Report from the “Moral March on Washington”

Poor People’s Campaign Brings out Faith, Labor Activists for Economic Justice

Have you heard of the Poor People’s Campaign? Back in 1968, Martin Luther King had a vision of poor people organizing across racial lines to transform American society. Fifty years later, that vision was picked up by leaders such as Rev. William Barber of North Carolina, who aspire to mobilize 140 million poor people and low-income workers around an agenda anchored in economic justice. As part of the campaign, on Saturday June 20 thousands rallied near the U.S. Capital to call for a “third reconstruction.” Labor and faith organizations were strongly represented in the effort.

Most of the speakers at the six-hour rally were grassroots leaders and activists, low-income workers and poor people testifying to their personal stories. These ranged from residents of Louisiana’s “cancer alley,” where industrial emissions of toxic waste threaten public health, to workers employed at Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks who were fighting for a union and a living wage.

Among unions, the SEIU had a high profile, with busloads of members traveling from New York, Ohio and Florida to participate in the rally. “We’re here for the workers, for us – for a living wage,” explained SEIU 199 member Tommy Smith (pictured). “We aren’t getting what we deserve. The fat cats are.” Members of the IAM, UNITE HERE, and other unions were also in evidence.

Several Catholic organizations began the day with a short prayer service organized by the Franciscan Action Network in front of St. Patrick’s Church in downtown DC. These included Pax Christi and a large delegation of sisters from the Loretto community, among others. After the prayer service, the groups walked out in formation to join the March.

Other Catholic activists were already at the rally site, including Fr. Ty Hullinger of the Maryland Catholic Labor Network, who took a bus with the United Workers Association of Baltimore. “It is important for us as Catholics to show up and be part of these movements,” Hullinger explained.

In addition to grassroots activists, the rally also heard from a few labor leaders, including SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond. “Poverty is a failure of the system, not poor people,” Redmond observed.

Fr. Clete Kiley offers invocation at AFL-CIO Convention

The AFL-CIO held its convention last week in Philadelphia, and the Catholic Labor Network’s own Fr. Clete Kiley was chosen to give the invocation! “After two years of covid and so many setbacks, we declare that our work has inherent value, and every worker has inherent dignity given by You the Spirit of God, the Lord and the Giver of Life, and can never come from a corner office in a corporate building,” said Fr. Clete, who works for the hotel and food service union UNITE HERE. “May solidarity be our unbreakable bond. May it be our sure and certain way forward.  In this meeting, in our solidarity, may we raise up our movement to meet the moment. May we repeat it again and again and again: Solidarity Today, Solidarity Tomorrow, Solidarity Forever. Amen!”

To view his invocation in its entirety, CLICK HERE and advance the video to 18:30.

Labor Day Part II

The Working Catholic: Labor Day Part II
By Bill Droel

Covid-19 brings us an opportunity to experiment with different work arrangements, including shorter hours. For example, the 100 employees at Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com), a popular crowd-funding platform, will work four days per week in 2022, a minimum of 32 hours. Their pay remains the same as when the company required 40 hours. Aziz Hasan, Kickstarter CEO, says this is not a gimmick. “It’s really about…a more potent impact… [And] it opens up so much more range for us personally.”
Autonomy (https://autonomy.work), a research firm in the United Kingdom, has completed its participation in a five-year study of over 2,500 employees in Iceland. Backed by unions and civic groups, the workweek was four days with 36-hours per worker. Productivity remained the same. Sick days decreased. Customers noted better quality of service. Now, 86% of Iceland employees are allowed a four-day week. Another Autonomy study is under way in Scotland. For more on this get Autonomy’s Overtime: Why We Need a Shorter Working Week by Kyle Lewis (Verso, 2021).
The motivation for a shorter workweek on the part of executives is the realization that attracting and retaining competent employees, particularly because of Covid-19, is an expensive challenge. Some companies adopted employment flexibility long before Covid-19. For example, since the 1990s, Metro Plastic Technologies (www.metroplastics.com) has used six-hour days with 30-hours per week at comparable pay as a recruitment tool. The company has few worker shortages, according to Wall St. Journal (7/31/21).
Here are some considerations about a shorter workweek.
There will be complaints from a supplier or customer or worker or investor. A manager has to stand secure, resisting a premature return to old ways.
Flex-time and shorter workweek experiments can fail when they are implemented top-down, neglecting a genuine buy-in from employees from the start. Experiments originating with employees likely turn out better.
Workaholics are a further challenge. Some employees think clocking 50+ hours per week is noble in itself. A workaholic culture has infected many firms.
Keep in mind that the purpose of a shorter workweek is betrayed if time off is spent on unnecessary consumption. Waiting for the Weekend by Witold Rybcznski (Penguin Press, 1991) is a fascinating examination of how people carry their working day mentality into their time off by, for example, working on their putting. Josef Pieper (1904-1997) says this mentality exists because our culture is one of “total labor.” The true purpose of time off is to establish “the right and claims of leisure in the face of the claims of total labor,” he writes in Leisure: the Basis of Culture (Ignatius Press, 1952). The obstacle is an economy premised on total work. It needs “the illusion of a life fulfilled” so instead of genuine time off, it puts forth false leisure with “cultural tricks and traps and jokes.”
True leisure, Pieper concludes, is festivity or celebration. It is the point at which “effortlessness, calm and relaxation” come together. And true leisure “ultimately derives its life from divine worship,” even though people may not be conscious of the association.
“Have leisure and know that I am God.” –Psalm 46:11
Droel is with National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Bishop McElroy, California Catholic Conference Stand with Farmworkers

