Happy Birthday, Rerum Novarum!

Pope Leo XIII

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 [25].

Church and Labor in Las Vegas

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.

Fr. Clete Kiley prays over Station Casino workers who are organizing to improve their wages, working conditions, and health coverage.

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.

Local 226 Chaplain Gloria Hernandez stands by as Mercedes Cabrera, who works at the Green Valley Ranch Station Casino, explains that few can afford the premiums to purchase Station’s health insurance plan, leaving many workers uninsured — along with their spouses and children.

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!

Short Subjects – Top 10 Recent Labor-Church Stories

There’s been a lot of news this Spring at the intersection of Church and Labor! Here are some highlights….

  1. Georgetown Professor (and CLN Board Member) joined colleagues to write about the need for Bargaining for the Common Good. McCartin is promoting union bargaining that incorporates community member input in this CCHD-supported initiative. Check out Why the Labor Movement Has Failed—And How to Fix It in the Boston Review.

2. It’s been a bad month for Uber. My Kalmanovitz Initiative colleague Katie Wells released a report based on interviews with DC-area Uber drivers. The report found that the formula for driver reimbursement was so complicated that drivers couldn’t figure out what they were making; that many lived in poverty; and that many fell into a “debt trap” to lease or service their vehicles. Meanwhile, documents filed for Uber’s IPO shined light on the fact that even with an army underpaid drivers Uber is losing money and this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. No wonder many Uber drivers went on strike on May 8. UPDATE: Life just got even harder for Uber drivers and other “gig workers.” The National Labor Relations Board has just decided that these workers are independent contractors rather than employees, meaning that they have no legally protected right to join a union.

3. At Mercy St. Vincent Hospital in Toledo, nearly two thousand nurses and techs represented by the UAW have been on strike for more than a week. The two sides are stuck on employee health care premiums and the amount of time hospital workers are expected to be available for “on-call” work assignments.

4. Once again, a bill is before the New York state legislature to give farmworkers the right to organize in unions and bargain collectively. Once again, the Church in New York is supporting the move. Will it finally happen?

5. Did they really say that? Ramp workers at Delta – one of America’s most stubbornly anti-union airlines — are getting ready to vote on union membership in the International Association of Machinists (IAM). Delta’s communication team has posted signs saying “Union dues cost around $700 a year. A new video game system with the latest hits sounds like fun. Put your money towards that instead of paying dues to the union.” Now I’m no HR expert, but I suspect that talking to your employees as if they were children may be counterproductive here.

6. Meanwhile in the Vatican, Pope Francis spoke out on unemployment for the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker (May 1)

7. Workers at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel voted 70-51 to form a union and join UNITE HERE Local 7. Marriott management kept union supporters under strict surveillance and held mandatory employee meetings to intimidate union supporters, but they held out. Church solidarity may have helped. The Catholic Labor Network organized a prayer service for the workers and addressed a letter to the hotel’s general manager expressing concern about the workers’ charges. More importantly, Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden and Fr. Ty Hullinger visited with the workers to hear their stories.

8. Did they really do that? Volkswagen workers in Tennessee have filed for a union election. This would be a big deal; while the domestic auto plants of the West Coast, Midwest, and Northeast are union, none of the foreign transplants building Hondas, BMWs and Toyotas in the South are organized. Volkswagen was famous – until now – for its cooperative labor relations worldwide. Volkswagen is not just telling workers they shouldn’t form a union – they brought in Tennessee Governor Bill Lee to tell workers they shouldn’t join a union!

9. Did you know that one of the founders of the anarchist IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) was a rabble-rousing Catholic priest? To learn about the life and career of Fr Thomas Hagerty, check out Dean Detloff’s story in Commonweal.

10. Health care workers’ right to religious liberty means they cannot be required to provide services that violate their conscience, such as birth control or sterilization. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued the long-awaited rule on May 2.

What is “Codetermination?”

Ever heard of “codetermination”? In industrial relations, the term refers to a practice used in Europe, most famously in Germany, to ensure that firms operate for the common good of owners, managers and workers alike. You see, German law sets aside seats for workers on the corporate boards of German corporations. The practice ensures that worker viewpoints get a hearing at the highest levels, where corporate decisions are made, and has a hidden Catholic history. And as Matt Mazewski points out in his recent Commonweal Article “Bringing the Workers on Board”, presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to bring codetermination to the United States. Under her proposal, 40% of the seats on a corporate board would be set aside for elected employee representatives.

