Why are America’s auto workers on strike?

America’s summer of strikes is reaching its crescendo with an industrial dispute in the US auto industry. The legendary United Auto Workers (UAW) union represents some 150,000 workers who build cars for General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (Fiat/Chrysler), and when their contract expired last week union members began striking selected plants. What’s the fight about?

The problems began with the onset of the Great Recession in 2007-2008. The recession tipped GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy, and threatened to do the same with Ford. UAW members agreed to major concessions to enable the companies to survive the downturn, including creating a new, lower-paid tier of workers. Workers hired after the recession receive lower wages than their predecessors and are denied participation in the defined benefit pension benefit enjoyed by generations of UAW members. They were also hesitant to press wage demands on the weakened companies, so even senior workers saw their incomes eroded by inflation.

Now that the automakers have returned to profitability UAW members are demanding not just a substantial raise for all but to bring these lower-tier workers up to the union standard in pay and benefits. The companies have balked, citing competition from foreign transplants – companies like Mercedes, Honda, Toyota and Hyundai produce cars in nonunion US plants with substantially lower wages and benefits. They have also argued that they need to bank profits from this last generation of ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles to build EV production capacity.

This is an important consideration, but there have been troubling signs that the automakers want to use the transition to EVs to reset labor relations in the industry to workers’ disadvantage. They have repeatedly stated that assembling EVs will require fewer workers than ICE vehicles, and have formed legally separate joint ventures with other firms to produce EV batteries – enabling them to escape the UAW national bargaining.

In the twentieth century, the UAW helped define what a good, family-supporting job was. In the twenty-first, the workers who produce our EVs deserve the same. For that reason, it’s essential that the striking auto workers win a fair settlement and recover the ground they’ve lost. Please pray for their success!

“Radical Solidarity with Working Families”

Bishops’ 2023 Labor Day Statement

Every year, the Chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development issues a Labor Day statement. The statement reflects on conditions in the world in light of Catholic Social Teaching.

The current chair of the committee is Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia. This year’s statement, Radical Solidarity with Working Families, cautiously greets our nation’s improving economic situation while reminding readers how many working Americans still cannot afford food, rent and health care. “We are called to join Jesus in his ministry to bring glad tidings to the poor,” he observes. “We must do more to support families.” The Archbishop urged legislators to act on the Child Tax Credit, paid family leave and access to affordable child care.

Most important, for trade unionists like myself, it was heartening to read an emphatic endorsement of Catholic teaching on labor unions:

Finally, the essential role labor unions can and often do play in society must be acknowledged and affirmed. As Pope Francis stated when meeting delegates from Italian trade unions, “… one of the tasks of the trade union is to educate in the meaning of labor, promoting fraternity between workers… Trade unions… are required to be a voice for the voiceless. You must make a noise to give voice to the voiceless” Unions should continue to be supported in their work that supports healthy, thriving families, especially those who are most in need, and encouraged in maintaining and increasing their focus on performing that critical role. Indeed, as Pope Francis has suggested, “there are no free workers without trade unions.”

CLICK HERE to read the statement in its entirety.

Catholic Labor Network 2023 Labor Day Mass

September 4 at 12pm ET

The Catholic Labor Network is pleased to announce that Bishop David Toups, Bishop of the Diocese of Beaumont in Texas will celebrate our annual Labor Day Mass. Our Spiritual Moderator Fr. Sinclair Oubre, a member of the Seafarers International Union, will concelebrate. They will be assisted by Deacon Steve Oberneufemann, a Teamster, and Deacon Ivan Watson of the United Steelworkers. Morline Guillory of the American Postal Workers Union and Richard Landry, another Steelworker, will do the readings.

The Mass will be broadcast on the Catholic Labor Network’s YouTube Channel at noon ET on Labor Day. Please join us!

Teamsters Settle with UPS

For actors and hotel workers, the fight continues

The Catholic Labor Network is pleased to report that UPS and the Teamsters have reached a tentative contract agreement. If ratified, the country will be spared a much-feared strike by more than 300,000 drivers and warehouse workers that would have snagged supply chains in every corner of the country.

We didn’t have to come this close to the nation’s biggest labor dispute in decades. But for months UPS failed to put a reasonable wage increase on the table, and the Teamsters practiced hitting the picket lines for much of July.

