The Labor Movement and the Catholic Church, Then and Now

The Labor Movement and the Catholic Church, Then and Now: The Legacy of Monsignor George Higgins

Monday, May 2 @ 3pm ET

For decades, legendary “labor priest” Monsignor George Higgins was a living link between the American labor movement and the Catholic Church. Higgins passed away 20 years ago this May 1. To commemorate the occasion, the AFL-CIO and the Catholic Labor Network are hosting a panel discussion on Higgins’s legacy and the relationship between organized labor and the Catholic Church, then and now. This event will be livestreamed from the AFL-CIO in Washington DC.

Hosts: President Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO, and Patti Edwards Devlin, Catholic Labor Network

Moderator: Fr. Clete Kiley, UNITE HERE and the Archdiocese of Chicago

Panelists:

  • Fr. Evelio Menjivar, Archdiocese of Washington
  • Dr. Meghan Clark, St. John’s University
  • Chuck Hendricks, UNITE HERE and Catholic Labor Network
  • Ingrid Delgado, US Conference of Catholic Bishops

 CLICK HERE to register to view the livestream

Mass in Memory of “Labor Priest” Monsignor George Higgins

Sunday, May 1 @ 11am

Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle

1725 Rhode Island Ave. NW, Washington DC

For decades, legendary “labor priest” Monsignor George Higgins was a living link between the American labor movement and the Catholic Church. Higgins passed away 20 years ago this May 1. To commemorate Monsignor Higgins’ legacy, Cardinal Wilton Gregory will celebrate a special Mass at the Cathedral of St Matthew in Washington DC. Fr. Evelio Menjivar, an Archdiocese of Washington pastor and labor priest, will be the homilist. All are welcome to attend. The Mass will also be livestreamed on the Cathedral’s YouTube Channel. Questions? Contact clayton@catholiclabor.org

Daily Grind

The Working Catholic: Routine by Bill Droel

Clocks are everywhere because our modern economy needs to know the time.
     Our “regular measurement of time and the new mechanical conception of time arose in part out of the routine of the monastery,” writes Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) in Technics and Civilization (University of Chicago Press, 1934). It was long ago that Pope Sabinianus (d. 606) ordered bells to be rung seven times per day to alert the faithful to the liturgy of the hours.
     As an urban economy eventually emerged, merchants demanded more precision. A public mechanical clock appeared in Belgium in 1188; more places followed in the 1200s. By 1345 the measurement of 60 minutes to an hour and 24 hours to a day became standard. By 1370 Paris had a well-designed modern clock suitable for urban life. In the 1600s many families in Holland and England acquired a mechanical clock for their homes.
     Yet the monasteries came first, according to Mumford. They “helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine; for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.” As the years went by, however, some began to think that a “completely timed and scheduled and regulated” machine civilization “does not necessarily guarantee maximum efficiency,” Mumford concludes. Sticking to the clock is not best for human development.
     Meghan O’Gieblyn, drawing upon Mumford, provides a reflection on routine for Harper’s Magazine (1/22). Have people become machines, she asks? Is the routine imposed by our economy dehumanizing? Or “is it possible in our age of advanced technology to recall the spiritual dimension of repetition”? Does a spiritual motivation lurk “in the gears of modern routine”?
     High tech and advanced automation enhance work and life, say its cheerleaders. Computers and robots free us to set aside drudgery and bring forth our agility, flexibility, creativity and spontaneity. However, “the rhetoric of flexibility…despite its existential promise to make us more human frequently undergirds policies that make the lives of workers more precarious,” O’Gieblyn writes. For example, online retail and the apps on our mobile device decrease variety by conditioning our choice of products and services.
     The goal cannot be the elimination of clocks. Covid-19 previews an unstructured existence within a total computer economy, a total gig economy and a total do-it-yourself, round-the-clock life. What is the result of decreased regimentation? Maybe too many naps. Excessive internet surfing. Heightened anxiety about childcare and schooling. Unpredictable and/or lower wages. Spiritual exhaustion.
     Humane work and a fuller life is not liberation from repetition. The old analysis still applies: Despite talk about teamwork and participation, workers are estranged from one another, from the process and outcome of their labor and eventually from themselves. That’s because too few workers—from warehouse workers to floor managers to computer programmers to middle executives—are insufficiently taught the process and the product of their labor. There just isn’t enough time to do so, we’ve assumed.
     As for O’Gieblyn, she believes “there is [still] something transcendent in the pleasures of repetition.” Tranquility is not simply the absence of structure. She cites St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in saying that a full life requires habits aimed toward the common good. A good habit is not slavery; it is a form of grace. And freedom, O’Gieblyn concludes, is not “eliminating necessity from our daily lives.” Freedom is “the ability to consistently choose the good.”
     For more from O’Gieblyn, get God, Human, Animal, Machine (Knopf Doubleday, 2021).

