Online Event: Rerum Novarum at 130

This month marks the 130th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the foundational text of modern Catholic Social Teaching. After careful study of the industrial era economy and its impact on workers, in light of the Good News, Pope Leo XIII shared his new encyclical letter with the world on May 15, 1891. The document made the right of workers to organize in unions an official element of Catholic social doctrine – a right that was not protected in US law until more than forty years later!

The Catholic Labor Network will mark this anniversary with a special online presentation. Professor Gerry Beyer of Villanova University will discuss Rerum Novarum and the rights of workers in Catholic Social Teaching. Afterward Catholic Labor Network board member Chuck Hendricks of UNITE HERE will reflect on his experience as a young worker trying to organize in the United States, illustrating just how far we have to go to realize Pope Leo’s vision. Join us at 2pm ET on May 12 for this event!


Federal Contract Workers Win Fight for $15

Governments exist to serve the common good, not to make a profit. Our federal government can serve the common good by passing legislation, such as increasing the minimum wage, but can also do so by acting as a model employer. That’s what President Joe Biden accomplished the other day with an executive order: henceforth, firms that bid for federal contracts must commit to pay every worker at least $15 per hour.

The right to a living wage is one of the earliest and most basic premises of modern Catholic Social Teaching. Pope Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum (1891), explicitly noted that every worker deserves a wage sufficient to support him or herself – and that if the labor market did not deliver this, society had to step in and make sure it happens.

The federal minimum wage remains stuck at $7.25 per hour, a measly $15K per year for a full-time employee. That’s not enough to support a worker and his or her family in ANY state in the country. Worker justice advocates have called for legislation phasing in a $15 per hour minimum wage. Legislation to do so has passed the House but fell short in the Senate where a minority of opponents can block a proposal using the filibuster.

Uncle Sam is the nation’s largest employer, and it’s been estimated that at any given time, three or four million US workers are employed by federal contractors. The president’s executive order ensures that going forward, all of these workers receive a just (if modest) wage of at least $15 per hour. The White House doesn’t even think it will be a net cost; after all, better wages for the lowest-income workers reduce turnover and increase productivity, which will mitigate any increased cost of contract acquisition. But even if we need to pay a bit more as taxpayers it’s the right thing to do.

And the Catholic Labor Network will continue to advocate for an increase in the minimum wage to guarantee a living wage to ALL workers.

Hotel Workers Win Right to Recall in California

700,000 Hospitality workers throughout the state of California have just won the right to return to work by seniority following massive pandemic layoffs!

With Gov. Newsom’s signature on SB 93 (previously AB 3216), hospitality workers can now rest assured that owners won’t be permitted to take advantage of the pandemic by replacing longtime loyal employees with newer, cheaper labor. This applies to ALL hospitality workers in the state, not just union workers!

Hospitality workers from UNITE HERE Local 11, along with many in the Jesuits West community, spent the last year inviting Jesuit-educated Gov. Newsom and the legislature to hear the cries of these incredible workers! He initially vetoed the bill last fall (when it was called AB 3216), but after continued pressure through the winter came around and signed the new form of the bill (SB 93) into law today, effective immediately.


In faith and solidarity,

Hannah Peterson                                                        Fr. Ike Udoh, SJ

UNITE HERE Local 11                                               Interim Administrator

(323) 528-5008                                                           Blessed Sacrament, Hollywood

CLN Report Documents Rampant Wage Theft in DC Commercial Construction Industry

In an exhaustively-researched report released Wednesday morning, the Catholic Labor Network documented extensive wage theft at Washington DC’s largest construction sites. For most of one year, CLN field representative Ernesto Galeas visited major DC construction sites and interviewed 79 workers from various construction trades. Analyzing the data we found that:

  • Eight workers in the sample (10%) were paid less than the DC minimum wage.
  • Twenty-nine workers (37%) in the sample reported that they were not paid required overtime rates when they worked more than 40 hours per week.
  • Nearly half of the workers surveyed (47%) were part of the underground economy, either paid with a check without required payroll tax deductions or paid in cash.

About half the interview participants employed by electrical contractors, and majority of workers employed by mechanical contractors (plumbing and HVAC) and drywall contractors, participated in the underground economy Read more

PRO Act integral to American Jobs Plan

On March 31, President Joe Biden announced his American Jobs Plan from the Carpenters’ union training center in Pittsburgh, PA, and it wasn’t by accident. The president’s $2 trillion proposed infrastructure build-out is informed by two assumptions: first, that investing in modernizing America’s roads, bridges, and utilities will pay off in economic growth and public welfare, and second, that if the jobs generated are union jobs, they will go a long way toward reducing economic inequality. It’s a simple point; when workers have the power to bargain collectively, they are more likely to secure fair wages and benefits.

