In a big win for American workers, the Protecting the Right to Organize or PRO Act passed the House of Representatives Tuesday by a vote of 225-206. The PRO Act would crack down on employers who fire workers for exercising their legal right to form a union, and would give “gig workers” such as Uber and Lyft drivers the right to form unions for the first time. The Act also provides for mediation and arbitration when workers form a union but can’t reach agreement with their employer on a first contract, and clarifies that immigrant workers too enjoy the protections of the National Labor Relations Act, regardless of their immigration status. Now the PRO Act goes to the Senate for action.
For the past year and a half, the Catholic Labor Network has supported Music City Construction Careers (MC3), an Apprenticeship Readiness Program in Nashville that introduces participants to a career in the union building trades. Roughly a fourth of the participants have come from targeted outreach to Catholic parishes and Catholic social outreach ministries, such as Catholic Charities and local conferences of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
With encouragement from Jane Stenson, Senior Director of Poverty Reduction Strategies at Catholic Charities USA, CLN’s Nashville Representative, Aimee Shelide Mayer, began investigating ways for MC3 to partner with the SNAP Employment & Training (SNAP E&T) program. SNAP E&T supports recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with resources to meet work and training requirements that often accompany the benefit. Furthermore, SNAP E&T helps address other barriers to employment (beyond the actual skills training), such as transportation and child care, that might be preventing a dedicated and hard worker from successfully transitioning into a stable job or career.
When the national Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) conference originally scheduled for April 2020 in Nashville was postponed and then cancelled due to the pandemic, Shelide Mayer attended a virtual SNAP E&T forum in October 2020. She quickly got to work to submit paperwork in time for the November MC3 class, for which she had recruited a third of the participants. While not all of the MC3 participants are necessarily SNAP recipients, SNAP E&T provides financial reimbursement for administration, personnel, and participant costs proportionate to the number of SNAP E&T eligible members, and can greatly help Nashville’s MC3 program expand its staffing and participant support capacity.
Already in 2021, the connection to SNAP E&T and to its local intermediary, United Way of Greater Nashville, has opened doors to MC3 in Nashville, inviting referrals from county-based American Job Centers, the Metro Nashville Workforce Development Board, and other social-service organizations. Shelide Mayer and the MC3 coordinating team is excited for how this will be able to expand and deepen the resources and support they can provide to graduates as they transition into a stable career in construction.
In his 2009 Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI concluded that “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 be honoured today even more than in the past .” America has an opportunity to answer this call and promote solidarity in our society through the Protecting the Right to Organize or “PRO” Act, currently before the U.S. Congress.
American society has been headed in the opposite direction for decades, with individualism replacing solidarity and union membership dwindling. In the 1950s, one in three private sector American workers belonged to a labor union; today, that number is one in sixteen. Why is that? Three critical reasons are that 1) unscrupulous employers routinely discipline or fire workers who try to form unions, 2) a growing number of workers in the “gig” economy have no legal right to organize under current law, and 3) a large number of immigrant workers are excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act. The PRO Act would address all three issues and many other obstacles to worker organizing.
Although most employees enjoy a legally protected right to organize under current labor law, employers who discipline or fire workers for exercising that right do not face serious penalties. Employers have learned that retaliating against workers who try to organize is a good investment – it thwarts union organizing by discouraging other workers from joining them. The PRO Act would enable workers who face such retaliation to secure triple damages, ensuring that employers think twice before violating their rights.
A growing number of “gig” workers in sectors across the economy – from Uber drivers to construction workers – are currently employed as independent contractors. These workers have no legal right to organize and form unions under the National Labor Relations Act. The PRO Act would give these workers the right to organize and bargain collectively for the first time.
Millions of immigrant workers, from legally admitted “guest workers” to undocumented ones, are exploited because the National Labor Relations Act provides no remedy if their rights are violated. The PRO Act clarifies that these workers, too, enjoy the protections of the National Labor Relations Act. No worker’s immigration status is a green light for employers to engage in unfair labor practices.
As Pope Francis observed in Fratelli Tutti, “Solidarity is a word that is not always well received; in certain situations, it has become a dirty word, a word that dare not be said .” But we must so dare. America’s labor laws are arguably the weakest in the developed world, and this constitutes an open wound to social solidarity. It’s time to begin fixing that, starting with passage of the PRO Act.
