Fighting for a 40-hour Week for Farm Workers

A guest contribution from CLN member Laurie Konwinski

The workers who harvest fruits and vegetables, milk cows, and tend other farm animals do not have the same labor rights as other workers in New York State. The same is true in almost every other state.

It seems no coincidence that during the Jim Crow era, when millions of African Americans labored as farmworkers and domestic workers, those two categories of workers were denied coverage under the basic labor rights established under the New Deal.  Those rights included the right to overtime after a 40-hour work week.  Over eight decades later, federal and state labor laws continue to exclude farmworkers.

Catholic belief in the dignity of labor and in the right of every single worker to basic workplace fairness determines that there is no legal nor moral basis for this unequal treatment. For many years, the New York State Catholic Conference and dozens of other faith and labor organizations supported passage of the state-level Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, a bill to end the exclusion of farmworkers from labor protections such as overtime, a guaranteed day of rest per week, and the right to bargain collectively.

In 2019, the Catholic Diocese of Rochester New York collected more 10,300 petition signatures in favor of the bill.  A watered-down version of it finally passed the New York State legislature that year and was signed into law.  Pressure from the very powerful agricultural lobby shaped the bill so that farmworkers would only receive overtime after working 60 hours per week.  However, the new law also established a three-person wage board to consider if that 60-hour threshold ought to be lowered.

Advocates from Catholic Charities and workers’ rights organizations funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development were among hundreds of people who testified at recent hearings of this wage board.  In asking that the overtime threshold be lowered, they cited the health and safety risks facing farmworkers, especially after 40 hours of work, and the obvious structural racism of a system that provides unequal treatment to a workforce comprised almost exclusively of people of color.  A decision from the wage board is pending.  It may be one more step towards equal labor rights for those whose work feeds millions of people.

-Laurie Konwinski
Coordinator, Justice & Peace Ministry
Catholic Charities Tompkins/Tioga, based in Ithaca NY
and member of the Diocesan Public Policy Committee of the Diocese of Rochester NY

MD CLN Supports Union Rights for Public Defenders

Guest Contribution from CLN Member and Public Defender Jeff Ross

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender (OPD) is the largest legal services provider in the state and is charged by statute with representing indigent clients in a wide array of proceedings, including criminal trials, juvenile proceedings, appeals, post-conviction proceedings, and proceedings affecting parental rights. The Maryland OPD has approximately 650 employees, including assistant public defenders, social workers, paralegals, investigators, and clerical staff. Unlike approximately 30,000 other Maryland state employees, Maryland OPD employees do not have collective bargaining rights.

Employees in public defender agencies across 18 states have collective bargaining rights. In 2020, the Maryland Defender’s Union (MDU) was chartered as AFSCME Local 423, an affiliate of AFSCME Council 3. With passage of collective bargaining for Maryland OPD employees, the MDU will be certified with the state as the bargaining agent for Maryland OPD employees.

The Maryland General Assembly has begun holding hearings in the current legislative session on House Bill 90 (cross-filed with Senate Bill 255), which would secure access to grievance procedures and collective bargaining rights for Maryland OPD employees. A similar bill introduced last year passed the House of Delegates with unanimous Democratic support but fell short in the Senate Finance Committee. However, MDU is encouraged by the prospects of HB90 and SB255 this session, as both bills have secured stronger and broader support than last year. On January 18, HB90 was unopposed during testimony before the House Appropriations Committee. Members of the Catholic Labor Network in Maryland, joining other organizations such as CASA de Maryland, Jews United for Justice, and the NAACP Maryland State Conference, can show their support for the bill by sending a letter to the Appropriations Committee.  SB255 will be heard by the Senate Finance Committee on February 10.

The employees of the Maryland OPD serve the poor of Maryland by working to ensure that every client is treated fairly under the law and in accord with their human dignity. The work is draining, even overwhelming, with caseloads often reaching unmanageable levels. With guaranteed access to grievance procedures and the right to collectively bargain, employees of the Maryland OPD would be in a much stronger position to ensure that their indigent clients receive outstanding representation and that they themselves are treated fairly in the process.  From the perspective of Catholic social teaching, with its embrace of a preferential option for the poor and an insistence on the right of employees to join unions and to engage in collective bargaining, passage of HB90/SB255 would be a double-win.


