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).

FLOC scores win against guest worker exploitation

The H2A guest worker program allows American growers to import guest workers from abroad. The law spells out a lot of rights that these guest workers are due: the sponsoring employer is supposed to provide transportation, housing and meals in addition to the wage promised. However, guest workers are subject to deportation if they displease their sponsor — so as FLOC (the Farm Labor Organizing Committee) often explains, unless there’s a union representing them, they don’t necessarily get what they’ve been promised.

FLOC has been organizing farmworkers at OJ Smith Farms, a North Carolina tobacco grower employing workers recruited by labor contractor Salvador Barajas. Barajas recruits guest workers for several North Carolina farms, and these growers have failed to keep up their end of the bargain. FLOC has been demanding that the Department of Labor crack down on the scofflaw contractor and growers.

First, the good news — DOL finally slapped Barajas with nearly $500,000 in fines for failing to provide meals and transportation for the workers, with more than $200,000 being returned to the workers themselves. And he’s been banned from participating in the H2A program for three years.

Unfortunately, the DOL chose to let the growers go scott-free. Worse, the OJ Smith Farms apparently used the occasion to fire union supporters in an effort to thwart the organizing campaign.

FLOC is calling on tobacco companies that purchase from OJ Smith and the other growers to take action. “Companies like Reynolds American, Alliance One, and Universal Leaf all have standards they claim their growers must comply with but none of them has taken any action to support these brave workers who stepped forward and called out human right abuses in their supply chains,” said FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez. It’s high time they did.

Why Unions? DC Area Workers Speak, Catholics Respond

Why Unions? Area Workers Speak Out

Workers and the Church in the Washington DC Area

 

  • Clayton Sinyai, Catholic Labor Network
  • Tenae Stover, LSG Sky Chefs Cook at National Airport and UNITE HERE Local 23 Bargaining Committee Member
  • Jesus Salazar, EMI Custodial Services and SEIU Local 32BJ Contract Action Team
  • John Carr, Georgetown Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life

Recently, Washington DC custodians represented by the union SEIU 32BJ won major improvements in their wages and working conditions when they settled a new contract for servicing DC-area commercial office buildings. Meanwhile, airline food service workers across the country, including at Washington National Airport, have joined the union UNITE HERE and are fighting for a living wage and affordable health care. Join us Wednesday January 22, 5pm, at Georgetown University to hear from the workers themselves about their work and their unions. Afterward, commentary from Clayton Sinyai of the Catholic Labor Network and John Carr of the Georgetown Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life will reflect on how the workers’ testimony reflects Catholic Social Teaching on work and the economy.

Wednesday, January 22
5pm
Georgetown University
Mortara Building
3600 N Street, NW
Washington, DC 20057

Catholic Charities Delegation Tours DC Sheet Metal Workers’ Training Center

The construction sector was the original “gig economy” where every job was temporary, lasting the duration of a building project. But construction unions figured out more than a century ago how turn these temporary jobs into family-supporting careers. Unions and contractors agreed to pool resources to train and maintain a skilled workforce, dispatched on request from a hiring hall. It’s still a great path to the middle class, and that’s why a delegation from the Archdiocese of Washington’s Catholic Charities recently visited the Sheet Metal Workers’ training center for a tour.

Carlos Gutierrez, Bridget Maley, and Melida Chacon toured the facility, from the welding lab outfitted with Local Exhaust Ventilation to protect students from exposure to welding fumes to the AutoCAD (Computer Aided Design) computer lab. They also learned how the union recruits apprentices and provides health insurance coverage and pension benefits for those entering the trade.

Construction unions bargain agreements with an entire group of construction companies at a time who commit to use union labor, calling the hiring hall for additional workers when necessary. For each hour they employ a union construction worker they make a per capita contribution to a series of trust funds – one to run the training program, another to purchase health insurance for employees, and yet another into a pension fund for the workers’ retirement. Each trust fund is managed by a joint board of contractor and union representatives. With this system, every contractor has access to workers when needed, while workers can move from one employer to another with portable benefits.

Applicants take a written test and interview for available openings (each construction trade has its own calendar). The trust fund will be investing tens of thousands of dollars per apprentice to train them, so they want to be sure that incoming candidates are committed and have good prospects of completion. Those accepted will spend a few weeks per year in the classroom, while spending the bulk of their time on the job working under the supervision of experienced tradesmen and tradeswomen. Rather than accumulating student debt, the apprentices earn while they learn, paid on a scale that climbs toward the full rate as they accumulate experience.

The trades are interested in diversifying their ranks, actively seeking to recruit more women and people of color. They look forward to working with Catholic Charities to identify candidates for tomorrow’s construction workforce.

Theologian: Catholic Social Teaching Could Break Impasse on Paid Family Leave

Paid family leave is a major policy priority for both the Catholic Church and organized labor. “Every other industrialized country has a policy ensuring that parents can have a paid break whenever they have a child, and polls suggest widespread support for such a policy. Yet competing paid-family-leave bills introduced in this year’s Congress have stalled, continuing almost a decade of legislative impasse,” explains Catholic University of America theologian David Cloutier in a compelling recent Commonweal essay. What’s more, he argues, each political party is promoting a solution rooted in one element of Catholic Social Teaching while neglecting another.