A coalition forming in Northern Virginia is asking the largest regional university why public dollars are going to employers that are bad actors in their community. In Northern Virginia, George Mason University has been expanding its footprint in the region and is now the largest university, in terms of enrollment, in the state. The university, with a budget of $1.25 billion, took in $180 million in taxpayer dollars and $448 million in students fees. Yet the university puts a low priority on the treatment of its contracted workforce much of which is immigrants and people of color. In contrast, the nearby Georgetown University has adopted a Just Employment Policy, which holds the institution to high labor standards for both contractors and direct employees.
GMU has no such policy and local activists are beginning to push the university to respect workers and implement more stringent procurement practices. This campaign began in 2010 when food service workers, contracted with Sodexo, began the work of forming their union with SEIU Local 32BJ. The university did not intervene despite Sodexo’s unwillingness to recognize the workers’ union. After years of struggle, including a one-day strike, the workers finally won a collective bargaining agreement in 2019 that raised average wages 12% and improved the health insurance.
This victory led to the janitorial staff, contracted with LT Services, to begin their effort to join 32BJ in the last two years. These workers allege poor and potentially illegal labor practices by the cleaning company such as being paid without taxes being deducted and forcing workers to come to work after exposure to the coronavirus. These kinds of labor practices are common when a public entity seeks the cheapest possible services with no regard to labor standards.
LT Services continues to intimidate workers to stop them from organizing and the National Labor Relations Board has found the company guilty of Unfair Labor Practices in recent months and forced the contractor to reinstate two fired workers.
As the janitorial staff was organizing, a construction union found drywall workers on campus construction projects also working under potentially illegal labor practices. In the construction industry, subcontractors often use labor brokers, which are construction staffing companies. In this case, the labor broker providing workers was paying the workers as independent contractors and not taking out mandatory payroll deductions such as taxes and social security. The laws around who can be classified as an independent contractor a stringent and these workers were almost certainly misclassified.
In the past, Virginia law has mandated that public entities award contracts to the lowest bidder, with no consideration of quality and reliability, much less labor standards. This practice often forces a race to the bottom with contractors forced to cut safety and labor standards to meet ever cheaper competition. However, the state is beginning to change these rules and is beginning to allow other factors to be considered. The coalition of GMU professors, students, labor unions, and community activists are demanding that GMU improve their procurement policies and stop using the money paid by students and taxpayers to support these low-wage, low-road employers.
March 10, 4pm ET
In the mid-1990s a group of Catholic priests and union activists met while organizing solidarity for the locked-out workers of A.E. Staley in Decatur IL. They proceeded to hold the founding conference of the Catholic Labor Network in March of 1996. Join us and hear a panel of speakers look back at the founding of the Network and its early years. Panelists will include union Seafarer, pastor and spiritual moderator of the CLN, Fr. Sinclair Oubre; Kim Bobo, former Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice; and Thomas Shellabarger, former policy advisor to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. CLICK TO REGISTER
“The laborer is worthy of his hire,” we read in the Gospel of Matthew (10:10). One of the most basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching was laid out in the papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum, the principle that every worker deserves a living wage. America’s current $7.25 per hour minimum wage – less than $15,000 per year for a full-time worker, hardly constitutes a living wage in any state in the union. That’s why the Catholic Labor Network supports the Raise the Wage Act, which would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 immediately and to $15 per hour by 2025.
The Raise the Wage Act has support in the House of Representatives but has encountered a major setback in the Senate. Because opponents have threatened to filibuster the bill, it would take 60 votes to pass in the Senate. Supporters tried to bypass a filibuster by appending it to the American Rescue Plan – aka the COVID relief bill – which as a budget matter only requires a simple majority. But the Senate parliamentarian has now ruled that Raise the Wage is not a budget matter and not eligible for such treatment.
We can’t let this be the end of the line for a living wage. The Senate needs to get back to work and ensure that America’s working poor get a raise. Have you told your Senators you support Raise the Wage? If not, call or write them today!
UNITE HERE Local 1, which represents cafeteria workers at Loyola University Chicago, has shared some good news. In the midst of the pandemic, food service workers at Loyola University have secured a new union contract with their employer, Aramark. The agreement includes recall rights for employees put out of work due to the pandemic, measures to increase COVID safety, across-the-board pay raises, and measures to ensure that employees who return to work have health insurance right away.
“This has not been an easy year. My coworkers have been struggling – many have been out of work, many have been sick, some have lost loved ones, and there isn’t one person who has not been affected by this pandemic,” said Monica Manning, a food service worker who has worked at Loyola for 20 years. “Finally, there seems to be a light at the end of this tunnel. With more of us coming back to work, this contract will give us the protections that we need to feel safe at work. Just as importantly, this contract will give all of our coworkers who are still laid off the security of knowing they will be able to go back to work as soon as the work comes back at Loyola.”
