Workers’ Memorial Day 2019

April 28 is observed across much of the world as Workers’ Memorial Day. On this day we pause to remember the millions of workers who give their lives each day planting and harvesting our food, building our homes and cars, paving our roads and shipping our goods. In a terrible reminder of the hazards many endure at work, April 27 witnessed a horrible accident when a tower crane in Seattle was toppled by high winds. The two operators, who were building a new facility for Google, were killed, as were two bystanders.

More than 5,000 workers die from traumatic injuries on the job each year, and some 50,000 are killed by occupational diseases such as black lung, asbestosis and cancers caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals. And yet, the number of OSHA inspectors has remained flat even as our population and workforce grows, leaving each inspector responsible for protecting more workers. Today there is one OSHA inspector for every 79,000 workers. Put another way, at current staffing levels it would take OSHA 165 years simply to inspect each workplace once. And despite all, the White House is calling for cutting workplace safety and health regulations, not increasing them.

Please pray for those in peril on the job. To learn more about workplace safety and health in the United States, check out the AFL-CIO Report Death on the Job: 2019.

CLN On-The-Spot Reporting: Farmworker Activism

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of1935 guaranteed workers the right to organize and bargain collectively without employer retaliation — but it excluded agricultural workers. That means farmworker organizations must use other tactics to organize and bring employers to the bargaining table. Since the time of Cesar Chavez and the celebrated UFW grape boycott in the late 1960s, consumer boycotts have been a critical strategy for farmworkers seeking justice. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) are among the labor organizations doing just this.

The tomato pickers of Florida have used targeted boycotts of fast food restaurants to improve their own working conditions – and eventually to obtain a fair labor code of conduct covering many other growers and their employees. Today all the fast food chains but Wendy’s have agreed to abide by the code. CIW has called for a boycott of Wendy’s until they follow suit. In early March, CIW members did a bus tour to four universities hosting a campus Wendy’s and rallied with student supporters, calling on administrators to “Boot the Braids!” The tour visited University of Florida, UNC-Chapel Hill, Ohio State, and University of Michigan. UM has announced that it will not renew Wendy’s lease.

FLOC members and supporters tell Circle K to pull VUSE e-cigarettes from shelves

Meanwhile, tobacco harvesters in North Carolina organized by FLOC are calling on RJ Reynolds to police its supply chain. FLOC is unique in the farm labor movement, having succeeded in forming a union of guest workers in the Tar Heel state. But many tobacco workers still toil for nonunion growers, for low wages and under unsafe conditions. Much as the fast food chains have the power to demand that their growers adhere to fair labor standards, RJ Reynolds could do this for their tobacco growers. Until they do, FLOC is calling for a boycott of RJR’s VUSE e-cigarettes. On March 28, FLOC members and their supporters rallied outside the regional HQ for Circle K, asking that the convenience store chain pull the offending e-cigarettes from their shelves. Many such actions have been held since.

We ask members and friends of the Catholic Labor Network to remember farmworkers and honor these boycotts.

May 1: Feast of St. Joseph the Worker

America’s official Labor Day falls in September, but the world’s Labor Day is May 1. That includes the Church, which celebrates this day as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. As Pope St John Paul II observed in his Apostolic Exhortation on Joseph, Redemptoris Custos:

If the Family of Nazareth is an example and model for human families, in the order of salvation and holiness, so too, by analogy, is Jesus’ work at the side of Joseph the carpenter. In our own day, the Church has emphasized this by instituting the liturgical memorial of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1. Human work, and especially manual labor, receive special prominence in the Gospel. Along with the humanity of the Son of God, work too has been taken up in the mystery of the Incarnation, and has also been redeemed in a special way. At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption [22].

We might observe that Joseph is a saint for our times in another way. Lest we forget, Joseph, Mary and Jesus became refugees when Herod sought to destroy the Christ Child, and Joseph spent years thereafter as an immigrant worker practicing his trade in Egypt.

BTW, curious about our beautiful Catholic Labor Network artwork on the right? It’s adapted from an image by the Catholic Worker’s Ade Bethune.

On the Road: New Orleans and Nashville

Neither Louisiana nor Tennessee are known as “union states.” Workers in both places who want to organize and bargain need to navigate so-called “right-to-work” laws designed to stymie collective action. Nonetheless, in recent visits to the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Diocese of Nashville I found impressive networks of unions, workers’ centers and community groups campaigning for worker justice, often with the moral and material support of the local Church.

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30,000 Workers Strike Stop & Shop in Northeast

…And Why We Need Strikes

30,000 Stop & Shop grocery workers in New England represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) are in the second week of a strike. The workers say that the company’s offer amounts to a net loss for workers: the small raises will be swallowed up by increased health insurance premiums.

In the short term, strikes are disruptive, but they play an essential role in ensuring that an enterprise – whether a grocery store chain, an automaker, or a hotel – serves all its members. When workers produce more, the CEO will see to it that the shareholders get their cut, and competitors will ensure that consumers see price cuts. But without unions, and occasional strikes, workers get left out of the distribution.

