Catholic religious orders are known for their works of mercy, often running hospitals, nursing homes and schools. But in the course of their activity, many of these orders accumulated substantial assets, including stock holdings in major US corporations. That gives them power, and, increasingly, they are using this power to advance worker justice.
This work is coordinated by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), where Catholic and other religious organizations come together and use their power as activist shareholders to promote justice. The ICCR came together in 1971 and was originally focused on fighting apartheid in South Africa. Today ICCR members control some $4 trillion in assets work in a variety of program areas, including – since June of this year – “Advancing Worker Justice.” They are engaging some of the nation’s leading corporations about living wages, freedom of association, occupational health and safety, paid sick leave, and other essential topics.
The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, a community of more than 300 in Southeast Pennsylvania, have been on the front lines of this work. As Sr. Nora Nash explained,
“The old adage ‘an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay’ is still at the heart of worker’s rights and responsibilities. A just wage reflects equality, opportunity, transparency and a decent life for the worker which includes a safe working environment, paid time off for sickness, personal days, vacation, etc. We’ve spent many years working with major corporations to draw attention to the extreme inequality between the CEO and the lowest paid worker.”
The process usually begins with a letter to the corporate target asking for a dialogue on the topic of concern. If dialogue is rejected or proves fruitless, they may file a shareholder resolution. For the activist shareholder, it’s not enough to object to a corporate practice – you need to make a “business case” for resolving it. Fortunately that’s not an insuperable obstacle: for instance, it’s perfectly plausible to argue that eliminating known occupational hazards or reducing occupational injury rates is good for the bottom line.
The Sisters have an active agenda this year. In the worker justice field they are looking to engage Darden Restuarants (think Olive Garden or Longhorn Steakhouse) and FedEx. At Darden they are concerned about low wages for restaurant workers; at FedEx they are seeking information about paid sick leave policies.
Labor unions have long leveraged pension fund investments to initiate similar dialogues with major corporations in order to promote worker justice. It’s great to see religious orders stepping up their activity in this field!