259 food service workers at Loyola are represented by UNITE HERE Local 1. Food service operators at some other Chicago-area universities have not signed similar agreements, leaving workers without many of the protections achieved in this contract at Loyola.
Two are better than one: They get a good wage for their toil. If the one falls, the other will help the fallen one. But woe to the solitary person! If that one should fall, there is no other to help. Where one alone may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken.
Woe to the solitary person in today’s economy! An individual worker is powerless to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions with the likes of McDonald’s, Amazon or Wal-Mart. That’s why Pope Leo XIII made the right of workers to organize in unions a fundamental premise of Catholic Social Teaching in his 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum . And it applies today no less than it did in in the early years of the industrial revolution. Pope Benedict XIV, in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, in fact concluded that “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 be honoured today even more than in the past .”
Misnamed “right to work” policies confer no right to employment; rather, they serve primarily to undermine the effective functioning of labor unions. Labor unions are formed by majority vote and serve as expressions of the solidarity of a given workforce: the union bargains a contract for the common good of all the workers, and all the workers in turn contribute dues to support its operation. “Right to work” laws give individual workers the “right” to enjoy the benefits of the union contract while opting out of paying dues to support it. “Right to work” laws create a wound to solidarity and a perverse incentive setting the economic interests of the solitary person against the common good of the group as a whole.
Each year legislators in one or more states propose new “right to work” laws. As Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago observed in 2015,
In view of present day attempts to enact so-called right-to-work laws the Church is duty bound to challenge such efforts by raising questions based on longstanding principles. We have to ask, “Do these measures undermine the capacity of unions to organize, to represent workers and to negotiate contracts? Do such laws protect the weak and vulnerable? Do they promote the dignity of work and the rights of workers? Do they promote a more just society and a more fair economy? Do they advance the common good?” Lawmakers and others may see it differently, but history has shown that a society with a healthy, effective and responsible labor movement is a better place than one where other powerful economic interests have their way and the voices and rights of workers are diminished.
“Right to work” does not protect the weak and vulnerable or promote a more fair economy; it does undermine the capacity of unions to organize, represent workers and negotiate contracts. Answering Pope Benedict’s call to promote worker associations that can defend worker rights more than in the past calls for laws that foster worker solidarity make it easier for workers to form unions and bargain collectively, not more difficult. The Catholic Labor Network opposes the implementation of “right to work” laws and recommends the repeal of such laws where they currently exist.
I have never met John Sweeney, however, I have one story about his commitment to organizing the unorganized.
When I was 19 years old, I attempted to organize my own union with a painting company in Baltimore. I didn’t know how to organize my co-workers, but I tried based on a book I bought called “Organizing to Win.” Eventually we tried to reach out to the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades. I tried a number of times get get someone to pay attention to me, but a 19 year old saying that they want to organize a union at a small company wasn’t of much interest. After many failed attempts at getting the local unions to organize us I was disappointed and a bit dispirited.
I got fed up and actually sent a random email to firstname.lastname@example.org asking for help, and he personally responded my email, thanking me for the email, telling me that it was important that people like me organize and that the afl-cio stood with us. He assured me that someone from the painters union would follow up and the next day the Organizing Director of IBPAT personally called me to get the process moving.
Prof. Joseph A. McCartin, Georgetown University
The CLN lost a loyal friend and the labor movement lost one of the great champions of its history when John Joseph Sweeney died on February 1 at the age of 86. Labor leaders reared in Catholicism have played a disproportionately large role in the shaping of the American labor movement from Terence Powderly and Mother Jones in the 19th century to George Meany and Thomas R. Donahue in the 20th century, to Rich Trumka and Mary Kay Henry in the 21st. Among them, Sweeney’s contribution was distinctive. He was a bridge-builder who helped move labor beyond the Cold War, drew young people into the movement, transformed labor’s relationship with immigrants and the immigration question, welcomed women into top leadership, and revamped labor’s political operations. In all of this, he drew generously from the values of his church and its social teachings.
Many obituaries have attested to John Sweeney’s remarkable story, from his birth to Irish Catholic immigrants in the Bronx, to his Catholic education from kindergarten through college, his involvement with the Young Christian Workers, his study with labor priest Phil Carey, S.J., his early work with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Read more