Bishop O’Connell, friend of labor

America recently learned of the death of Bishop David O’Connell. An Irish immigrant who ministered to the poor and sought to quell gang violence in Los Angeles, the beloved Los Angeles auxiliary bishop was murdered in his own home.

The Bishop was an important friend of labor in Southern California. As Gustavo Arellano recalled in the Los Angeles Times:

After Mass, I traveled up to Santa Monica, to a place I would’ve never pegged as significant to O’Connell: The Lowes Santa Monica Beach Hotel. Its view of the Pacific and its hoity toity clientele were miles removed from South L.A., geographically and spiritually.

As I sat at a marble table for one, the waiter took my order for a breakfast burrito. That’s when I noticed the Unite Here Local 11 pin on his shirt.

In the late 1990s, labor organizers engaged in “a really bitter fight” to unionize the hotel’s workers, according to Unite Here organizing director Noel Rodriguez. O’Connell had already involved himself in workers rights issues across Los Angeles. He served as a bridge between the management of Catholic hospitals in Lynwood and employees during a labor dispute. In 1999, he read the story of David and Goliath during a rally at USC in which 25 protesters were arrested.

“I asked Bishop Dave to talk to this [Lowe’s] cook, because he was scared” to join the union, Rodriguez said in a phone interview. Some weeks went by, and Rodriguez reminded O’Connell of his promise.

“He told me, ‘I haven’t done it,’ got right in his car and visited [the cook] at his home. He helped him overcome his fear,” Rodriguez recalled. “The cook joined the union and got others to join. That kind of stuff happened all the time.”

Bishop O’Connell also chaired the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ subcommittee supervising the Church’s anti-poverty program, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). (CCHD is a major funder of the Catholic Labor Network.)

Please keep Bishop O’Connell and his family in your prayers.

Thomas R. Donahue: Former AFL-CIO President and CLN Board Member (1928-2023)

courtesy of CLN Treasurer Joseph A. McCartin, Georgetown University

On February 18, 2023, former AFL-CIO president and long-time board member of the Catholic Labor Network, Thomas Reilly Donahue Jr., went to his heavenly reward.  If the pantheon of prominent U.S. Catholic labor leaders is filled with a multitude of revered names, from Mother Jones to Cesar Chavez, Tom Donahue’s name surely ranks among the most honored—especially in the hearts of the many CLN members who knew him.

Tom was born into a working-class family in the Bronx in 1928.  His father was a janitor, who later became a union deckhand on the Staten Island Ferry, which nurtured young Tom’s interest in unions.  Tom was the product of Catholic education through and through, graduating from the Marist Brothers’ high school, Mount St. Michael Academy, in 1944, from the Christian Brothers’ Manhattan College in 1949 (after a stint in the Navy), and from the Jesuits’ Fordham Law School (which he put himself through at night, while working as a doorman and bus driver) in 1957.  After a post-law school stint in Paris working for Radio Free Europe and the Free Europe Committee, he returned home to a job with Local 32B of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in New York, where he became a protégé of its leader, the Irish immigrant David Sullivan.  After Sullivan ascended to the presidency of SEIU, Donahue moved to Washington in 1963 to become his top aide.

Thereafter, Donahue’s rise within the labor movement was meteoric. He became a favorite of AFL-CIO president George Meany, who pushed for his appointment as Undersecretary of Labor under W. Willard Wirtz in the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson.  When his term at the Labor Department ended, Donahue returned to SEIU before being tapped in 1973 to serve as Meany’s top aide.  By the age of 45, he had already held a wide range of top positions in the labor movement and developed a reputation as one of labor’s most widely-read, strategic, and diplomatic leaders.  When Lane Kirkland succeeded Meany in 1979, Donahue was elected as the federation’s secretary-treasurer, labor’s number two post, and was widely seen as Kirkland’s ultimate successor.

Yet Donahue’s rise coincided with the onset of the Reagan era.  As unions fell into a deepening crisis in the 1980s, Donahue spearheaded the effort to revive them.  He led the AFL-CIO’s Committee on the Evolution of Work, and shaped its 1985 report, The Changing Situation of Workers and their Unions, which called on unions to devise new organizing methods and proposed that unions create associate memberships to recruit workers in difficult to organize sectors.  As Kirkland’s right hand, he also led the AFL-CIO’s unsuccessful effort to block the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993-94.

