Into Catholic Social Teaching? Come to the Social Action Summer Institute!

In most Catholic Diocesan offices, you’ll find someone – perhaps a priest, more often a Deacon or a member of the laity – responsible for promoting Catholic Social Teaching. These men and women report to the local Bishop and are a critical resource for those doing the work of justice. And there’s a professional association that brings them together: the Roundtable Association of Catholic Diocesan Social Action Directors. The Roundtable has partnered with the Catholic Labor Network on a number of projects and events over the past three years.

Each July the Roundtable hosts a Social Action Summer Institute (SASI) featuring workshops on different dimensions of Catholic Social Teaching. It’s not restricted to members of the Roundtable, and in fact is open to any Catholic interested in social justice or social ministry. And this year, due to the pandemic, SASI will be virtual – making it accessible to those who can’t travel.

Want to learn more about Catholic Social Teaching, and meet like-minded friends and contacts? SASI will be held July 14 and 15 this year. To learn more about the event, and to register, CLICK HERE.

Immigration Judges’ Union Rights Under Attack

When men and women facing persecution abroad seek asylum in the United States, who evaluates their claims? More than 500 immigration judges, represented by the National Association of Immigration Judges, an affiliate of IFPTE (the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers). But they may not be represented for long: former Attorney General Bill Barr moved to decertify the judges’ union, and alarmingly, new AG Merrick Garland has not taken any action to stop the decertification.

The NAIJ mounted a strong defense of immigrants’ due process rights in the face of political pressure, drawing the ire of the former administration. So it was probably no coincidence that AG Barr began arguing that the judges were “managers” and not entitled to union representation. The Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) – which plays a similar role for federal employees to that played by the NLRB for private sector workers – accepted this argument but at the union’s request is reconsidering.

The Catholic Labor Network has joined with dozens of other labor and immigrant organizations – from the AFL-CIO to the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc (CLINIC) – to address a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging him to join their side and vindicate the union rights of the nation’s immigration judges. CLN will keep you posted as the situation develops.

New Hampshire Workers, Faith Leaders Fend Off “Right to Work”

“Right to Work” laws don’t give anyone the right to a job – they weaken unions by giving workers the “right” to opt out of paying dues when a majority of their co-workers have voted for union representation and are paying their fair share. So it was good news to learn that on June 3, by a vote of 199–175, the New Hampshire House of Representatives rejected legislation that would have made the Granite State “Right to Work.”

The defeat culminated a six-month campaign to educate New Hampshire’s working families about the issue and to build community support for labor. The campaign included vigorous outreach to the faith community, which responded strongly to appeals to support working families.

Diocese of Manchester Public Policy Director Robert Dunn, representing Bishop Libasci, told legislators:

In our view, SB 61 would have the effect of substantially diminishing the ability of unions to carry out their duties… Therefore, we respectfully oppose SB 61, and we ask that you recommend it as inexpedient to legislate.

To read Dunn’s statement in its entirety, click Letter to NH House Labor Committee re SB 61 2021.02.08