UPS employees will see significant improvements in wages and working conditions. Part-time warehouse employees currently have a starting wage of $16.20 per hour; that’s going up to $21. Full-time drivers will get a substantial wage increase as well, and won big on quality of life issues. In the future, UPS will purchase trucks with A/C – no small thing for workers toting heavy loads in our increasingly warm summers. And weekend overtime will be voluntary, not required.

Meanwhile, the summer of strikes is hardly over, especially in Southern California. There, Hollywood writers and actors remain on picket lines, seeking a share of revenues from streaming video and protections from job loss to artificial intelligence. And Los Angeles area hotel workers represented by UNITE HERE – who can barely afford to live in the increasingly expensive city – continue a wave of strikes against area hotels.

Please pray for all these workers who continue to fight for justice.

Social Justice

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine #14 by Bill Droel

The term social justice is regularly used but rarely defined. It often means a government program is on the way. “Social justice requires an increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).” It can mean a general concern. “The status of women is a matter of social justice.” It can describe an event. “We went to a social justice conference.” Or describe a personality type. “She’s a social justice warrior.” In many circles it is simply substituted for the word charity. “Our parish food pantry is a social justice effort.”
Social justice actually has a Catholic pedigree and refers to a type under the general term justice. There is criminal justice, distributive justice (the duty of government), individual justice or commutative justice (fair exchange either implied or in a contract) and social justice (and more).
Fr. Luigi Taparelli, SJ (1793-1862) of Italy coined the term social justice in 1845. He was rightly worried about individualistic tendencies that characterize modernity–all the more extreme in our day. Taparelli favored an organic society in which many interdependent parts add up to more than their sum. Such a society needs healthy intermediate institutions that give individuals wider agency and also buffer individuals from big forces—families, parishes, workplace units, professional associations, ethnic clubs and more. This dynamic is called subsidiarity in Catholicism.
By about 1900 Catholic philosophers were equating social justice with what St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) calls legal justice. Now, for Aquinas legal justice does not refer to what is approximated on TV shows like Chicago P.D. and Judge Judy. He means that by divine law all the parts of an organic society must be directed toward the common good, not entirely to one individual’s good. The 20th century Catholic philosophers thought the term social justice was better than legal justice because many people think the word legal only means what is expressly prohibited or commanded. Such people stay within minimum behavior but consider social obligations to be strictly optional. In fact, they often expect some recognition when they help out in the community.
The academic conversation continued, treating both process and outcome. Process: How does social justice come about? Outcome: What does a social justice society look like?
Fr. William Ferree, SM (1905-1985) of Ohio greatly clarified the topic—in my opinion. First in a dissertation and then in an influential 1948 booklet, Introduction to Social Justice, Ferree said the unique act of social justice is organization and its outcome is improved policies or institutions.
This means that social justice is a virtue. It is something that is done, not a fond wish. It is more than calling out a problem. Like all virtues, it must be done habitually.
This means that social justice is a collective virtue. An individual can be generous but cannot alone practice social justice. Like-minded people must get together. Thus, mixed motives are always involved. Each participant gets something out of the effort; the group also benefits in some way; but the greater good is a primary object of the practice.
This means that the aims of social justice must stay in the practical realm, though the initial ambition can reach beyond what will be achieved. Compromise is a necessary part of social justice. It is not a virtue for purists or utopians.
This means, to paraphrase a great polka song: In heaven there is no social justice; that’s why we do it here. In heaven there is perfect love, but in our messy here-and-now domain, things are incremental. There’s need for social justice today and more need tomorrow.
This means that social justice is for insiders. Protest is often necessary to get inside, but marches and rallies are not in themselves social justice.
This means that social justice is not charity, though charity might precede or accompany social justice. Charity in itself does not change policies, though people involved in charity often turn to lobbying (social justice) in order to make charity more efficient or even less necessary.
Social justice is a specific activity done by a group within an institution to improve a policy or, if necessary, to start an alternative institution. With a better appreciation for the definition of social justice more might be accomplished. As Elvis sang in 1968, “A little less conversation, a little more action.”

Ferree’s booklet ($6) and Droel’s booklet, What Is Social Justice ($5) can be obtained from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Loyola Marymount Workers Win Increased Minimum Wage

A guest contribution from CLN Member Anna Harrison

On March 30, 2022, corresponding with Loyola Marymount University’s annual Cesar Chavez Day, when Facilities Management [FM] workers are feted with a free meal and an Interfaith Prayer Service acknowledges their labor, an anonymous group of FM workers distributed an open letter. It read, in part, “It is a great blessing to enjoy a plate of food today, but many Facilities Management workers do not know how they are going to provide their families with food for the rest of the year.” Urging a recollection of the principles of the University’s founding religious — the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, and the Jesuits — the letter pleaded for an increase to $21.00 of LMU’s minimum wage, echoing a cry that LMU’s administration had long dismissed, urging dissatisfied workers to find employment elsewhere.