Unfortunately, in the private sector, unions represent a declining number of workers – a trend that goes back decades. Employers have learned to game the system and prevent workers from exercising their legal right to organize, whether simply by firing workers who dare to join an organizing committee or by misclassifying their workforce as “independent contractors” with few legal rights. That’s why America needs the PRO Act, a major labor law reform designed to reinforce workers’ right to form unions.

For this reason, the PRO Act is integral to the American Jobs Plan. The Catholic Labor Network is pleased to learn that the president has concluded the same thing. In the White House Fact Sheet on the American Jobs Plan – which references unions 21 times! – you will find:

President Biden is calling on Congress to update the social contract that provides workers with a fair shot to get ahead, overcome racial and other inequalities that have been barriers for too many Americans, expand the middle class, and strengthen communities. He is calling on Congress to ensure all workers have a free and fair choice to join a union by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, and guarantee union and bargaining rights for public service workers. His plan also ensures domestic workers receive the legal benefits and protections they deserve and tackles pay inequities based on gender.

The PRO Act has passed the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate. The Catholic Labor Network has concluded that the PRO Act reflects core priorities of Catholic Social Teaching.

CLN Program Marks Cesar Chavez’s Birthday

The Catholic Labor Network marked March 31, Cesar Chavez’s Birthday, with a program on the state of the farm labor movement. The highlight was a presentation by Julie Taylor, leader of the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM), the interfaith solidarity organization that accompanies farm labor organizations in their campaigns and struggles. (CLN is a member organization of NFWM.) If you missed the event, Julie’s presentation is now available for viewing on our Youtube Channel. We followed up on Tuesday with a second meeting to launch a Catholic Labor Network Farmworker Solidarity Committee.

Chavez, we should recall, was both a union pioneer and a man deeply committed to his Catholic faith. His birthday is a state holiday in California and was noted in other quarters as well. President Joe Biden has a bust of Chavez in the Oval Office and issued a proclamation on Chavez’s birthday: CLICK HERE to check it out.

Catholic Church in NH: Vote no on “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. New Hampshire legislators are considering SB61, a “right to work” law, but the Diocese of Manchester has reviewed Catholic Social Teaching on labor and work and urged legislators to vote NO. Read more

Workers at Hollywood’s famous Chateau Marmont hotel fight for jobs after pandemic

Across the country hotel and restaurant workers are fighting for “Right to Recall” – that is, calling on employers to rehire their furloughed employees as they reopen. But too many hotels are looking at the pandemic as an opportunity to shed older career employees and replace them with younger and cheaper hands. That’s why the Catholic Labor Network has supported efforts by the hotel workers’ union UNITE HERE to pass local and state ordinances requiring the reopening hotels and sports arenas to offer employment to their furloughed employees.

Even with passage of such laws, though, some firms resist doing the right thing for the career employees who helped build their businesses. Recently workers at Chateau Marmont in Hollywood protested the hotel’s stubborn refusal to restore their jobs. UNITE HERE activist and CLN Board Member Hannah Petersen described the scene:

As dozens of honking cars with “Boycott the Chateau” painted on their windows moved past, I looked back at the emboldened faces of the Chateau Marmont worker committee.  These room attendants, bell persons, valet, servers, and cooks who were fired by Hollywood’s most famous hotel exactly a year ago led the fight for the nation’s first right to return to work law.  The law will require all Los Angeles hotels and event centers to recall by seniority their workers who lost their jobs because of the pandemic.  Community and religious leaders including Fr. Justin Claravall, SJ from Dolores Mission Church joined the workers in their call for a boycott of the Chateau Marmont until it has demonstrated a commitment to respecting its workers’ years of service by rehiring them in accordance with their legal rights and to ensuring that all workers feel treated with dignity and respect.

To support the workers, you can sign this pledge not to patronize the hotel until the workers are made whole:

Bitter Strike Continues at For-Profit Catholic Hospital

In a disturbing trend of recent decades, struggling Catholic hospitals have been acquired by for-profit operators. In these hospitals, unions are doubly important, because they frequently represent the only protection of patient care standards from corporate cost-cutters seeking to enhance profits.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association reports that this is the situation at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester. Some 800 nurses walked out on strike on March 8 after owner Tenet refused their demand for safer nurse to patient staffing ratios in the ER.

