US Bishops: “stand in solidarity with workers by advocating for just wages.”

“The plight of our brothers and sisters who work hard but struggle to make ends meet calls us all to reflect in a special way this Labor Day.” So begins Just Wages and Human Flourishing, the Bishops’ annual Labor Day Statement. Bishop Dewane of Venice, who chairs the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, calls us to consider what our Church teaches about just wages.

It’s a timely message. Nine years into our recovery from the Great Recession, many Americans are working again – but far too many are working for poverty wages, insufficient to support themselves and their families. In fact, even as the stock market has climbed to record levels, and incomes have rapidly climbed in our nation’s high-income households, real wages for blue-collar and service sector workers have now stagnated for an astonishing four decades. Nor can Christians remain indifferent to this injustice:

The struggle of working people, of the poor, as Pope Francis reminds us, is not first a “social or political question. No! It is the Gospel, pure and simple…” How are we as Christians, who are members of society, called to respond to the question of wages and justice?  First, we are called to live justly in our own lives whether as business owners or workers.  Secondly, we are called to stand in solidarity with our poor and vulnerable brothers and sisters.  Lastly, we should all work to reform and build a more just society, one which promotes human life and dignity and the common good of all…

So what are Christians called to do?

Practically speaking, in the setting of wages, there must be due consideration for what justly ensures security for employees to establish and maintain all significant aspects of family life, and care for family members into the future.  Likewise, those engaged in public policy and finance should consider the structural causes of low wages, especially in the way that corporations distribute profits, and respond by working to address unjust disparities. The rights of workers to organize should be respected, as should the rights of unions and worker centers to advocate for just wages, health benefits that respect life and dignity, and time for rest, and to guard against wage theft.

The laborer is worth his wages. Every worker has the right to a living wage sufficient to raise his or her family in dignity. As Bishop Dewane exhorts us in closing, “This Labor Day, let us all commit ourselves to personal conversion of heart and mind and stand in solidarity with workers by advocating for just wages, and in so doing, ‘bring glad tidings to the poor.’”

Fordham, Adjunct Union Link Landmark Union Agreement to Catholic Social Teaching

This July, Fordham adjunct faculty and other non-tenure track instructors ratified a landmark first contract. SEIU Local 200, which represents about 800 instructors, secured a three-year deal that giving most adjuncts between $7,000 and $8,000 per course by the end of the contract. Both the administration and the union expressed pride in the resulting contract, which they contended would not just improve salaries for underpaid instructors but better integrate them into university life, ultimately benefiting their students as well. And speakers representing each side linked the outcome to the unversity’s Catholic values and witness. Fordham President Joseph McShane, SJ said:

In addition to the more tangible benefits offered in the contracts, we believe that the new contracts will better integrate non-tenure track faculty into the Fordham community and foster a work environment that will continue to attract top faculty to Fordham. I have said before that organized labor has deep roots in Catholic social justice teachings, and that given its Jesuit traditions and historic connection to first-generation and working-class students, Fordham has a special duty in this area. But the benefits of these contracts do not only accrue to the non-tenure track faculty: a stronger connection to students, tenured and tenure-track faculty, and the rest of the academic community rewards all of us in ways great and small.

Fordham University Lecturer Ashar Foley, a Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies who served on the negotiating committee, agreed. “I’m so happy to have helped bring this change in our working conditions,” Foley said. “By unionizing, we play our part in the Jesuit University mission of alleviating poverty, promoting justice, and protecting human rights.”

500 Catholic Institutions That Live Catholic Social Teaching on Labor and Work

Catholic institutions, ranging from vast hospital chains to small parochial schools, employ approximately one million workers in the United States. When such institutions recognize and bargain with unions representing their employees, they model the principles of Catholic Social Teaching for lay business leaders and workers and  alike.

These institutions are a true source of Joy and Hope. The 2018 Gaudium et Spes Labor Report lists more than 500 such institutions with unions representing some or all of their employees. The list is separated into four major sectors (Healthcare, Higher Education, K-12 Schools, and Other), then broken out by State and Diocese.
Did you know that…

Read more

Georgetown, Grad Student Union Set Aside Legal Fight, Opt for New Labor Relations Model

Also: Loyola University Chicago, Adjuncts Settle First Contract

For some time, it has looked like the Georgetown University administration and its graduate student teaching and research assistants were headed for a legal showdown at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The students said they were university employees and wanted to vote on union representation in an NLRB-certified election; the University said they were not workers but students and not covered by the NLRB. It had all the makings of an ugly labor dispute.

The university felt confident it had the stronger legal argument and would prevail. But then administrators realized: even if we win the legal case, we are still bound by Catholic Social Teaching, and CST is pretty clear about workers’ right to organize. Read more

Dignity, SEIU Settle Contract for 15,000 Catholic Healthcare Workers

Dignity Health – the hospital group formerly known as Catholic Healthcare West – has been preparing for a merger with another major Catholic healthcare system, Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI). Dignity is largely union; CHI isn’t. SEIU-UHW, representing about 15,000 health techs and support personnel at Dignity, has been pressing Dignity for a contract in order prior to the merger to protect their members – a campaign that included informational pickets outside Dignity hospitals.

CLN is pleased to report that Dignity and SEIU-UHW reached agreement on a contract, ratified by SEIU members in March. Terms extend to 2023 and will protect workers through the transition. The Catholic Labor Network congratulates both parties on reaching a mutually beneficial agreement!

Is Sisterhood Powerful? Vatican newspaper questions church treatment of women religious

In an interesting March story, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano published a thoughtful article on the work of women religious in the church. “The (almost) free work of sisters” posed difficult questions about the wages, working conditions and respect given those who perform so much of the church’s labor. Reporter Marie-Lucile Kubacki interviewed some of the religious sisters who teach in schools, tend the sick in hospitals, and even cook and clean for senior prelates. Sister Marie (a pseudonym) told Kubacki:

I often receive sisters in situations of domestic service that are definitely given little recognition. Some of them serve in bishops’ or cardinals’ residences… Does an ecclesiastic think about having himself served a meal by the sister who works for him and then leaving her to eat alone in the kitchen once he has been served? Is it normal for a consecrated man to be served in this manner by another consecrated person? And knowing that consecrated people destined for domestic work are almost always women religious?

Sr. Paule added that unlike most other Italian workers, often

the sisters do not have a contract or an agreement with the bishops or parish priests for whom they work… they are paid little or nothing. This happens in schools or doctors’ offices and more often in pastoral work or when the sisters take care of the cooking and housework in the bishop’s residence or in the parish. … The greatest problem is simply how to live in a community and how to enable it to live, how to provide the necessary funds for the religious and professional formation of its members, how to establish who pays and how to pay the bills when sisters are ill or need treatment because they are incapacitated by old age, as well as how to find resources to carry out the mission according to their charism.

CLICK HERE to read “The (almost) free work of sisters”

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 clayton@catholiclabor.org 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.