Joint labor-management control of work has been a theme of Catholic Social Teaching from its beginning in Rerum Novarum, which promoted “workingmen’s unions… consisting either of workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together” in the manner of the medieval guilds [49]. The teaching was further elaborated in Quadragesimo Anno, in which Pope Pius XI advised that “so far as is possible, the work-contract be somewhat modified by a partnership-contract [69].” Mazewski reviews this history in the concrete case of Germany and its institutions.

Indeed, he concludes,

Given the support for some form of codetermination or worker ownership evident in the past century of papal writings, it is striking that the topic is hardly ever mentioned by Catholic labor activists or by the bishops—including the current Bishop of Rome. Most discussions of the church’s views on labor and the rights of workers begin and end with unions. A search of the website for the Catholic Labor Network, which strives to advance workers’ rights and to spread awareness about Catholic teaching on the issue, returns nearly two hundred mentions of the word “union” but not a single instance of “codetermination” or “worker ownership.”

Phil Murray, CIO President

Ouch! (In our defense, the word “codetermination” does not appear in the Encyclicals or the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church either.) But we agree it’s a fruitful topic — and although not referenced in Bringing the Workers on Board, America had its own brief flirtation with codetermination. Starting with the National Recovery Association codes of the early 1930s to the National War Labor Board of the early 1940s, the mid-20th century saw a series of experiments in joint labor-management regulation of economic production. Phil Murray, the devoutly Catholic leader of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the Steelworkers Union – inspired by Quadragesimo Anno — advocated vigorously for developing a permanent system of Industrial Councils in America jointly led by unions and captains of industry. The idea fell out of favor in the postwar years, however, even as Germany developed its modern system of codetermination.

One might say there are traces of codetermination to be found in the construction unions, where joint labor-management trusts still operate the apprenticeship programs, hiring halls, health insurance programs and pensions for the union sector of this vital industry. But I hope that Senator Warren’s proposal leads to more discussions of this excellent practice – and if it does, you’ll see more of it in the Catholic Labor Network blog!

Workers’ Memorial Day 2019

April 28 is observed across much of the world as Workers’ Memorial Day. On this day we pause to remember the millions of workers who give their lives each day planting and harvesting our food, building our homes and cars, paving our roads and shipping our goods. In a terrible reminder of the hazards many endure at work, April 27 witnessed a horrible accident when a tower crane in Seattle was toppled by high winds. The two operators, who were building a new facility for Google, were killed, as were two bystanders.

More than 5,000 workers die from traumatic injuries on the job each year, and some 50,000 are killed by occupational diseases such as black lung, asbestosis and cancers caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals. And yet, the number of OSHA inspectors has remained flat even as our population and workforce grows, leaving each inspector responsible for protecting more workers. Today there is one OSHA inspector for every 79,000 workers. Put another way, at current staffing levels it would take OSHA 165 years simply to inspect each workplace once. And despite all, the White House is calling for cutting workplace safety and health regulations, not increasing them.

To learn more about workplace safety and health in the United States, check out the AFL-CIO Report Death on the Job: 2019.

Cause of Worker-Saint Opened

“Brother Marinus”Rescued 14,000+ Korean Refugees

Merchant Marine Captain Leonard LaRue earned lasting fame during the Korean war. The proud Masters, Mates and Pilot union member rescued more than 14,000 Korean refugees trapped in Hungnam when Chinese “volunteers” suddenly intervened in the Korean War. LaRue and his crew executed the daring evacuation under fire on Christmas Day in 1950. After the war, LaRue took vows as a Benedictine monk and became Brother Marinus. Bishop Seratelli of the Diocese of Paterson has opened the cause for sainthood for Servant of God Brother Marinus. To read more, check out coverage in the Diocese of Paterson Beacon.  

Workers’ Memorial Day 2019

April 28 is observed across much of the world as Workers’ Memorial Day. On this day we pause to remember the millions of workers who give their lives each day planting and harvesting our food, building our homes and cars, paving our roads and shipping our goods. In a terrible reminder of the hazards many endure at work, April 27 witnessed a horrible accident when a tower crane in Seattle was toppled by high winds. The two operators, who were building a new facility for Google, were killed, as were two bystanders.