Republican proposals for family leave, Cloutier says, generally allow individuals to borrow from their own social security or retirement accounts to care for a new child – but that means delaying retirement or reducing benefits later. This imposes a real hardship for low-income workers; the proposals contain no element of solidarity, no cost-sharing in which those of us who are more fortunate help those who are less so. The Democratic proposals, in contrast, vastly expand the type and number of “qualified caregiving” costs (arguably including “self-care”) eligible for subsidy up to sixty days per year and is funded by taxpayers generally – there’s not a lot of evidence of subsidiarity in the program. Cloutier concludes,

In their current approaches to paid family leave, our two major political parties display their failure to understand that solidarity and subsidiarity work in tandem. Democrats try to impose solidarity, while Republicans try to escape it. Republicans confuse subsidiarity with atomistic individualism, while Democrats ignore the appropriate complexity of shaping a civil order in pursuit of genuinely shared goods. It is not that Democrats are the “solidarity party” and Republicans the “subsidiarity party”; each misunderstands not only the other’s principle but also the one it pretends to own. The overall result is a lack of action that hurts the most vulnerable. Catholic social teaching might suggest a way out of this impasse, but it would require a fundamental reorientation on the part of both sides of our polarized country.

CLICK HERE to read The Paid Family Leave Impasse: How Catholic Social Teaching Can Help.

More than 600 Catholic Institutions with Employee Unions

One way the Church can evangelize the world is by modeling virtuous behavior in our own lives. Approximately one million Americans are employed in Catholic hospitals, nursing homes, colleges, K-12 schools, and other Catholic institutions. When managers and administrators in these organizations demonstrate fidelity to Catholic Social Teaching by bargaining constructively with unions representing their employees, lay Catholic business leaders – and workers – take notice. That’s one reason why the Catholic Labor Network publishes an annual report listing Catholic institutional employers with unions representing some or all of their employees. This year’s Gaudium et Spes Labor Report lists more than 600 Catholic institutions and organizations that bargain collectively with their employees. CLICK HERE to read the report, and check out the listings for your Diocese!

Union, Church Join Forces to Support Families Upended by Mississippi ICE Raids

On Wednesday, August 8, people across the country saw the terrible scenes on their television: hundreds of ICE agents raiding several poultry plants in Mississippi, leaving crying children in their wake. The response from Church and labor was immediate. The state’s Catholic Bishops condemned the raid, and Catholic Charities set up headquarters in parishes near each plant. The United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union (UFCW) also rushed to the aid of the workers and their families Read more

Airline Food Service Workers Sit-in at American Airlines, Demand Living Wage

On Tuesday, 58 airline food service workers and their supporters were arrested for blocking the entrance to the American Airlines headquarters at their Dallas-Fort Worth area hub, calling for a living wage. American Airlines has subcontracted food preparation there to LSG Sky Chefs, which pays entry-level workers less than $10 per hour – that’s an annual salary of less than $20,000 for a full-time worker, below the poverty level for a parent with two children. Meanwhile, American Airlines is running billion-dollar surpluses. Read more

National Farm Workers’ Ministry leaders gather in DC

As a hot August began, leaders from the National Farm Workers’ Ministry gathered in Washington to explore ways to extend solidarity to the men and women who harvest our food. The NFWM is an interdenominational Christian organization that supports farmworker unions and alt-labor formations with prayer and action. Their work supports the United Farm Workers, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, to name a few.

CLN Executive Director Clayton Sinyai joins NWFM activists to urge Sen. Mark Warner (VA) to support pro-farmworker legislation

Hill visits in 2019 focused on two critical pieces of legislation. The Fairness for Farmworkers Act seeks to redress a historic wrong: when New Deal reformers passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, which establishes overtime wages and other protections, farmworkers were excluded from coverage. Fairness for Farmworkers would extend overtime and other standard labor protections to these workers, and currently has 14 co-sponsors. The Agricultural Worker Protection Act, which the UFW has made a special priority, would offer undocumented farmworkers the opportunity to obtain a “blue card” giving them legal work status – and eventually to earn a green card. The bill has 13 co-sponsors.

The Catholic Labor Network is exploring opportunities to expand our work with NFWM and the nation’s farm worker organizations.

Labor Priest Elected to AUSCP Leadership Team

Fr. Andy Spitzer (left) was elected to the AUSCP leadership team.

In late June, hundreds of priests from across the country gathered in St. Louis for the annual meeting of the Association of US Catholic Priests (AUSCP) and elected Fr. Andy Switzer, a prominent West Virginia labor priest, to join the organization’s leadership team.

Fr. Switzer introduced himself to the assembly in a speech reflecting on his upbringing as the son of a coal miner and his ongoing commitment to bring the good news to West Virginia workers. Switzer first came to the attention of the Catholic Labor Network when he was arrested alongside more than two dozen retired mineworkers and union activists in a civil disobedience action. (The mine operators were attempting to use restructuring and bankruptcy proceedings to escape health care obligations for some 23,000 retirees.)

Other high points of the conference included a keynote address by Cardinal Blase Cupich exploring how both lay and ordained Catholics share a common priesthood through their Baptism, and a colloquium led by Bishop John Stowe on the topic of “Prophetic Obedience and Prophetic Action.” Finally, Fr. Rich Creason, recently retired Pastor of Holy Trinity Church in St. Louis and a longtime member of the Catholic Labor Network, was honored for his life’s work at an award banquet (alongside Sr. Norma Pimentel, whose work caring for migrants in McAllen, TX, has brought her national recognition).

The AUSCP’s Labor Working Group has supported Catholic Labor Network initiatives for several years, and today the organization is providing valuable assistance in our new Church-Labor Partnership Project.