Workers, Catholic Labor Network Testify in Support of Right to Recall for Howard County Hotel Workers

At the start of the pandemic, both business and leisure travel ground to a halt, and hotels abruptly laid off most of their staff. As a result, we have seen a nationwide movement for “Right to Recall” or “Right of Return” – state and local policies requiring that hotels, upon reopening, offer employment to their laid-off career employees before seeking replacements. That movement has come to Howard County, Maryland and local Catholic Labor Network members joined local hotel workers in testifying for such a measure before the Howard County Council on Jan. 19.

Catholic social teaching holds that a properly ordered business enterprise is a partnership between management and workers. Right to recall policies help reassemble these partnerships after the disruptions of the pandemic. It seems a matter of simple justice that the career workers who made these firms profitable in the first place have the opportunity to claim their posts as the economy recovers. That’s why last year the Catholic Labor Network supported hotel workers’ union UNITE HERE and other community organizations in successful campaigns for right to recall in Washington DC and Baltimore MD.

Events in nearby Columbia demonstrated why right to recall is important. The owner of the Sheraton Columbia is attempting to use the pandemic to shed a career union workforce and reopen the hotel under a new name with a cheaper, nonunion labor force. Last year the Catholic Labor Network hosted a “listening session” with the displaced workers at nearby St. John the Evangelist parish, where several of the workers attended Mass. The workers asked the community to boycott the hotel until the owner agrees to reinstate them.

Of course, the proposed Howard County law covers all hotels in the county, not just one – it’s intended to level the playing field and make sure that workers in the hospitality industry are made whole after the terrible covid recession. Displaced hotel workers testified how they currently remain underemployed or employed at jobs of much lower quality, and expressed their desire to resume their career positions when available. (The law does not require hotels to hire employees that they don’t need – it just grants “right of first refusal” to the former employees when the hotel IS ready to hire.)

In the hearing held just after Martin Luther King day, Catholic Labor Network member and Howard County resident Ward Morrow summed up CLN’s position admirably:

The Maryland Catholic Labor Network, working with other faith and community leaders, held a listening session to hear directly from these workers. They are our neighbors, our parishioners, fellow taxpayers, and your constituents. They have worked long and hard in Howard County and want nothing more than to get back to their work just as it had been prior to Covid. If a business leader won’t honor that, and at least one has not, then that is why we need to pass this legislation, as other jurisdictions have done. Dr. King got it right when he said,” The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.” It is time for the Howard County Council to do the right thing in this case and unanimously pass this legislation.

This newsletter will report on the legislation as it moves forward.

Pope Devotes Reflection on St. Joseph to the Dignity of Work and Just Treatment for Workers

In remarks given in his general audience on 12 January 2022, the Holy Father dedicated himself to the discussion of St. Joseph the Worker, drawing conclusions on the dignity of work and just treatment for workers.

Reminding us that people in the synagogue at Nazareth were scandalized that the son of a carpenter presumed to teach with authority (Mt 13), Pope Francis reminds us that the Son of God chose to reveal himself as a modest craftsman and son of a craftsman – a lesson in the dignity of all those who work, whatever their circumstances. He continued…

Let me repeat what I said: the hidden workers, the workers who do hard labour in mines and in certain factories: let’s think of them. Let’s think about them. Let’s think about those who are exploited with undeclared work, who are paid in contraband, on the sly, without a pension, without anything. And if you don’t work, you have no security. Undocumented work. And today there is a lot of undocumented work.

[Let us think] of the victims of work, who suffer from work accidents. Of the children who are forced to work: this is terrible! A child at the age of play, who should be playing, forced to work like an adult! Children forced to work. And of those — poor people! — who rummage in the dumps to look for something useful to trade: they go to the dumps… All these are our brothers and sisters, who earn their living this way: they don’t give them dignity! Let us think about this. And this is happening today, in the world, this is happening today.