A California grower has filed a lawsuit striking at the heart of farmworker union organizing – one that could have catastrophic effects for workers trying to form unions in other sectors. Bishop Robert McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego, and the California Catholic Conference, are standing up to say no. The case will likely come before the Supreme Court any day now.

Cedar Point Nursery argues that when union organizers visit with workers on company property during NON-WORK TIME the union is “taking” the owners’ property in the meaning of the Constitution. Since many farmworkers live in company-provided housing, such a decision would make organizing farmworkers virtually impossible.

Bishop McElroy, quoted in the National Catholic Reporter, responded:

“This would be another step in constricting the ability of workers to form associations, to unionize and to effectively bargain. Those rights are being chipped away little by little, and that’s very destructive to our society.”

The California Catholic Conference has joined with California Rural Legal Assistance and Farmworker Justice to file an amicus brief with the court vindicating the workers’ cause.

Healthcare unions demand OSHA infectious disease standard

Despite what you might hear from business lobbyists about alleged “overregulation,” insiders understand that OSHA seldom issues a regulation unless pushed by worker advocates. Although there are thousands of toxic chemicals in use in industry, regulations only cover a few dozen – usually in response to lobbying or lawsuits by labor unions and public health organizations. Nurses and health care workers have been waiting more than a decade for a workplace safety standard governing infectious diseases, and the pandemic has been the last straw: three unions have filed suit demanding that OSHA lay out what employers must do to protect health care workers.

OSHA began exploring an infectious disease standard in 2009, responding to a petition by health care worker unions during the swine flu epidemic. The 2014 Ebola scare strengthened the case for action, but after President Trump’s 2016 election OSHA dropped the subject. Now, after dozens of hospital and nursing home employees have died from COVID-19 while caring for the ill, workers are no longer willing to wait.

AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), AFT (American Federation of Teachers), and the WSNA (Washington State Nurses Association) – each of which represent substantial numbers of health care workers – filed suit. The suit demands that OSHA prepare and issue an occupational safety and health standard protecting workers exposed to infectious diseases in the workplace.

Please pray for the safety of our health care workers, and rapid action by OSHA to keep them safe.

As OSHA dithers, Virginia and DC move to protect workers from Covid

Workers in supermarkets, transit systems, farms and especially health care facilities continue to serve under high risk of exposure to covid infection, yet OSHA refuses to issue a workplace safety and health standard to protect workers on the job. Thanks to dedicated coalitions in Virginia and Washington DC, however, some state and local authorities are stepping up to the plate. Responding to appeals from the Virginia AFL-CIO and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy (and many others, including the Catholic Labor Network), on July 15 the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board adopted an emergency temporary standard setting out what employers must do to protect employees from covid infection on the job. Doris Crouse-Mays, President of the Virginia AFL-CIO stated, “Finally, Virginia has demonstrated that it values workers. We now have standards that will protect workers, families, and communities by keeping them as safe as possible during this unprecedented time.”

For the Catholic Labor Network, the fight now shifts to the District of Columbia, where Council Member Elissa Sliverman has introduced the Protecting Businesses and Workers from Covid-19 Emergency Amendment Act of 2020. We are part of a coalition of labor and community organizations urging the DC Council to adopt the legislation and ensure safer working conditions for those employed in the District.