Workers anchored in Catholic tradition — and familiar with the Catholic Social Teaching that our University purports to champion — insisted “Whatever you do to others, you do to me.” When University executives tried to appease the workers with a raise to $19 an hour, the second of two protest marches took place during a meeting of our Board of Trustees. LMU FM Solidarity, an ad hoc group of students, staff, and faculty held aloft signs — “You can’t celebrate Cesar Chavez and underpay your workers”; “Jesuits for Justice”— and a collaboratively composed letter instructed the University that “Our Jesuit commitment to social justice means we have a special obligation to the poor. Even with the recent wage increase, far too many of our Facilities Management workers — the majority of whom are people of color and many of whom are recent immigrants — will remain among America’s working poor…. We … reaffirm our commitment to standing with those most in need, insisting that LMU’s stated commitment to social justice demands a just minimum wage of $21.00.” Protest marches, a petition, open letters, a social media campaign, and stickers that covered the campus were successful: in April 2023, LMU FM workers’ minimum wage was increased from $16.00 to $21.00.

Child Labor

The Working Catholic: Child Labor by Bill Droel

It is a fallacy to believe that if teenage members of a family spend more time on a job, the family will necessarily gain upwardly mobility. Nor is it true that our economy prospers when young people neglect their studies for the sake of income. Yes, employment trains teenagers and young adults in public disciplines plus gives them some outlook on social psychology. However, excess hours on the clock are not beneficial.
The current though relative labor shortage does not justify what N.Y. Times reporter Hannah Drier brought to light about child labor in articles from late February 2023 until early May 2023. Several companies are using children in restricted jobs for excessive hours and sometimes failing to pay them justly—835 companies last fiscal year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Packers Sanitation Services based in Kieler, WI, as one example, had 102 teenagers on overnight shifts cleaning back saws, brisket saws and head splitters in meat processing plants. Packers, which is owned by Blackstone investments, was fined $15million.
Drier found children illegally employed in retail, construction and manufacturing plus in sawmills, in an industrial laundry and in a slaughterhouse. Some were on the overnight shift and underpaid. Hearthside Food Solutions based in Downers Grove, IL contracts with popular brands to package food. Drier found many children at its Michigan facilities. Hearthside blames its staffing agency.
There are many ways to address a labor shortage, reports John Miller in Dollars & Sense (6/23). Raise wages and improve workplace conditions, though “both would drive up costs.” Immigration reform would also put more adults into the job pool legally. A few columnists and several trade associations favor another remedy: child labor.
“Ten states, six in the Midwest, have considered proposals” to loosen child labor restrictions, Miller details. A 1938 law (the Fair Labor and Standards Act) specifies conditions for employing teenagers after school, on weekends and holidays for reasonable hours in non-hazardous settings like cashier, caddy, hostess, usher, lifeguard, school janitor, delivery person, clerical and the like with leeway on family farms and in family shops. Despite these reasonable guidelines the pro-family governor of Arkansas recently signed legislation to eliminate a simple permit that required a child’s age verification, parental approval and a non-hazardous situation for employment. The N.Y. Times comments: The new law “is not to protect those children from exploitation but instead to make it legal.” Iowa is likely next.
The full story, as Drier writes, includes the plight of unaccompanied migrant children of whom about 130,000 came into the U.S. in the past 12 months. These fearful young people are easily exploited. Some are put in dangerous jobs. Most are underpaid and some are cheated out of their pay entirely. Not all these young adults come to the U.S. with full knowledge and will. Some are trafficked by cartels and then sold to construction subcontractors or to agricultural entities. Some are forced into prostitution or thievery.
What is our federal government doing to protect children? Well, the administration of President Joseph Biden is eager to clear out shelters near our border. Day labor agencies and even traffickers, posing as hosts, have moved some of these migrant children into dangerous and exhausting jobs. The Department of Labor, Miller mentions, is “severely understaffed.”
A retired Department of Labor official provides The Working Catholic with details. He was stationed in Chicago for ten years and then 18 more in Florida. There is “an immediately apparent difference” between southern states that have a so-called right to work law and those states with viable unions. Further, many northern states have local laws pertaining to child labor and sometimes fund apprentice training programs. “Active union presence serves to minimize child labor violations,” he says.
“Violations are typically not easy to see,” his narrative continues. Investigations occur after-the-fact and “must be developed from employer records, which is not easy. The Department of Labor is a civil enforcement arm, not criminal. Thus, the documented cases must then be adjudicated by the Department of Justice.”
What can law-abiding businesses and citizens do? Use union labor. If not, stipulate in writing that a contractor all not allow its subcontractors to use child labor. Second, support a local worker center. Arise (www.arisechicago.org), a sophisticated worker center here in Chicago, takes up cases of wage theft and other labor violations. Escucha Mi Voz (www.escuchamivozia.org) is a Catholic-based worker center. It helps people from ten language groups. Child labor in meatpacking is one of its concerns. Women religious, as on many issues, are leaders in anti-trafficking. They publish an informative newsletter, detail some action steps and supply reflection material. Their website is www.sistersagainsttrafficking.org. Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org) is based in New York City. It conducts research and reports on the topic.