But I think too of those who are out of work. How many people go knocking on the doors of factories, of businesses [asking] “Is there anything to do?” — “No, there’s nothing, there’s nothing. [I think] of those who feel their dignity wounded because they cannot find this work. They return home: “And? Have you found something?” — “No, nothing… I went to Caritas and I brought bread. What gives dignity is not bringing bread home. You can get it from Caritas — no, this doesn’t give you dignity. What gives you dignity is earning bread — and if we don’t give our people, our men and women, the ability to earn bread, that is a social injustice in that place, in that nation, in that continent. The leaders must give everyone the possibility of earning bread, because this ability to earn gives them dignity. It is an unction of dignity, work. And this is important.

To read his reflections in their entirety, CLICK HERE.

A Worker Justice Victory Worth Remembering

courtesy of Mark Piper

Winters in Wisconsin are cold, but on one particular evening it wasn’t just frigid but bleak for the employees of the Allen-Edmonds shoe factory in Belgium, WI. In January 1984, an Allen-Edmonds shoe factory went up in flames — a total loss. It appeared that the non-union 250 employees would be unemployed either short-term or long-term. But, down the road in Sheboygan, Robert Laverenz of Laverenz Shoe Company, joined with his unionized workforce to step in and step up. “It wasn’t a question of should we or shouldn’t we help out,” he was quoted as saying. “The question was how soon and how much could we help?” Members of Local 796 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, representing his employees voted to switch to a four-day work week. “Every single hand went up in affirmation,” he said in praise of the union vote. The competitors’ employees, out of work, came by bus and worked continuously Friday – Sunday producing 1,200 shoes a week of their own – until Allen-Edmunds was able to rebuild from the fire.

This action was done through Catholic Social Teaching, solidarity, and by a non-church entity, a union, which the Church affirms as a good. As recorded in the book Confident & Competent: A challenge for the lay church:

There was no formal church or parish involvement in this act [Local 796] of sustaining and improving the world, no prophetic actions, no special ministries — just laypeople collectively doing what they thought was right in the normal course of their lives… the church in preparation and reflection has the responsibility to train, support, agitate and minister to [people] at work in the world.


Virginia Beach City Workers Seek Union Rights

As a matter of Virginia law, cities and counties in the Old Dominion have the option to recognize unions of their employees and engage in collective bargaining with them. As a matter of Catholic Social Teaching, however, the right of workers to join unions is a natural right. That’s why the Catholic Labor Network is supporting Virginia Beach workers who are asking the city to bargain with their chosen representatives – as it did recently with workers in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties in Northern Virginia.

The right of workers to organize and bargain collectively has been fundamental to Catholic Social Teaching since Pope Leo XIII issued his Encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. And that teaching hasn’t changed. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2009 social Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate: “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 therefore be honoured today even more than in the past.”

In addition to the argument from Catholic Social Teaching on union rights, in Virginia Beach there is a powerful case to be made on the grounds of racial equity. A Commonwealth Institute report demonstrates that the city’s workers earn substantially less than their private-sector counterparts, and the Virginia Beach public workforce is disproportionately African-American.

The Tidewater Sowers of Justice, an area Catholic and Christian coalition, has been active in supporting the workers – especially through its Dismantling Racism Working Community. Teresa Stanley, a member of Tidewater Sowers and a parishioner at Church of the Holy Apostles in Virginia Beach, told me:

The sin of systemic racism has resulted in a disproportionate number of the lowest paid workers in essential public sector employment being people of color and women. It is a moral imperative that as people of faith, we stand in solidarity with those that are working to dismantle oppressive economic practices for the common good of all. We believe that the economy must serve people (all people), not the other way around… Catholic social teaching principles challenge us with the moral imperative to stand in solidarity with workers that are speaking out to ensure through collective bargaining that critical human rights issues of having a real voice for safety, dignity, living wages and equity in the workforce are addressed.

The Catholic Labor Network has directed letters in support of collective bargaining to the Virginia Beach Mayor and City Council and looks forward to working with the Tidewater Sowers of Justice and city workers’ unions to promote union rights for Virginia Beach workers.