Unfortunately for Donahue, the defeats of the 1980s and early 1990s destroyed Kirkland’s presidency and undermined his own chance to ascend to labor’s top post.  Following the takeover of Congress by Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections, Kirkland lost the confidence of most AFL-CIO unions.  When dissidents approached Donahue, asking him to challenge Kirkland, he demurred.  Although he agreed with most of the dissidents’ vision he did not want to be disloyal to Kirkland.  Donahue’s refusal in turn led his onetime colleague, President John Sweeney of SEIU, to declare his candidacy as leader of the forces demanding change.  Realizing that Sweeney would defeat him, Kirkland ultimately decided to resign, elevating Donahue to the presidency AFL-CIO as his interim successor in hopes that this move would cause Sweeney to withdraw his candidacy.  Having already built his campaign, however, Sweeney refused to back down.

As a result, Sweeney and Donahue, two Irish Catholics from the Bronx with deep roots in both SEIU and Catholic social teaching, found themselves as opponents in a hard-fought election at the 1995 AFL-CIO convention.  Deepening the irony—and the hard feelings that resulted—was the fact that Donahue had hired Sweeney to his first job at SEIU and the two had been friends for more than 30 years.  Sweeney defeated Donahue at that convention, effectively halting the rise of a man who many believed was the most talented union leader of his generation, one who had been poised to lead organized labor into the 21st century.

Although he was deeply hurt by his 1995 loss, that event did not overshadow Donahue’s many accomplishments or define his later years.  He remained active with labor, democracy, and human rights causes into his 90s, ably carrying on the tradition of Catholic labor activism exemplified by his close friend, the great labor priest, Msgr. George G. Higgins.  And among the most important of Donahue’s many commitments was to the Catholic Labor Network, on whose board he served several terms.

Donahue’s marriage to Natalie Kiernan ended in divorce and his son from that marriage, Thomas R. Donahue III, died in 2018.  He is survived by his daughter Nancy Donahue, six grandchildren, and his wife of more than 43 years, longtime political activist and organizer, Rachelle Horowitz.  We join with them in celebrating a rich life offered unstintingly in service to a noble cause.  May his memory inspire us to keep alive this tradition he valued so dearly and embodied so fully.

Lawrence Cafeteria Workers Seek Fair Treatment

Courtesy of Catholic Labor Network member Jeremy DaCruz

In the City of Lawrence, Massachusetts, a city famous for its labor struggles, cafeteria workers receive wages barely above the state minimum wage. Over 100 years ago, immigrant women fought for higher wages and better working conditions. Now, the mostly immigrant women who make sure that the students of Lawrence, Massachusetts are well fed find themselves facing rising inflation, a crippling workload, and low wages.

During their last wage negotiation, the Lawrence Public Schools Cafeteria Workers (SEIU Local 3) picketed outside the School District office and won historic raises. However, given that their wages started from such a low point, they still struggle to make ends meet. Coupled with the fact that staffing ratios are still below their pre-pandemic levels, the Cafeteria Workers feel abused and disrespected.

When the Cafeteria Workers discovered that the Lunch Aides at the smaller City of Lawrence Public Schools recently negotiated a stipend for maintaining ServeSafe certification, the Cafeteria Workers asked the district to extend the same stipend to them as they must maintain the same certification and do essentially the same work. The School District has, so far, refused. In response, the Cafeteria Workers have organized a petition and asked community members for their support.

Catholic Social Teaching states that “[t]he provision of wages and other benefits sufficient to support a family in dignity is a basic necessity to prevent this exploitation of workers.” (Economic Justice for All, 103) The Cafeteria Workers ask that Lawrence Public Schools recognize this “basic necessity” and pay the Cafeteria Workers fairly, starting with the ServeSafe Certification stipend.

If you want to express your support for the Cafeteria Workers, please send an email to the Interim Superintendent Juan Rodriguez ([email protected]) asking that the ServeSafe stipend be extended to the Cafeteria Workers.

Corporate Lawlessness

Study finds Unfair Labor Practice Charges in 4 out of 10 of Union Elections

Until 1935, workers who wanted a union usually had to strike to get it. It was a recipe for perpetual industrial conflict. That’s why legislators passed the Wagner Act, providing an orderly way to adjust workplace disputes. Employers were forbidden to retaliate against workers for exercising their right to organize. When a group of workers wanted union representation, they could file for a workplace election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). If a majority vote in favor of joining a union, the employer was legally required bargain in good faith with the union the workers had chosen. In theory, the Wagner Act vindicated the rights of workers while offering a path to industrial peace.

In theory, that is. The system only workers if management, which runs the workplace, adheres to the law.

When management violates the law – for instance, by firing or punishing a worker for supporting the union, or for failing to bargain in good faith with a union representing a majority of workers – the workers and their union file an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge with the NLRB. The Economic Policy Institute recently examined NLRB election data and ULP charges for the past few years. In a shocking but not surprising finding, they discovered that a ULP was filed in nearly 4 out of 10 NLRB elections.