Social Doctrine

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine
By Bill Droel

Modern Catholic social doctrine is officially 130-years old. It dates from Pope Leo XIII’s May 1891 encyclical, On the Condition of Labor. Subsequent popes (as will be mentioned) advance social doctrine, often on anniversaries of On the Condition of Labor.
Doctrines are derived from reflection on the accumulated experience of Christians in many societies and from an application of reason or science, particularly the social sciences. Doctrines are in harmony with God’s revealed Scripture. Dogma, by contrast, comes to us directly from revelation; it cannot be figured out only through study of nature. The dogma of the Trinity, for example, fits an understanding of nature but God had to reveal the Trinity to us. Dogma is not irrational; it is not opposed to science. It is true but not empirical, like a spouse’s love.
Western Europe in the time of Leo XIII (1810-1903) was experiencing industrialization which in turn attracted thousands of families to urban centers. This industrial era held forth many promises including a higher standard of living and conveniences. However, Leo XIII among others saw that industry and urban life came with a paradox: degrading working conditions and great poverty amid concentrated wealth. The Communist Manifesto of 1848 addressed the paradox and named a resolution: proletariat revolution. Leo XIII countered Marxism with Christian principles.
The bedrock principle of Catholic social doctrine is the intrinsic dignity of each person. Humanists all agree that modern individuals are free and can exercise appropriate agency. Jews, Christians and Muslims know that this truth is additionally supported in Scripture; that each person is created in the image and likeness of God. (Genesis 1:27 & Qur’an 17:70)
The modifier intrinsic is important because the term dignity is sometimes used carelessly. Intrinsic means built-in. For example, a husband does not give his wife dignity. She has it long before they meet. An employer does not give employees dignity. It comes with them in the morning and stays with them after they punch the clock. God put dignity into each person.
A negligent husband or an exploitative boss can, of course, degrade a person’s dignity. Thus an obligation to improve degrading situations follows from the principle of basic dignity. To that end On the Condition of Labor advocates for safe and humane working conditions, for a family wage and for the right of workers to collectively bargain. To achieve these and other improvements, Leo XIII says government’s role includes restraint on laissez-faire capitalism.
A subsequent column will discuss other social encyclicals—specifically St. John Paul II’s On Human Work on its 40th anniversary and the recent encyclicals of Pope Francis, one on inequality/environment and one on public friendship.
Officialdom uses the term Catholic social teaching for these encyclicals and a few other Church documents. I prefer the term Catholic social thought and action. This includes the official teaching but it also includes reflection on the teaching and its implementation in worldly settings. Doctrine is principles that tell us what to do. But, they have to be applied with prudence. As the principles hit the streets or corridors, right-minded people can disagree on the how to implement the doctrine in fluid situations. Here’s one small example: Catholic social doctrine says employees have a right to bargain collectively without the maternal or paternal meddling of their boss. The application, however, is more complex. Do we necessarily want a union at this workplace? If so, do we want this union or a different union or an independent union of our own making? If we do not want a union, what is our alternative mechanism for improving conditions at our workplace? Sincere employees can respectfully disagree with one another. This example becomes more complex if unfortunately the employer violates the starting principle or skirts the law. To be continued…

Obtain Droel’s booklet Catholic Administrators and Labor Unions from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $1.50).

Tell Your Senator to Step Up for Pregnant Workers

In 2018 I reported on a shocking story in the New York Times. It appeared that a number of pregnant women working in a logistics shipping center had miscarried. One of the women, in pain from heavy lifting, had asked to leave work early – and her supervisor advised her to get an abortion.

As Catholics we believe in the dignity of work, but we also believe that life and family need to be protected from excessive demands in the workplace. That’s why I am asking you to write your Senators today in support of the Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act (PWFA). The Act is simple, and modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It directs employers of pregnant women to make reasonable accommodations for these workers on the job – things like light duty for women in the late stages of pregnancy when available.

This legislation is pro-life, pro-family and pro-worker justice. It recently passed the House of Representatives on a solid bipartisan majority vote of 315-101, but a surprising number of Senators are not aware of it yet.

You can make a difference. Click the link below to contact your Senator right now and send them a message: Vote yes for the Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act!


Washington Farmworkers Win Overtime Pay

Everyone knows that you are supposed to be paid time and a half if you work more than 40 hours a week. That’s been part of American labor law since the US Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 – at least for MOST workers. In a sad exception, the authors of FLSA excluded a few groups of workers from its protections – and farmworkers were one of them.

That’s right, some of the hardest working men and women in America, the ones who pick our fruits and vegetables, are not entitled to overtime pay under federal law. That leaves states to pick up the slack and ensure that farmworkers get a fair shake.

Responding to calls from labor and faith activists – and a state Supreme Court ruling that targeted the unfair exemption – Washington state legislators have taken action to extend overtime wage protections to farmworkers. Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed the bill at a United Food and Commercial Workers’ union hall in Yakima in mid-May.

This makes Washington the third American state to pass a law granting overtime for farmworkers; New York and California already had such a law. That leaves Oregon the only state on the West Coast that has not taken action. Oregon legislators currently are considering a bill that would do the same.

St Rose of Lima Catholic School Teachers Vote Union Yes

On May 13, 2021, full-time and part-time teachers and teachers’ aides at St. Rose of Lima School in Freehold, New Jersey (Diocese of Trenton) voted overwhelmingly for Union representation.  They are the newest affiliate of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers. With the pandemic on, the teachers and aides were organized on Zoom. Negotiations for their first union contract are set to open in early June.

Solidarity with Seafarers Campaign

The Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking (CCOAHT) campaigns against forced labor at sea, and this year is focused on the crew change crisis driven by the pandemic. CCOAHT – together with Stella Maris and the Apostleship of the Sea USA – are urging people of faith to leverage their voices as consumers to uphold the safety and labor rights of one of the world’s most invisible group of essential workers. Across the world, many mariners have been stuck on board ship for a year or more because some nations fearing the pandemic won’t let them disembark to change crews. Navigating the system of rules and regulations for crew change can delay ships, and the “charterers” who have hired the ships won’t tolerate delays.