That’s a big reason why wages were unhooked from labor productivity when union membership started sharply declining in the late 1970s. From the 1940s to the 1970s, unions were there to make sure that when workers produced more, they got a raise too – even if this sometimes required a strike. Now that’s no longer true in most sectors of the economy.

Source: EPI

Grocery stores are one of the remaining sectors where unions still play a major role, and can strike to make sure workers get their share of the profits they have earned. And you get a chance every day to vote for or against worker justice with your food dollars. You can shop at union supermarkets like Safeway, Stop & Shop, Kroger’s and Giant, where workers get to bargain for a fair share, or you can put your money straight to the pockets of CEOs and shareholders at Whole Foods or Wal-Mart. Which will you choose?

What is “the common good”?

Catholic teaching discourages us from using politics to pursue our private advantage, urging us to orient our civic engagement to “the common good.” But what is the common good? University of Dayton theologian Vincent Miller explored this concept in a recent America magazine article, “What does Catholic Social Teaching say about the economy? It’s more complicated than you think.”

Miller was responding to free market ideologues who argue that economic prosperity is a sound measure of the common good, and laissez-faire government the best way to achieve it. But, as Miller points out, this is virtually the opposite of the common good as Catholic doctrine explains it. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church tells us that

The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains “common”, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it and safeguard its effectiveness, with regard also to the future. Just as the moral actions of an individual are accomplished in doing what is good, so too the actions of a society attain their full stature when they bring about the common good. The common good, in fact, can be understood as the social and community dimension of the moral good [164].

Living in a cynical century where “politics” is portrayed as nothing more than a fight among interest groups, we can be forgiven if we struggle to understand this idea. The Church fathers, Miller reminds us, imported the notion of the common good from the Greeks and Romans. Both saw politics – the pursuit of the common good – as a high calling. A man in ancient Athens or the Roman Republic who devoted his life to accumulating wealth was considered contemptible. One who wished to be honored by their peers would devote himself instead to politics, where he would provide for the common defense, commission public works of art and construct temples to the gods.

The Church, bringing the teachings of the Gospel to bear, has enriched the concept of the common good enormously. But private transactions between buyer and seller – however valuable they may be in satisfying genuine needs for both involved – are irreducibly individual. As Miller concludes, “Market economies have much to offer society when oriented toward the common good. For Catholic social thought, it is the task of politics to promote and set limits to the market so that it can serve the common good.”

By the way… With generous support from CCHD, our friends at Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative are part of a consortium working on a project called Bargaining for the Common Good. The premise is that public employee unions will go beyond seeking their own interests alone, and work with community and civic groups to formulate bargaining demands that satisfy worker justice while meeting community needs and concerns for quality public services.

Maryland moves to make minimum wage a living wage

The right to a living wage is fundamental to Catholic Social Teaching: every worker has a right to a wage sufficient to support the worker and his/her family. It would be hard to argue that today’s federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour – less than $15,000 per year for a full-time worker – is a living wage. But in March the Maryland state legislature took action to address this problem, voting to phase in a state minimum wage of $15/hour by 2025. (The smallest employers will have until 2026 to comply.)

Pope Leo XIII laid out Catholic teaching on just wages in his 1893 Encyclical Rerum Novarum. In it he took issue with free-market ideologues who argued that any wage was just if the worker agreed to accept it. He told readers that “Each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work.” Consequently,

There underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice [45].

Leo hoped that labor unions could help ensure that every worker received a living wage, but understood that government regulation of the economy might be needed as well. Laws setting a minimum wage do just this by setting a wage floor – but if they are to effectively ensure that the minimum wage is a living wage, they must be regularly increased or indexed to inflation. This is certainly why the “fight for $15” movement that initially took hold among fast food workers (who had no union) resonated so clearly with the public.

Maryland joins California, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Illinois as states phasing in a $15 minimum; all together, 29 states have set a minimum wage higher than $7.25 per hour. A Catholic Labor Network survey found that both state AFL-CIO presidents and state Catholic Conference directors were likely to cite “increasing the minimum wage” as a policy priority.

Catholic social ministry activists, union members lobby for TPS extension

Last month I spent more time in the US Capitol Building than I had in the previous 12 years I’ve lived in the Washington DC metro area. Why? Because changes in federal immigration policy threaten to suddenly uproot hundreds of thousands, splitting husbands from wives and parents from children – and because my Church and my union are leading the fight to prevent this by preserving DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and TPS (Temporary Protected Status).

Virginia Catholic social ministry leaders visit Sen. Mark Warner’s office on Feb.5

At the beginning of February, the USCCB hosted its annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, a conference that brings together Catholic activists from across the nation. After a couple of days of workshops and prayer, participants headed out to Congress to meet with their elected representatives and witness for social justice. Extending DACA and TPS protections was a top issue this year. DACA protects undocumented immigrants from deportation if they were brought to the US as children, through no fault of their own; many of these children remember nothing of their nation of origin, having grown up entirely in the United States. TPS permits those whose homeland has been torn by war or natural disaster to remain in the US until it is safe to return. The president has moved to end both programs, so we urged our House and Senate members to take legislative action to protect their participants from deportation.