Bill Droel (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629) is eager for any reports on child labor.


The Working Catholic: Immigration by Bill Droel

The immigrant “can sense that the United States is of two minds,” writes Hector Tobar of the University of California in Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation (Farrar, Straus, 2023). “Like the indentured servants, the Poles, the Germans and the Chinese people of other centuries, she knows there are factory owners and affluent families on the other side of the fence or the ocean who really want her to make it across… She knows that she has something that is prized on the other side.” At the same time the “walls, barbed wire and restrictive immigration laws announce they hate her kind.”
A country by definition must have borders. A phrase like open borders, if taken literally, erases the existence of nation states. The trick is to maintain an orderly system so that tourists, students, temporary workers, immigrants and refugees can safely enter a country and by their labor, knowledge and consumption they can contribute to their surroundings.
The current number of foreign-born people living in our country is the highest it has been in about 100 years; 45million by one estimate, reports Idrees Kahloon in The New Yorker (6/12/23). Many are immigrants who have become full-fledged legal U.S. citizens (about 970,000 within the past 12 months). Other foreign-born residents are guest workers (in Silicon Valley, in hospitals, in vineyards and on farms) and students (in technical fields, medical research and business) and others are immigrant/refugees–those who are in the legal process and those who have drifted into society without status.
The current influx actually began over 60 years ago when Congress changed its immigration limit and its general ban on those from Asia, details Dexter Filkins, also writing in The New Yorker (6/19/23). Our society’s need for more skilled and manual laborers attracts foreigners. More arrive under our policy of family preference or chain migration by which one immigrant can assist family members. Several factors push families toward the U.S., including drug violence, natural disasters, a bad economy at home, oppressive politics, the profitable smuggling/trafficking business (coyote cartels) and more.
Arrivals in the U.S., as Hector Tobar describes, have always encountered nativism. Some current U.S. residents say that their life would be better if immigrants were not unfairly given social services. Some residents also say that their own ancestors had to learn English, but that today’s arrivals don’t do so. They also say that new arrivals take away jobs that longer-standing residents would like to have.
Data can counter these points, but the objections are not really about what they are about. The concern about jobs, for example, is only valid for a limited time in a specific place where “cheap labor can hold down wages for some workers,” says Filkins. However, the demand for employees in our country far exceeds the current supply. In the bigger picture immigration has no effect on jobs or wages. It is employment sectors that set wage scales and it is free trade and tax policies that send jobs overseas. Yet no one opposed to today’s immigrants is persuaded by the facts.
Migrants and refugees crossing our country’s southern border are resented more than well-educated technicians and doctors and trades people arriving from Asia or Eastern Europe, though each foreigner encounters nativism.
“Determining the exact number [of refugees is] remarkably difficult,” Filkins explains. There are possibly 11million undocumented people in the U.S. today; not all of whom intend to stay or will be allowed to stay. Even now our government does not know how many migrants it has sent back. The legal process for entry is backlogged and caught-up in conflicting court rulings. There are over two million pending cases just for those who claim refugee status. They are legally entitled to wait in the U.S. for a hearing on their case, but they have no right to a public defender. The wait time for the initial hearing is now five years. If the decision is unfavorable to the refugee, they can appeal. The wait time for that appeal hearing is another five years.
Reform of our dysfunctional immigration/migration system is, as any objective observer realizes, slow-going. A policy of exclusion, Filkins explains, is impractical. No matter how big a wall is built, people are not deterred from fleeing misery and staking their hope on our beautiful country. Total exclusion also damages the U.S. economy plus betrays the story of our country and it is inhumane. Three parts must come together simultaneously for acceptable reform. 1.) Tougher boarder security. 2.) More funding for local police in states like Texas and Arizona plus in cities that welcome migrants; more social services and processing assistance; more immigration judges. 3.) Better legal opportunities for immigrants, enforced fairly.
At the moment both Republican and Democrat leaders tolerate the frustrating chaos because they can blame one another. Additionally, Democrats and Republicans share the ambivalence of our citizenry. They want more immigration because it bolsters U.S. productivity. They want less immigration because more of it fuels resentment and politicians get the blame.
A final consideration: No matter the administrative chaos and the political muddle of the moment, there is an ethical obligation to assist the immigrants/migrants among us. To be continued…
Droel serves the board of National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Union rights under attack in Ohio