The Pandemic, the Economic Freeze, and the American Worker

Aside from the elderly and retired who are most likely to suffer fatal complications, the covid-19 pandemic and its economic consequences have struck no segment of American society harder than the American working class. It was a grim irony, therefore, that federal social distancing guidelines expired quietly on May 1, the Feast of St Joseph the Worker – because for American workers, the hurt is just beginning. The guidelines were replaced by a set of recommendations to governors of the various states, who must make the decision which enterprises remain closed in the interest of public safety and which are permitted to reopen in the interest of economic recovery.

How have workers been specially impacted by covid-19? On the one hand are several categories of workers who remain on the job and face excessive risk of exposure to the virus. Bus drivers, supermarket cashiers, and especially health care workers continue to serve the public and consequently risk infection every time they greet a passenger, accept a payment or move a patient. On the other are those who work in crowded production and distribution facilities, from meatpacking plants to Amazon distribution warehouses. Though not exposed to the public, the infection of a single worker can rapidly spread across the shopfloor – as has been witnessed repeatedly at pork and chicken processing facilities. Despite calls from trade unions and occupational health experts, OSHA has made no effort to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard covering covid-19 safety hazards in the workplace, leaving workers on their own. Unions like the UFCW (groceries and meatpacking), SEIU and NNU (health care), and ATU and TWU (mass transit) are among those who represent large numbers of workers at elevated risk of infection.

On the other hand are tens of millions of workers who have been forcibly idled by the shutdown. As of the end of April, some 30 million workers had filed for unemployment benefits, with the official unemployment rate nearing 15% (the true rate is almost certainly far higher, as this number does not include those who have given up looking for work out of despair). Layoffs and furloughs have disproportionately fallen on the working classes: many college graduates who usually work in offices have transitioned to doing their jobs from home via the internet, but that’s not available to a high school graduate working in a factory or restaurant. While about 8% of college graduates are reported as unemployed, about one in five of those with a high school diploma or less have been sidelined. The impact has been especially hard on those employed by airlines, hotels, food service, and entertainment venues, where most of the jobs vanished overnight. Unions such as UNITE HERE (hotels and food service), ALPA and AFA (airlines), and IATSE, AFM and Actors’ Equity (entertainment) are among those who represent large numbers of workers who have been furloughed and face elevated risk of economic ruin.

While the government was abysmally slow in preparing for covid-19 to reach our shores during the weeks after it was reported spreading in Wuhan, Congress and the President moved surprisingly quickly to vote economic relief for the first phase of the economic crisis. While some of the funds approved through the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) followed the European model of subsidizing firms to retain idled employees – the PPP or Paycheck Protection Program – the bulk was distributed in individual payments to taxpayers and/or through the unemployment insurance (UI) system. Unemployment benefit coverage was expanded to cover large categories of workers who aren’t usually eligible because they don’t pay into the UI system, such as Uber drivers who are classified as independent contractors or employees of Catholic Churches and schools.

But the relief package does nothing to replace employer-paid health insurance, leaving millions of workers at risk of losing access to health care. It still leaves significant numbers of workers unprotected and potentially destitute, especially the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in our farms and kitchens who perform some of the economy’s least desirable work at low wages in the best of times. And perhaps most gravely, the income supports that do exist were set to expire during the Summer, anticipating a short “V-shaped” recession with a rapid economic rebound. It’s becoming clearer that this will almost certainly not be the case. This leaves American workers in a bind, balancing a risk of the coronavirus if they return to their place of work with a guaranteed loss of necessary income and health insurance if they do not.

Of course, some of those jobs will be gone in any event. With the coronavirus still killing 2,000 people a day, many Americans will shy away from shopping centers, hotels, bars and theatres for some time to come. We can expect major economic dislocation as the weaker retailers and restaurants close their doors forever, and double-digit unemployment enduring into 2021 at least.

The Catholic Labor Network will continue to advocate for “the least of these brothers and sisters” (Matt 25) through this terrible health crisis and year of economic agony. We will work with the nation’s trade unions to rebuild as the recovery proceeds, and promote safer workplaces that limit worker exposure to covid-19. We believe that the desperate need for a national paid sick leave policy has become clear to all, so that workers will no longer have to choose between feeding their families and infecting their colleagues with a communicable disease. And we anticipate that a major new jobs program will be on the agenda in 2021. Dare we dream, as the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si approaches, that a Green New Deal with a just transition for workers currently employed in the carbon economy is on the horizon?

Catholic Church/School Employees covered by CARES Act

I’ve received a lot of messages recently from furloughed employees of Catholic institutions asking if they are eligible for Unemployment Compensation. This is a more complicated question than it should be, but if you are furloughed because of the pandemic the answer is yes.

