared in the July 1, 2016 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. (Being both mortal and morbid, I subscribe to this.) While the suicide rate for American men overall was about 40 per 100K, it was 48 per 100K for those in installation, maintenance and repair  occupations, 52 per 100K in the construction and mining sectors, and a frightening 91 per 100K in farming, fishing and forestry.

Perhaps some of the explanation can be found in the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce report America’s Divided Recovery: College Haves and Have-Nots. Today’s workforce is divided roughly in thirds: one-third with a 4-year college degree or more, one third with some college education, and one-third with a high school diploma or less. The economic recovery has now generated more than 11 million new jobs, but only 1% went to workers without any college education.

Not long ago America was a place where anyone who graduated high school and was prepared to work hard could expect to earn a salary sufficient to support a family. There are a lot of reasons that this has changed, but one of them is the decline of unions – a shift that has reduced the bargaining power of the worker vs the other economic actors in society. The economists tell us that today’s free market economy, unencumbered by unions, is more efficient. Be it so: is efficiency the only criteria by which we judge an economy? Or is it worth paying a few dollars more for your smartphone, car or movie ticket if it enables one-third of our nation’s men and women a vocation and life with dignity?