What’s gone wrong? The short answer is that the penalties for violating the Wagner Act are negligible. One would hope that civic duty alone would oblige all employers to honor the law, but for a substantial minority, that’s not the case. Too many corporations are prepared to break the law in order to break a union organizing drive. They look at firing a union supporter not as criminal behavior but as an investment in remaining union-free. It’s hardly surprising that union membership has dropped from about one in three American workers in the 1950s to one in ten today.

Barring an unlikely civic reform among American business leaders, the only way to restore the balance between labor and management is a thorough reform of American labor law – starting with punitive damages for employers who retaliate against union supporters.


Workers at Two More Catholic Institutions Move to Unionize

In their 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, America’s Catholic Bishops reaffirmed the right of workers to organize – and noted that employees of Catholic institutions, like any other, enjoy this right. In recent reports, workers at two Catholic institutions are doing just that. Nurses at Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph Hospital in Kansas have filed with the National Labor Relations Board for a union election. If successful they would join their brothers and sisters at Ascension Via St. Francis who recently voted for representation by National Nurses United (NNU). Meanwhile, a majority of the Resident Assistants at Fordham University have signed cards seeking representation by the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 153, which already represents Fordham office employees.

Workers at more than 600 Catholic hospitals, colleges, schools and other institutions already enjoy union representation. Are any in your Diocese? Check out the Catholic Labor Network’s annual Gaudium et Spes Labor Report to find out!

Davenport Deacon on CNH Strike

In January, after 8 grueling months on the picket line, UAW members in Burlington IA (and Racine WI) settled their strike against Case New Holland (CNH), a manufacturer of agricultural and construction equipment. Deacon Kent Ferris, Director of Social Action in the Diocese of Davenport, accompanied the workers in their long struggle for a fair contract. Ferris recently explained to CLN how he got involved:

On the afternoon of Sunday, December 18, 2022, my son and I traveled to Burlington, Iowa, at the invitation of a local parishioner labor leader. I was asked to share briefly my reason for supporting striking workers and to provide an invocation for the rally. Over 1000 United Auto Workers at the Burlington factory and one in Racine, Wisconsin, had been on strike since May when their six year contract expired. I cited salient points from the USCCB document, Economic Justice for All. The invocation included reference to the inherent dignity of each person and acknowledging the importance workers have for their families and in turn a strong community.  Following the gathering at the labor hall, we joined with supporters in walking to the plant where workers had been since the beginning of the months long strike. It was a cold, blustery December afternoon, but the spirits were high amongst the supporters.

Generations have known of the strong Church commitment to supporting workers by way of the Catholic labor movement, one that stresses that the economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy. I was attempting to convey that message to the striking workers that day. I was also attempting to model the commitment to that teaching to the next generation that day as well.

Thanks for your witness, Deacon Kent!

Unions and Nonprofits

Several unions have stepped up organizing nonprofit employees. These unions are usually targeting workers at progressive research and advocacy organizations. It makes sense, because such workers are often union-sympathetic already. It’s often also assumed that such organizations will be more labor-friendly than for-profit enterprises. Sometimes that’s true and sometimes it’s not.

Yesterday I hit the streets with members of OPEIU Local 2 who represent staff at the environmental organization Defenders of Wildlife, protesting in front of the nonprofit’s headquarters. Why were they there? They were in town for National Labor Relations Board proceedings. When the workers began organizing, management responded by unlawfully firing one of the union activists, Erica Prather (pictured). At the last moment, the two sides reached a settlement on this and other Unfair Labor Practice charges, but the two sides still seem to be a long way from a first contract.

This is not unique to progressive nonprofits. The Catholic Labor Network has repeatedly witnessed the same thing in Church-run organizations. Despite a clear and consistent Church teaching on the right of workers to organize in unions, administrators at Catholic schools, hospitals and other institutions seldom welcome union organizing among their staff – and often fight to prevent them from doing so.

Ordered to different ends, for-profit and non-profit organizations are very different in important ways. However, managers at both types of institutions exercise power in the workplace, and that power is constrained when workers come together in a union to negotiate the terms of their employment. Not surprisingly, managers are seldom enthusiastic about ceding some of their power to employees, regardless of the type of organization they are leading.

But workers deserve a voice on the job, whether they work for a nonprofit or for-profit institution. Please keep the Defenders of Wildlife staff in your prayers as they fight for a first contract, as well as those workers at Catholic institutions who aspire to a voice in the workplace.