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

Wage Theft Still Rampant in DC Construction

Readers of this blog will recall how a Catholic Labor Network organizer visiting DC construction sites documented an extensive underground economy in the District’s construction market, one marked by substantial wage theft. We found that a system of labor brokers had emerged as middlemen between construction workers and contractors in several trades. These brokers would supply labor to drywall, plumbing, HVAC and electrical contractors, but pay the workers as if they were independent contractors – denying them overtime pay and failing to pay their social security taxes or workers’ compensation premiums. The Catholic Labor Network generated a major report on the phenomenon. It won’t surprise readers to hear that the victims of these scams are usually recent immigrants, often undocumented ones.

Unfortunately, industry conditions remain fraught. Organizers for the area’s construction labor unions regularly leaflet nonunion construction sites with handbills in English and Spanish counseling workers about their rights. Attention is currently focused on a major redevelopment project in the District of Columbia building once occupied by Fannie Mae, where a wage theft scandal drew coverage in the Washington Hispanic.

On this project, dozens of plumbers and sheet metal workers working for WG Welch through a labor broker told organizers they hadn’t been paid in over a month. Union organizers helped the workers prepare a collective demand for payment from WG Welch and the site’s general contractor, Whiting-Turner. (Under DC law, both are liable when a subcontractor or labor broker fails to pay their workers in a timely manner.) This secured some relief – some workers were paid straight time for the hours owed, but none received either the overtime pay or damages they are entitled to under the law. Construction union representatives are consulting with the workers about possible further legal action.

Watch this space for additional developments.

Wins for Maryland Workers

Bills for Paid Family Leave, public defender union rights pass over governor’s veto

Readers of this newsletter know that the Maryland Catholic Labor Network has focused on two bills this year in the Maryland legislature. Attorneys and staff of the public defenders’ office in Maryland lack the right to organize, emphatically supported in Catholic Social Teaching, so Maryland CLN members testified in support of a bill that would let them do so. And in support of workers and families, the MD CLN joined Baltimore Catholic Charities to host a webinar on The Catholic Church and Paid Family Leave, to foster support for the Time to Care Act, guaranteeing all Maryland workers 12 weeks of paid family or medical leave. We are pleased to report that both bills have passed — over the governor’s veto!

Catholic Labor Network Marches with Immokalee Workers in Palm Beach

On Saturday, April 2 the Catholic Labor Network joined the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and hundreds of their community supporters in a march through wealthy Palm Beach, Florida. The farmworker organization was calling on Wendy’s board chair Nelson Peltz to enroll the fast-food chain in its Fair Food Program.

The CIW is a farm workers’ organization based in Immokalee, Florida. Immokalee tomatoes end up on many fast-food hamburgers and sandwiches, and the CIW has successfully persuaded industry giants like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell to source their tomatoes to growers committed to a fair labor code of conduct as part of the Fair Food Program. Wendy’s remains a holdout.

Focusing attention on recent cases of human trafficking in U.S. agriculture, CIW leaders challenged Wendy’s: how can you guarantee your food isn’t the product of forced labor? As CIW leader Nely Rodriguez argued,

It is appalling that Wendy’s has refused to commit the fast-food chain to the Fair Food Program’s best-in-class protections for nearly a decade, and especially now, given the horrific rise of modern slavery cases in North American agriculture. On April 2, we marched with a simple question for Wendy’s Board Chair Nelson Peltz: Can Wendy’s guarantee there is no slavery in its supply chain?

The sad fact is that they can’t. U.S. agriculture depends on the backbreaking labor of immigrant workers. In the absence of a union or a worker-driven certification effort like CIW’s Fair Food Program, labor abuses – ranging from unpaid wages to actual violence – proliferate.

Student organizations, faith groups, community organizations and workers’ centers turned out hundreds of sympathizers to march in solidarity with the CIW members. Beyond the Catholic Labor Network, the Catholic community was represented by a delegation from Palm Beach Catholic Charities led by Sandra Perez, and by Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who blessed the workers after the march.

“Farmworkers are essential workers,” Wenski told Channel 5 after the march. “They work hard, they work in dangerous conditions, they work in inclement weather. They give an honest day’s work, they want an honest day’s pay, and they want to be treated with respect and dignity.”