My correspondents are confused because they have suddenly learned that their employer, as a religious institution, has elected NOT to pay unemployment insurance payroll taxes. Under normal circumstances, that would mean that laid-off workers were not eligible for unemployment benefits.

The CARES Act changed that, at least for workers who have lost their job due to covid-19. Although the media coverage focused on expansion of UI to cover gig workers and independent contractors, the language used covers employees of Church institutions. This much has been clearly noted by the Department of Labor and by the USCCB General Counsel. (It’s also the case that Catholic institutions with fewer than 500 employees can take advantage of the SBA small business loans on offer that will be forgiven if used to retain employees during the crisis.)

That said, the situation points to an injustice routinely suffered by employees of religious institutions, including Catholic ones: protection from economic catastrophe through a layoff. As the Bishops noted in their 1986 Pastoral Letter Economic Justice for All, “All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the Church and its agencies and institutions; indeed the Church should be exemplary [347].” Those working for the Church have typically foregone higher wages and benefits in the for-profit economy in order to pursue their calling. They should not also be asked to court financial disaster because their employer prefers to save a few dollars a week in unemployment insurance premiums. Unless they elect to use these funds to create a self-financed system of unemployment benefits for their employees, Church institutions should pay into UI like everyone else. Their employees deserve no less.

Catholic Health System Nurses Volunteer for COVID Duty

A remarkable story in the Buffalo News caught my eye a couple of weeks back, featuring the selfless union workforce of the city’s Catholic Health System hospitals.

When Catholic Health asked employees last week if they would volunteer to work with Covid-19 patients, 150 employees quickly said yes.

That number jumped to 500 on Friday and rose to 700 on Saturday.

By Sunday, some 900 Catholic Health employees – respiratory therapists, food service workers, housekeepers, registered nurses, nurse’s aids, secretaries, X-ray technicians and receptionists among them.

“Here’s the part that makes me emotional,” said Mark Sullivan, Catholic Health’s president and CEO. “They volunteered and thought in the beginning that they weren’t going to get paid. They were going to take on the shifts for free.”

Maybe this shouldn’t have been such a surprise. After all, the nurses, techs and others staffing the hospital feel a strong calling to their work. And not only that: they feel appreciated and respected by management. That wasn’t always the case.

The Catholic Health System (CHS) in Buffalo and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) has built a strong labor-management partnership that grew out of contentious bargaining in 2016. For the past four years, the two CWA locals that represent nurses, techs, clerical, and service workers in three Buffalo hospitals have navigated a relationship-building process with CHS management facilitated by Michigan State University. In this moment of crisis, the partnership has paid great dividends for the health system.

One of the CHS hospitals, St. Joseph’s, was designated as a Coronavirus center. When the nurses’ union and management got word of this, they immediately put together a labor-management meeting to figure out how to implement the needed changes across the system. As a Coronavirus center, they had to find workers that would volunteer to stay in the hospital, discuss pay differentials, and be more flexible about job titles and responsibilities than in ordinary times. The relationship of trust and transparency between the union and management meant within two days, the unions were already putting out the call for volunteers, and were swamped with nurses stepping up.

“It’s times like this when people shine,” said Deborah Arnet, an RN and president of CWA Local 1133. Though she acknowledged that members were anxious about the potential wave of sick people about to come to the hospital, she was proud of the numbers of union members stepping up in the crisis.

Martin Luther King and the Memphis Sanitation Strike, 52 years later

Fifty-two years ago today, on April 4, 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Today, the once-controversial civil rights leader who had a dream is mourned by all Americans. His contributions to making our nation more just and democratic can scarcely be exaggerated; perhaps no other American had such an indispensable role in breaking down the racist Jim Crow segregation that marred the states of the old Confederacy and even beyond. And some segments of the American populace – such as African-Americans, Christians, and pacifists – identify in a special way with King’s life and work, and feel a special loss on this day.

Among those segments is the American labor movement, especially those of us motivated by our faith to seek justice in the workplace. While many today have forgotten what brought King to Memphis that fateful spring, it was in fact a strike. Memphis sanitation workers, most of whom were African-American, had organized with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the primary labor union for state and local public employees. After two of their number were crushed to death in one of the garbage trucks, where they were sheltering from the rain, some 1,300 members of AFSCME Local 1733 launched what would be a long and bitter strike, punctuated by violence on the part of the public authorities.

Want to learn more about the strike? Check out ‘I Am a Man’: The ugly Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that led to MLK’s assassination in the Washington Post. Or better still, pick up Michael Honey’s book Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (Norton, 2007).