Alphabet Workers Union Responds to Google Layoffs

A guest contribution from CLN member Stephen McMurtry

On Friday, 20 January, Google parent company Alphabet announced that it would cut 6% of its workforce, or 12,000 employees. Alphabet was one of the last of the big tech corporations to do so: Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon had already fired over 10,000 workers each, and tech companies broadly have cut almost 250,000 positions since the start of 2022. Thousands of now-former Google employees in the United States woke up to find that they could not log into their corporate laptops—access had been cut in the middle of the night. The workers were promised generous severance, but they were not allowed to say goodbye to coworkers or even enter their offices for at least 60 days.

Alphabet is the only large tech company that has a company-wide union for corporate workers, the pre-majority Alphabet Workers Union—Communications Workers of America (AWU—CWA). The union does not represent most workers—with some exceptions—as it has chosen a pre-majority organizing model, in which workers publicly form a union and commit to building power to win over majorities of their coworkers.

The week after the layoffs were announced, our union sprang into action: we hosted a mass Zoom meeting with over 1,500 attendees and then followed up with in-person actions at Google offices around the country. Workers—many for the first time—tabled, held information sessions, and even threw a 500-person goodbye party for their fired coworkers at the Cambridge, MA office.

The following week, union members kept up the pressure by rallying outside of Google’s New York City office while executives were touting the layoffs in their Q4 earnings call. In conjunction with the layoff response at Google proper, groups of Alphabet subcontractors organizing with AWU—CWA conducted their own actions. “Raters” who tune Google’s search algorithm delivered a petition to Google’s Mountain View headquarters demanding that they be paid the $15/hr that Google promises to its subcontracted “extended workforce” but which these workers do not receive. At the end of the week, workers who help run the YouTube Music service went on ULP strike after their contractor, Cognizant, ordered them to return to the office after they filed for recognition with AWU—CWA.

There is a lot of work to be done before every Alphabet worker has adequate layoff protections, just wages, and a voice on the job, and we the workers of AWU—CWA will keep fighting to show our coworkers why they need to stand together in their union.

FMLA Turns 30

But when will the US join the world and assure PAID family leave?

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is now 30 years old. The FMLA allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to greet the birth or adoption of a child or to tend to a personal or family health emergency. By centering family needs and calling on enterprises to accommodate them, FMLA represented an important step toward a more human economic model.

But FMLA was only one step. Because FMLA only covers firms with 50 or more employees, half of the private sector workforce is excluded from its protections. And while FMLA guarantees that workers can recover their jobs after their unpaid leave, many low-income workers can’t afford to take time off. That’s why every other developed democracy offers PAID family leave to new parents. Will the US ever follow suit?

Several states and the District of Columbia already have done this. Just last year, the Catholic Labor Network joined a successful campaign to pass paid family and medical leave in the state of Maryland. In most cases, the state has funded the benefit through a very small payroll tax that included contributions from both employer and employee. It’s an ingenious solution: by spreading the cost across the entire workforce, no individual enterprise takes an inordinate economic hit.

But only a federal law can make paid family leave universally accessible. It’s high time for our nation to catch up with the rest of the world in recognizing that family comes first. FMLA was an important first step, but it’s time for America to adopt paid family and medical leave for our nation’s workers.

Catholic Labor Network Annual Conference

On Saturday Jan. 28, the Catholic Labor Network was able to hold its first Annual Conference since COVID struck. Dozens of workers, clergy and lay Church leaders came together to reflect on the events of 2022 and lift up Catholic Social Teaching on labor and work. The event was held in conjunction with the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering (CSMG), a larger event bringing together Catholic social justice activists sponsored by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.

One panel at the Conference focused on the Church and worker justice. Ingrid Delgado of the USCCB offered a wrap-up of the legislative efforts to improve working conditions in 2022, such as the Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act. Jeffry Korgen discussed CLN participation in the synod process, and Michael Loconto of the Boston Labor Guild situated labor arbitration in the framework of Catholic Social Teaching.

A second panel reflected on labor struggles supported by the CLN in 2022. Participants heard testimony from several workers, including nurses who successfully won their fight for a union in two Catholic hospitals, and food service workers employed by multinational Sodexo who are organizing with UNITE HERE. The panel also explored the victory achieved by Washington DC’s domestic workers, who won a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2022.

The Conference concluded with a report by the CLN’s Aimee Mayer on events in Nashville and a keynote address by Fr. Tim Graff [pictured], who discussed his work as Labor Liaison for Cardinal Joseph Tobin in the Archdiocese of Newark.

The Catholic Labor Network thanks our union sponsors who made the conference possible! They were UNITE HERE, IAM, UAW, UFCW, LIUNA, APWU, USW, UNITE HERE Locals 11 and 450, AFSCME Council 31, the Baltimore-Washington Building Trades, the Federation of Catholic Teachers (OPEIU), and the New York City and Sabine, TX Central Labor Councils.