Fr. Clete Kiley (UNITE HERE/Catholic Labor Network) leads orientation for worker-

A week later, I was back. Working Families United, a coalition of labor unions with immigrant members was taking a stand. Although TPS was begun as a “temporary” program, many of these nations took a long time to recover; TPS holders have built careers, married, and raised US-born children here. The unions brought members holding TPS from across the country to Washington DC and accompanied them to the Capitol to tell their stories.

In Exodus 23:9 we read how God told the Israelites, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” One of the key goals of the Church-Labor Partnership Project (CLPP) is to bring Church and labor together to advocate for immigrants in a time of increasing nativism. We will continue to bring you news as Congress debates how to move forward.

Immigrant union members from LIUNA Local 11 and LIUNA Local 572 pack congressional offices to call for TPS extension

Catholic Labor Network at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering (CSMG) 2019

As many of you know, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development hosts a meeting in Washington DC in early February each year, drawing several hundred Catholic clergy, religious, and lay social ministry leaders from across the United States. The Catholic Labor Network is a collaborating organization in the CSMG, holding our annual meeting the morning before the opening Plenary and contributing to CSMG program itself.

Nelson Robinson, a National Airport food service worker, is a union activist with UNITE HERE trying to turn airline catering jobs into living wage jobs

In a special highlight of this year’s program, workers from labor organizations partnering with the Catholic Labor Network in the Church-Labor Partnership Project (CLPP) shared their stories at our meeting and in a CSMG workshop hosted by the Catholic Labor Network.

Nelson Robinson, who works for a contractor at National Airport preparing meals for airline passengers, talked about how workers like him in airline food service across the United States had organized with UNITE HERE, the Hotel and Restaurant workers’ union, to campaign for living wage jobs with affordable health care. In several communities they worked with community and Church organizations to improve conditions by securing “living wage” requirements for airport contracting employees. Now they are bargaining with the three large companies that dominate airline food service to reach the remainder and to secure family health coverage with premiums they can afford on a worker’s paycheck.

Julia de la Cruz of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers describes the Fair Food Campaign to workshop participants

Julia de La Cruz, from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), recounted the CIW’s quarter-century struggle for justice in Florida’s tomato fields. On learning that most of their produce was purchased by fast-food chain restaurants, the farmworkers targeted those chains, calling on them to buy only from growers who signed a fair labor code of conduct and to pay an extra penny per pound to supplement workers’ wages. The workers received substantial support from CCHD in organizing their campaign and met with remarkable success: today every major chain but Wendy’s has committed to the CIW Fair Food Program. From March 2-14 the CIW will be visiting major universities hosting Wendy’s franchises to urge them to “boot the braids.”

Finally, Anthony Jackson from the Bakery Workers’ union shared the story of Nabisco workers like himself whose jobs are threatened by globalization and outsourcing. Baking Oreos and other Nabisco snacks is a major source of middle-class, family-supporting jobs for African-American workers in Chicago and other US cities, but their new multinational owner Mondelez seems determined to slash wages and benefits one way or another. When Chicago workers resisted deep wage and benefit cuts, Mondelez shifted production to Salinas, Mexico, laying off Jackson and hundreds of other workers. Now the company is demanding that all remaining US employees not just give wage concessions, but give up their pension as well, and Jackson, now an organizer for the union, is bringing their story to audiences across the country. (The union even visited the new workers at Salinas, learning that Mondelez had not lived up to its promises to workers there.) Cardinal Tobin of Newark, whose Archdiocese contains one of the other plants, has addressed a letter to Mondelez on the workers’ behalf.

The CSMG’s rich program also included a well-attended workshop on just wages, the theme of the Bishops’ 2018 Labor Day letter. Much of the agenda focused on race and racism, exploring the Bishops’ new Pastoral letter on the topic, Open Wide Our Hearts. It concluded with Hill visits by participants to lobby their elected representatives on social justice concerns, including a renewal of DACA and Temporary Protected Status for immigrants. More on that next week!

Catholic Labor Network announces Church-Labor Partnership Project (CLPP)

The Catholic Labor Network is proud to announce the launch of a new initiative: the Church-Labor Partnership Project (CLPP)!

For nearly a quarter-century, the members of the Catholic Labor Network have connected clergy, religious and lay activists in our communities with workers organizing for social justice through unions and workers’ centers. Now, with a generous grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), we will be extending this work nationwide.

The CLPP initiative was unveiled at the Catholic Labor Network’s annual meeting on Feb.2. At the meeting, held in conjunction with the USCCB Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, bakery workers, airline food service workers and farmworkers addressed the group and appealed for solidarity (more on this next week).

CLN Executive Director Clayton Sinyai displays the poster union members used to welcome Pope Francis in 2015. Printed in Spanish and English, it read “In Solidarity with Pope Francis.”

Why now? The Church and labor movement have a long history of working together to promote worker justice, but the witness of Pope Francis has reminded many labor activists just how much we share as voices of solidarity in a society that too often leaves behind the poor, the unemployed, the immigrant. Together we “have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills [Evangelii Gaudium, 53].”

The Church-Labor Partnership Project will help…

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