“We are only asking them for the same staffing level at U. Mass Memorial,” said recovery room nurse and MNA Vice President Marie Ritacco, referring to the nearby nonprofit that operates two area hospitals. “No nurse in the ER or Inpatient department should be caring for more than four patients, but Tenet wants them to take care of five, even after slashing support staff like CNAs.”

Hospitals like St Vincent’s, usually founded by Catholic religious orders for charitable purposes, have consented to purchase by for-profit health operators in order to secure capital for modernization. This puts them in the difficult position of trying to please shareholders with health returns while pursuing their mission – a recipe for conflict.

The nurses have been on the picket line for weeks but say they are undaunted. “We are going to make St. Vincent Hospital a safe place for care again,” said Ritacco.

Social Sin

The Working Catholic: Social Sin
by Bill Droel

Although social sin is Catholic doctrine, it is rarely part of sacrament preparation nor is it normally mentioned during the sacrament of reconciliation.
Slavery, for example, is a social sin even if every Christian plantation owner had been kind, even if the pharaoh of olden times had not been cruel and harsh. “Institutions, laws and modes of thinking and feeling are handed down from previous generations,” explains Vatican II (1962-1965). A bad system (like a good institution) has a certain momentum or independent character. Bad institutions make holiness difficult. Good institutions serve as reminders for upright behavior.
Poverty is a social sin. Although a poor person, like anyone else, might steal or lie, it is not their poverty that is a sin. The sin is an economic structure that perpetuates significant and needless poverty. We don’t think about social sin, says Vatican II, because we are plagued with an individualistic mentality. But we cannot “content [ourselves] with merely individualistic morality.” Christians must promote and assist “institutions dedicated to bettering the conditions of human life.”
It is true that social sin is somewhat metaphorical, says the Vatican’s 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine. Social sin does not weaken or cancel “the personal component by admitting only social guilt and responsibility. At the bottom of every situation of sin is always the individual who sins.” At the same time this metaphorical sense cannot overtake the objectively sinful nature of some systems. The Compendium mentions wages, the fairness of which “is the most important means for achieving justice in work relationships.” It “is not sufficient [for] an agreement between employee and employer with regard to the amount of pay… to qualify as a just wage.” In a given circumstance it so happens that an employer or an employee may have a reason for substandard wages. The morality of a wage is, however, determined objectively, apart from the motives of employer or employee.
How then can social sin be brought into the sacrament of reconciliation? It would seem that a creative liturgy planner in the parish could devise a service each Lent about our society’s social sins—things for which we collectively bear responsibility. Suggestions are welcome.
Another way to get at this notion of social sin is to consider its antibodies. To counter individual sin, we summon a specific virtue. If, for example, my individual sin is neglect of family members, I make a habit of generosity around the home during Lent. If the habit persists after Easter, it becomes my individual virtue.
A good institution is a social virtue. Specific virtues (social habits) are designed to counter social sin. The Compendium mentions solidarity as a social virtue about relationships that tend toward ethical-social improvement. Virtues are not feelings. Solidarity, the Compendium continues, is not a distant touch of compassion for the afflicted. It is a commitment to act with others for the sake of the common good.
Social Justice is a social virtue. The term is often used generically to cover outreach efforts, government distribution programs and protesting. The term is also used to describe crusading individuals, some lobbyists and those with sincere intentions. However, in Catholicism social justice is a specific type of the general virtue of justice. It is a collective virtue; an individual cannot practice social justice. Its intent is the improvement of institutions or policies. Its unique act is organization; that is, people finding like-minded others and then applying tactics and strategies for the good of the commons. In mainstream Catholicism social justice usually happens during the weekday within normal settings. It is not normally an on-and-off weekend activity by outsiders to an institution, though those efforts can be needed. Social justice is participation. It requires many hands, feet and minds. As it evolves, a sound social justice effort likewise increases participation. Employees have a surge of morale because of their reform efforts. Professionals increase their dedication because through their association they instituted a reform.
Social justice (a collective habit) is a primary vaccine against social sin. It is the means for bettering the conditions of human life. Because each exercise of social justice is less than 100% effective, it requires booster shots. All institutions need a little social justice during Lent and a little more during Eastertide and then another dose in all the weeks after Pentecost.

Droel is the author of What Is Social Justice (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)