More than 5,000 workers die from traumatic injuries on the job each year, and some 50,000 are killed by occupational diseases such as black lung, asbestosis and cancers caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals. And yet, the number of OSHA inspectors has remained flat even as our population and workforce grows, leaving each inspector responsible for protecting more workers. Today there is one OSHA inspector for every 79,000 workers. Put another way, at current staffing levels it would take OSHA 165 years simply to inspect each workplace once. And despite all, the White House is calling for cutting workplace safety and health regulations, not increasing them.

Please pray for those in peril on the job. To learn more about workplace safety and health in the United States, check out the AFL-CIO Report Death on the Job: 2019.

CLN On-The-Spot Reporting: Farmworker Activism

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of1935 guaranteed workers the right to organize and bargain collectively without employer retaliation — but it excluded agricultural workers. That means farmworker organizations must use other tactics to organize and bring employers to the bargaining table. Since the time of Cesar Chavez and the celebrated UFW grape boycott in the late 1960s, consumer boycotts have been a critical strategy for farmworkers seeking justice. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) are among the labor organizations doing just this.

The tomato pickers of Florida have used targeted boycotts of fast food restaurants to improve their own working conditions – and eventually to obtain a fair labor code of conduct covering many other growers and their employees. Today all the fast food chains but Wendy’s have agreed to abide by the code. CIW has called for a boycott of Wendy’s until they follow suit. In early March, CIW members did a bus tour to four universities hosting a campus Wendy’s and rallied with student supporters, calling on administrators to “Boot the Braids!” The tour visited University of Florida, UNC-Chapel Hill, Ohio State, and University of Michigan. UM has announced that it will not renew Wendy’s lease.

FLOC members and supporters tell Circle K to pull VUSE e-cigarettes from shelves

Meanwhile, tobacco harvesters in North Carolina organized by FLOC are calling on RJ Reynolds to police its supply chain. FLOC is unique in the farm labor movement, having succeeded in forming a union of guest workers in the Tar Heel state. But many tobacco workers still toil for nonunion growers, for low wages and under unsafe conditions. Much as the fast food chains have the power to demand that their growers adhere to fair labor standards, RJ Reynolds could do this for their tobacco growers. Until they do, FLOC is calling for a boycott of RJR’s VUSE e-cigarettes. On March 28, FLOC members and their supporters rallied outside the regional HQ for Circle K, asking that the convenience store chain pull the offending e-cigarettes from their shelves. Many such actions have been held since.

We ask members and friends of the Catholic Labor Network to remember farmworkers and honor these boycotts.

May 1: Feast of St. Joseph the Worker

America’s official Labor Day falls in September, but the world’s Labor Day is May 1. That includes the Church, which celebrates this day as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. As Pope St John Paul II observed in his Apostolic Exhortation on Joseph, Redemptoris Custos:

If the Family of Nazareth is an example and model for human families, in the order of salvation and holiness, so too, by analogy, is Jesus’ work at the side of Joseph the carpenter. In our own day, the Church has emphasized this by instituting the liturgical memorial of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1. Human work, and especially manual labor, receive special prominence in the Gospel. Along with the humanity of the Son of God, work too has been taken up in the mystery of the Incarnation, and has also been redeemed in a special way. At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption [22].

We might observe that Joseph is a saint for our times in another way. Lest we forget, Joseph, Mary and Jesus became refugees when Herod sought to destroy the Christ Child, and Joseph spent years thereafter as an immigrant worker practicing his trade in Egypt.

BTW, curious about our beautiful Catholic Labor Network artwork on the right? It’s adapted from an image by the Catholic Worker’s Ade Bethune.

On the Road: New Orleans and Nashville

Neither Louisiana nor Tennessee are known as “union states.” Workers in both places who want to organize and bargain need to navigate so-called “right-to-work” laws designed to stymie collective action. Nonetheless, in recent visits to the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Diocese of Nashville I found impressive networks of unions, workers’ centers and community groups campaigning for worker justice, often with the moral and material support of the local Church.

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