Wal-Mart is one of the biggest such charterers. Will you sign a petition to Wal-Mart urging them to take responsibility for this part of their supply chain? CLICK HERE to express solidarity with seafarers!

Want to do more? Check out this resource packet. It contains an evening prayer service, bulletin inserts, and intercessory prayers.

The Shipping Industry and America’s Maritime Unions

The recent accident in the Suez canal drew attention to an industry most people don’t think much about – the shipping industry. Even though some 90% of the world’s products and commodities arrive by sea, and tens of thousands of Americans are employed on board a variety of oceangoing and inland vessels, few of us know much about working conditions in the sector.

Much international freight traffic has fled the developed world, with ships flying “flags of convenience” and staffed by poorly treated crews recruited in the global South. However, the US recognizes a vital national security interest in maintaining a sizable merchant marine to service the military in case of war, and relying on Cargo Preference, the Jones Act and the Maritime Security Program, America maintains a fleet of nearly 200 oceangoing vessels. The US Merchant Marine also assists with relief in natural disasters and carries life-saving food to famine-stricken areas through the Food for Peace program.

These, along with the port vessels, barges and ferries that operate within the United States, employ mariners represented by a variety of unions – including the Seafarers’ International Union (SIU), the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific (SUP), the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA), the American Maritime Officers (AMO), and the Masters, Mates and Pilots (MMP).

Perhaps the biggest difference between the life and work of a mariner and a worker on land is the work schedule. Mariners put to sea for months at a time and work long hours while there. “It’s a solitary life,” says Lisa Rosenthal of the MMP. “You can’t come and go as you please as you would from an office onshore.” Mariners on board ship are likely to be on duty 60 or 70 hours per week. However, in between these tours of duty they can spend significant uninterrupted periods with their families. “When you’re home, you’re home,” adds Jordan Biscardo of the SIU. “Our members brag about escorting their children’s classes on field trips and things like that.”

To enter the trade usually means enrolling in one of the nation’s several maritime academies. A college degree is not required; several hundred apprentices enroll each year. “It’s a good career in this job market,” explains AMO’s Matt Burke. “You earn a family-supporting wage from the start and have great pay and benefits.” Depending on the job classification and number of days of service, it’s quite possible to pull down a six-figure salary, along with employer-paid health care and a pension. “And it’s a good way to serve your country,” Burke adds – merchant mariners see themselves as the fourth arm of the country’s defense.

America’s maritime unions work closely with the unionized domestic ship operators, who share their interest in preserving a US-flagged fleet.

The pandemic has been a special crisis for maritime workers. Ships are always on the move, and typically when a crew member’s term of service ends he or she will disembark in the next port and fly home; their relief will be waiting on the dock. But as covid spread, a growing number of countries refused to let crew members disembark for fear of importing an infection. Fatigued crew members remained on duty for 8, 10, 12 months at a time, adding to the risk of accident and injury. (Even in the best of times, work at sea is among the most dangerous jobs available.)

Catholic Labor Network Spiritual Moderator Fr. Sinclair Oubre is a member of the SIU in Port Arthur, TX, who leads Stella Maris, the Catholic ministry to mariners and people of the sea in the Diocese of Beaumont.

“We are willing to talk anytime, but we will not negotiate”

What a workplace is like when you don’t have a union

Why do workers need unions? Ask the faculty at John Carroll University. According to Inside Higher Ed, “John Carroll now says it can fire individual tenured faculty members without cause in cases of ‘budgetary hardship.’” Faculty members object that this obviates tenure altogether; after all, if these decisions are not susceptible to appeal, what’s to stop administrators from firing tenured faculty for any reason whatsoever and citing “budgetary hardship”? Faculty Council leaders acknowledge that the university faces budgetary hardship after the pandemic and some say they’d rather trade economic concessions for job security. They report that they approached administrators seeking to discuss the terms, but were told, “We’ll talk anytime about the changes – but we will not negotiate.”

Under the National Labor Relations Act, if workers vote for union representation, their employer is legally obliged to bargain with them. Unfortunately the NLRA does not cover tenured faculty, who are considered management for the purpose of the law. Without a union, your rights are dependent on the goodwill of your employer.