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.

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

Are you a faith leader? Stand up for farmworkers in North Carolina’s tobacco fields

Tobacco farm workers face sub-minimum wages, human trafficking, pesticide poisoning, inadequate housing, nicotine poisoning, COVID, unscrupulous labor contractors, and laws that make it difficult to form unions. For years, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has organized among these farm workers, but gains in one location are often undermined by losses in another. 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.