Wage Theft, Discrimination against Women Workers Found on Amazon Construction Site

Amazon has made headlines recently for fighting its own workers seeking to organize in unions at distribution centers in Alabama and New York. It turns out that workers’ rights aren’t necessarily respected on Amazon construction sites either, as a group women workers learned while finishing drywall at a new Amazon distribution center in Beltsville, Maryland.

A notorious open shop contractor, Avena, had the contract for framing and drywall, but relied on a series of labor brokers to staff the work. The women told IUPAT union organizers and Catholic Labor Network field representative Guillermo Martinez that an Avena drywall superintendent named Brian Bueso had been harassing them and treating them differently than the men. “He would follow everything that I would do and would always be behind me,” explained one of the finishers, Maria Sagrario Garcia. “He prohibited us from going to the bathroom.” When the women complained about his behavior to the general contractor, Bueso told their labor broker that he wanted all the women removed from the job.

Consulting with the union, the women learned that they were also victims of extensive wage theft. With the project running behind, they had been working 72-hour weeks for two months – and had never been paid time and a half. The union estimates that the workers are owed more than $50,000 in lost wages.

With help from the IUPAT, the women have filed a wage theft claim with the Maryland Department of Labor – and a sexual discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Maryland Catholic Labor Network supports Paid Family Leave

This year the Maryland legislature is considering a law implementing paid family leave, with broad support from labor, the Catholic Church, and an array of community-based organizations. Financed by a modest payroll tax split between employer and employee, The Time to Care Act would guarantee 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to workers caring for a sick family member or welcoming a new child.

On Feb. 7 the Maryland chapter of the Catholic Labor Network teamed up with Baltimore Catholic Charities to host a webinar on Paid Family Leave for Catholic activists, focusing on the need for economic structures that support families. Maryland Delegate Kris Valderrama, a parishioner at St. Columba in Oxon Hill, explained why she was sponsoring the legislation. From Catholic Charities, Regan Vaughn and Lisa Klingenmaier explained the proposal in detail, while therapist Maggie Schultz related stories of families she worked with rocked by illness. Maryland Catholic Labor Network member Terry Cavanagh commented on labor’s support for Time to Care.

Why is the Maryland Catholic Conference supporting paid family leave? It’s pretty simple, actually. As America’s Catholic Bishops put it in their 1986 Pastoral Letter on the Economy, Economic Justice for All,

The lack of a mutually supportive relation between family life and economic life is one of the most serious problems facing the United States today…Economic and social policies as well as the organization of the work world should be continually evaluated in light of their impact on the strength and stability of family life.

While the world tells us that we should accommodate our families to the demands of the economy, the world has it exactly backward. The family is created by God, and our economic structures should accommodate and support strong and stable families. One way they can do this is by providing paid family leave when family members need to care for a loved one or a newborn (or newly adopted) child.

Several other states and the District of Columbia have already implemented similar Paid Family Leave programs. The Maryland Catholic Labor Network has designated the Time to Care Act a legislative priority in 2022, along with support for collective bargaining for employees of the Office of the Public Defender.

Social Doctrine

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine, Part Five
by Bill Droel

Catholicism ducked its appointment with modernity for about 400 years. Not until Vatican II (1962-1965) did Catholicism open the door to dialogue with the modern world—not a wholesale acceptance of every modern trend, but an engagement conducted with patience and sophistication.
Catholicism opposed the Protestant Reformation (from 1517) because it was part of modern trends of individual standards, of sundry forms of worship and of authority structures unattached to Catholicism. Catholic officialdom was threatened by these and other emerging liberal values, including government autonomy, by professions that claimed their own independence and by secular culture. The violent anti-clericalism of the French Revolution in 1789 justifiably added to Catholicism’s fears. When the French monarchy was briefly restored, many Catholic leaders embraced it with a right wing, royalist mentality. However, by 1905 France firmly accepted modernity and its concept of autonomous society (laicite).
The Catholic/modern dialogue proceeds in fits and starts. Even today some Catholic leaders inappropriately revert to blanket condemnations, foregoing sincere dialogue with those who disagree. Yet to be fair, on several topics Catholicism’s caution about modern trends has proved prophetic.
In 1891 Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) inaugurated the formal body of Catholic social thought with his encyclical On the Condition of Labor. It condemned Marxism, a modern materialistic philosophy. To do so, Leo XIII reiterated a qualified approval of private property. As it turned out, communist collectivism oppressed rather than liberated many. Leo XIII was likewise prophetic in his condemnation of the modern materialistic philosophy of laissez-faire capitalism—what people today call neo-liberalism. An economy that spins with only the force of finance creates a hierarchical system in which the majority cannot meaningfully participate.
At its best the Catholic tradition fosters a reasonable approach with which to argue intelligently and temperately with the world, explains Fr. William O’Neill in America (12/21). The differences about current issues must respect common rules of the game, he explains. The conversation must be conducted in a common grammar.
For example, meaning must be moored to truth. The rules require that validating important matters solely on one’s opinion or one’s feelings is inadequate. Truth is arrived at through evidence. Truth-seeking is not a performance, not an avenue for vindication or a way to process resentment. An honest dialogue about modern issues has to forego cancelling the speech of others. It has to be void of self-righteousness. There is room for multiple interpretation of facts but there is no such thing as alternative facts. At the same time everyone has to understand that while the rules of truth-seeking are permanent, tomorrow’s discovery or future evidence can change yesterday’s conclusion.
O’Neill also reminds us that rights are not the same as interests. An individual right is normally a claim mixed within other rights. That is, each right comes with duties or considerations. Contrary to neo-liberal philosophy, a conflict of claims is not settled by calculating the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Decisions in the real world have to aim toward the common good; the good outcome that is only obtained if people cooperate. The decision-making process is informed argument, not outrage.
Finally, as O’Neill mentions, Catholicism or any other religion dialogues in the public square with reasoned language, not insider language. Sectarianism only isolates a religious voice. O’Neill uses abortion as an example. Catholicism opposes direct and purposeful abortion not as “one sectarian interest among others.” The opposition is not a Catholic position, per se. To influence the world, positions on abortion or other issues, have to be expressed in universal terms. And so, in a public dialogue O’Neill would put it this way: All people have a basic right to life and a right to the means of sustaining life—a right to basic nutrition, to adequate health care, etc. The “strongest case against abortion,” he says, is an argument based on “upholding the rights of all.”
Catholic leaders and ordinary Catholics can be as strident as anyone else, indiscriminately maligning groups of people. They can also shortsightedly put their faith in authoritarians or phony media personalities or corrupt business leaders. They can hurt the innocent. They can wash away their public sins as mere failures in management. Yet with humble application of our social doctrine Catholics can help improve business conduct, labor relations, social policy, care for the environment, respect for inherent dignity of each person, international affairs, the nurturing of children and more. A Catholic contribution to the world presumes, of course, that Catholics know their social doctrine and are capable of strategically using it. To be continued…

Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

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.