A guest contribution from CLN Member John McNay

Two bills have been introduced in the Ohio legislature that are at odds with Catholic doctrine regarding labor unions.

The leading advocate for the legislation is Sen. Jerry Cirino, a Republican from Kirtland, Ohio. He introduced SB 83 and it has a companion bill in the House, HB 151.

The bills, directed at all unions at public colleges and universities, ban strikes. But the bills specifically target faculty unions by barring what are traditionally routine negotiations over tenure, annual performance reviews, workload, and retrenchment.

The Catholic church has held for many years that strikes have a legitimate role in negotiations. For example, Pope John Paul II wrote in his statement On Human Work in 1981 that: “One of the methods used by unions is the strike, or work stoppage – a means that is recognized by Catholic social teaching as legitimate under the proper conditions and within proper limits. Workers should be assured of the right to strike without fear of penalty.”

Similarly, in 1986, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in their statement on Economic Justice for All, wrote: “Unions may also legitimately resort to strikes where this is the only available means to the justice owed to workers.”

Given how rare strikes are at universities in Ohio (two in the last 10 years), it cannot be said that the right to strike is being abused. The evidence shows that strikes occur only as a last resort. My own faculty union last went on strike 30 years ago.

While the ban on strikes cripples all union workers at public colleges and universities – janitors, grounds keepers, maintenance staff, cafeteria staff, secretaries, professors, etc – there is much in SB 83/HB 151 that focuses on undermining the terms and conditions of employment of faculty.

Pope Benedict understood and disapproved of this kind of political intervention when he wrote in his encyclical letter, Caritas in Veritate, that the task of unions has become more difficult because governments “often limit the freedom or negotiation capacity of labour unions.” Yet, he continued, “The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum (1891), for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past…”

This attack on faculty employment conditions is targeted in such a way as to make the union as ineffective as possible and weaken the organizing ability of unions and is certainly a violation of the Catholic support of unions going back many years. Lastly, the church’s social doctrine recognizes labor unions “should not be forced to submit to the decisions of political parties nor be too closely linked to them.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 307)

We would hope that Catholic politicians would look to the wisdom of the church before taking such a destructive political act rooted in partisan politics.

All Who Labor

a guest contribution from Anna Nowalk, CLN Member

All Who Labor is a podcast that explores Catholic labor history and recent labor activism, particularly as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic. I began the project as a Duffy Fellow at Fordham University; the first season, now complete, was supported by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture.

The first episode offers an overview of Catholic social teaching and a look at the impact of U.S. labor history on the creation of the social encyclical Rerum Novarum. From there, episodes dive into topics such as Monsignor John Ryan, corporate responsibility, and policy advocacy. The final episode of the first season explores how work fits into the good life, and includes a reflection on the Great Resignation.

With top-notch guests such as Br. Ken Homan, the Kalmanovitz Initiative’s Joseph McCartin, and the USCCB’s Ingrid Delgado, as well as two Catholic Labor Network-affiliated guests (Nancy Conrad, of the Maryland Catholic Labor Network, and Fr. Sinclair Oubre, CLN’s spiritual moderator), the conversations featured on All Who Labor can both teach and inspire Catholics interested in labor justice.

The entirety of the first season is available to listen to on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Buzzsprout. The second season (produced independently of the CRC and the Duffy Fellowship), exploring recent union activity at Fordham University, is in the works.