The workers are calling upon the community to boycott Wendy’s until the chain agrees to participate in the Fair Food Program.

FemCatholic: Church can do better on paid family leave

Of all employment benefits, you would think that the Church would be leading the way on family leave. After all, what’s more pro-life and pro-family than giving paid time off to workers to bond with a newborn child or care for a sick family member? And in fact some are. In 2016, the Archdiocese of Chicago drew national attention when it announced 3 months of paid parental leave for employees with a newborn. But website FemCatholic investigated nationwide and found that the situation in the Church nationwide was decidedly mixed.

FemCatholic reached out to the 176 dioceses across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., to confirm their family leave policies. Through telephone interviews with current and former diocesan employees, FemCatholic ascertained that 31 dioceses offer fully paid maternity leave policies, 32 provide some percentage of employee salaries through either short-term disability or state paid leave laws, and 44 do not offer any paid leave.

Catholic institutions in the United States – Churches, schools, hospitals, and other organizations – employ upwards of one million workers. We have a wonderful opportunity to evangelize the world through our labor relations and employment policies. When Church institutions implement policies like paid parental leave, they send an important signal to lay Catholics in business leadership. The FemCatholic report should be a wake-up call for Catholic institutions across the United States.

Save the Date! Honoring the Memory of Msgr. George Higgins, May 1 & 2

Twenty years ago this May 1, legendary “labor priest” and onetime Social Action Director for the bishops’ conference Msgr. George Higgins died. The Catholic Labor Network has teamed up with the Archdiocese of Washington and the AFL-CIO to memorialize the occasion with two events.

Sunday, May 1 at 11am at St. Matthew’s Cathedral Cardinal Wilton Gregory will celebrate a special Mass. A young labor priest, Fr. Evelio Menjivar of St. Mary’s in Landover, will offer the homily and some thoughts on Msgr. Higgins’ legacy.

Monday, May 2 at 3pm at the AFL-CIO headquarters (815 16th St NW, Washington DC), AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler will introduce a panel discussion on Msgr. Higgins’ legacy. Panelists will include Fr. Menjivar, theologian Meghan Clark, Ingrid Delgado of the USCCB office of Justice, Peace and Human Development, and union organizer Chuck Hendricks of UNITE HERE and the Catholic Labor Network.

All are invited to both these important events! (And both will be livestreamed for those who can’t be there in person.)

Oxfam Report Details Living Wage Crisis in United States

Oxfam – an organization more widely known for its famine relief work – recently released an alarming report detailing the extent of the low-wage economy in the United States. The headline finding: approximately one third of US workers earn less than $15 per hour. The numbers for women and minorities were even more concerning – for instance, nearly half of Black workers earn less than $15. For a full-time worker, a $15 per hour wage amounts to $30,000 per year; it’s hard to imagine supporting a family on less than this anywhere in the United States. It’s a sign of deep structural problems in our economy that we have learned to depend on low wage labor to perform much essential service work. CLICK HERE for the Oxfam report.

Farmworker Awareness Week: March 25-31

March 25-31 marks Farmworker Awareness Week – a week that culminates on March 31, Cesar Chavez Day. The backbreaking work of planting and harvesting our food is largely performed by immigrants from Latin America for low pay under difficult working conditions.

Like domestic workers, during the New Deal reforms farmworkers were excluded from the protection of critical labor laws such as the National Labor Relations Act (which protects workers who want to form a union) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (which sets the federal minimum wage and dictates that other workers earn overtime when working more than 40 hours per week). This means that farmworkers have had to work state by state to secure these rights, a process that remains largely incomplete. Only a few states such as California and New York have passed laws protecting farmworkers’ right to organize and form labor unions. And this year Oregon joined a handful of states that have passed overtime pay laws covering farmworkers.

The Catholic Church played a critical role in the great farmworker organizing campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, especially in California, where Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) organized grape harvesters. The UFW sought leverage through a national boycott of table grapes. Chavez, himself deeply committed to his Catholic faith, relied on allies in the Church and the wider community to promote the boycott and secure basic rights for workers in the fields.

The Catholic Labor Network is part of the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM), an interfaith coalition standing in solidarity with farmworker organizations such as the UFW, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Today the UFW is seeking reforms in California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act to make it easier for farmworkers to form unions; the FLOC is campaigning for RJ Reynolds to clean up abuses in its tobacco supply chain; and the CIW is calling on Wendy’s to source its tomatoes from growers committed to fair labor practices. The CLN and the NFWM continue to support farmworkers in all of these initiatives.