Pope Francis Sees Labor as Key to Peace

On New Year’s Day, Pope Francis released his message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace. In an interesting twist, the Holy Father listed labor or work alongside dialogue and education as a tool for peacebuilding. Why labor?

Labour is an indispensable factor in building and keeping peace. It is an expression of ourselves and our gifts, but also of our commitment, self-investment and cooperation with others, since we always work with or for someone. Seen in this clearly social perspective, the workplace enables us to learn to make our contribution towards a more habitable and beautiful world.

Francis looked at the impact of the pandemic on work and workers, and paid special attention to migrant workers and all those trapped in the informal economy. But he also had a more general message.

It is more urgent than ever to promote, throughout our world, decent and dignified working conditions, oriented to the common good and to the safeguarding of creation. The freedom of entrepreneurial initiatives needs to be ensured and supported; at the same time, efforts must be made to encourage a renewed sense of social responsibility, so that profit will not be the sole guiding criterion.

CLICK HERE to read the message in its entirety.

CLN Member’s Book Recalls 1989 UFCW 1105 Strike

“People Are # 1 ” is a book about the 81-day strike by thousands of Union grocery store workers in the Puget Sound Area of Washington State in 1989. It was a fight against corporate greed. The workers won because they had the support of other unions, churches, community organizations, and consumers.  It was SOLIDARITY in action.

To buy a signed copy or copies, send a mailed note to Roger Yockey, 5910 West Lincoln Ave. #23, Yakima, Washington 98908, informing him of how many copies of the book you want and where to send the book/books and your mailing address. Books are $10 each plus $4 for shipping and handling; checks should be made payable to Roger Yockey.

All proceeds from sale of the book will go to GATE ( Global Awareness Through Experience) to support not-for-profit grass-roots organizations in Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala. GATE projects in Latin America include education, potable water, health and human services, agriculture, and youth leadership formation.

CLN, faith leader delegation meet with RJR tobacco about farm labor practices

The work of harvesting tobacco is difficult and dangerous, and is largely performed by immigrant “guest” workers. They have turned to the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) to seek improvement in their conditions, but growers in North Carolina and surrounding states have largely thwarted their organizing efforts to date. That’s why a faith leader delegation including the Catholic Labor Network’s Executive Director Clayton Sinyai recently met with officials of RJ Reynolds Tobacco.

Current conditions in the market create a race to the bottom, in which large numbers of small growers compete to produce tobacco for RJR at the lowest prices, leading to low wages and living standards for workers. Most of the labor is performed by “guest” workers recruited through the H2A program, who are subject to deportation if they displease the grower or labor contractor who sponsored their work permit. FLOC says that RJR – a large, profitable corporation – needs to take responsibility for labor practices in its supply chain, even if that leads to modest increases in the cost of tobacco.

The faith leaders, who also included Julie Taylor of the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM) and Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, were invited to the meeting after collecting more than 600 signatures of faith leaders across the country on a letter deploring conditions in the industry that was addressed to RJR’s corporate parent, British American Tobacco. They urged RJR to negotiate an MOU with FLOC that would ensure the right to organize is respected on the farms of their growers.

RJR officials contended that they had taken several unilateral steps to promote better working conditions in the industry and sought to evade responsibility for workers’ rights at their suppliers, but the faith leaders were insistent that negotiations with FLOC continue.

The Catholic Labor Network is a member of the NFWM. For more information on the meeting, CLICK HERE

CLN, Blessed Sacrament Parish Host Listening Session with Displaced Chateau Marmont Workers

In December, the Catholic Labor Network joined Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) to host a listening session where displaced workers from Hollywood’s famed Chateau Marmont Hotel testified to long mistreatment on the job before being abruptly fired at the start of the pandemic. The workers, Alex Roldan and Martha Moran, spoke before a crowd of 30 at Hollywood’s Blessed Sacrament parish.

After a welcome and opening prayer from Blessed Sacrament’s Fr. Ike Udoh, SJ, who has been accompanying these workers in their journey for justice, Roldan and Moran shared their stories. Read more