Why Have a Union?

Why Unions at Good Companies?
The Working Catholic by Bill Droel

“Why did the new, worker friendly workplaces prove unable to keep their employees happy enough not to have to pay union dues?” So asks a Chicago Tribune editorial (4/10/24). The editors have in mind Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, the camping equipment retailer REI plus several museums and theatres here in Chicago and elsewhere. After all, Trader Joe’s has a 7% annual pay increase, a 401K, a health insurance option, employee discount on groceries and more, the Tribune informs us.
Many executives and managers plus the Tribune editors have a mistaken premise. Employees who desire a union are not entirely motivated by discontent, particularly regarding their wage. The desire for participation is an increasingly important factor in union activity among nurses, tech engineers, hotel staff, autoworkers and more. These employees organize in part to keep their good company good.
Then too perhaps the Tribune and others are mistaken that these companies really are progressive. The companies in question undermine their image once the word union enters their domain. The noble employers quickly reveal another side. They retaliate. They threaten to close a store or an entire plant. They harass outspoken employees. They make side-deals with passive employees. They begin legal action against employees who promote their cause with t-shirts and tote bags that display the company name or logo. Such employers conclusively reveal their true character when they retain a union-busting firm. They continue their hostility by avoiding conversations and negotiations with employees.
Paternalism is not respectful. Grand mission statements are hollow without genuine involvement of all the workers.
Catholic labor relations doctrine can help. It states that a decision for or against a union belongs to the employees without paternal or maternal interference from their employer. Every honest company, no matter the circumstances, should share information with its workers through regular conversations, attractive pamphlets and newsletters plus supplying understandable summaries of the data given to investors. But a union vote is to be without harassment.
Catholic doctrine does not say that any one or another company must have a union. Nor does Catholic doctrine endorse this union for this company. Again, the choice belongs to the employees.
Catholic doctrine does say that a healthy society has the collective participation of workers in some form. Democratic unions are a normal way to secure participation.
Catholic doctrine instructs employers and employees to behave ethically. Retaining a union-busting firm violates Catholic doctrine and is objectively sinful. Instead, employers are advised to seek reputable assistance in their labor relations. Those employers who bargain tough are well within bounds.
For more on this topic, obtain St. John Paul II’s Gospel of Work (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $8)

Reform Capitalism

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine Part 16 by Bill Droel

It was news when this past April employees at a Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, TN voted overwhelmingly to join United Auto Workers (www.uawregion8.net). The vote is noteworthy because the South is generally not receptive to unions. It is not only noteworthy in the present. We may “someday look back at the Chattanooga vote as a milestone on the road back to the more or less middle-class society” in the U.S., writes Paul Krugman in NY Times (4/26/24).
The vote’s back story is also intriguing. It has the potential to advance Catholic social thought in our country, specifically the Catholic principle of economic participation and its extension, the industry council plan. In older Catholic textbooks this is called solidarism. In Germany it is co-determinism or works council. In France it is enterprise committees; in Belgium it’s delegates for personnel; and it is joint consultative committee in England.
In his 1937 encyclical, Of a Divine Redeemer, Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) wrote about the industrial council plan. Several Catholics in the U.S. promoted the idea during and after World War II. Its basics are explained in Ed Marciniak’s City and Church by Chuck Shanabruch (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $20). A council meets regularly to discuss industry products and planning. Membership includes executives, employees, middle-managers, government officials, and maybe consumers. Some topics can be off-limits, like wages. The plan does not supersede a union. In fact, its intention is to focus collective bargaining. The plan does not encourage collusion among competitor companies, including price fixing. In fact, the plan’s goal of cooperation enhances production within democratic competition. The industry council solicits and implements ideas from all the participants in a company or an industry. Its outcome lessens the need for government meddling.
As the industry council plan spreads, Marciniak said, neo-liberal industrialism or post-industrialism will be tempered. “Society has lost its organic character,” Marciniak wrote in 1954. Society “is gradually being torn apart by class and racial conflict.” The industry council plan, he emphasized, “is not benevolent paternalism, but rather a real partnership in which working [people] will become co-responsible with management in solving the economic problems of industry.”
Please note: The industry council plan does not hang on the cloths line by itself. It is one contribution to multiple reforms that take shape gradually. Second, the plan is not of, by and for Catholics. There is no need to ever invoke Pius XI or Marciniak. The council’s meetings do not require an opening prayer.
Back to Tennessee. VW, headquartered in Wolfsburg, Germany, participates in a works council. VW wanted to implement that model in its Chattanooga plant. However, U.S. labor law seems to require a union before there can be a works council. In 2011 some workers in Chattanooga began a union drive at VW. They lost a vote in February 2014. Reasons for the defeat included the oddity that VW’s Tennessee employees at that time were paid a few cents more than Northern workers represented by UAW. Additionally, some VW employees in Chattanooga lacked confidence in the UAW executives up in Detroit. Along came Shawn Fain, who in March 2023 won a reform campaign to be UAW president. He then led a rolling strike simultaneously at GM, Ford and Stellantis. By October 2023 a framework for a favorable contract was in place.
The success of the UAW’s strike in 2023 and more specifically its 2024 success in Tennessee raise the possibility of a works council in the U.S. Stay tuned.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a printed newsletter on faith and work.

Big Tech

The Working Catholic: Big Tech by Bill Droel

The popular use of a term sometimes differs from its original use. Such is the case with Luddite, which now usually refers to someone who fiercely opposes most technology. Blood in the Machine by Brain Merchant (Little Brown, 2023) takes us back to the term’s origin: the Luddite Movement in England from 1811 to 1816.
Textile workers were opposed to certain types of automated machines, not wholesale opposition to all technology. They also believed that employers deceived them about manufacturing changes. The workers damaged some factory machines, but eventually lost their battle when military force was used against them.
In our day, some tech companies warrant resistance over their treatment of employees and consumers. Those companies include the social media–Meta (Facebook), Tik Tok, and X (Twitter) and others. Plus, the big tech retail giant Amazon and probably the app-based delivery/rider companies.
The harmful side effects of these companies derive from their operating philosophy, as summarized by Adrienne LaFrance in “The Despots of Silicon Valley” for The Atlantic (3/24). The authoritarian titans of tech are dangerous, she writes. They believe “that technological progress of any kind is unreservedly and inherently good; that you should always build it, simply because you can; that frictionless information flow is the highest value regardless of the information’s quality; that privacy is an archaic concept…[and that] the power [of tech experts] should be unconstrained.”
LaFrance continues: The tech giants “promise community but sow division; claim to champion truth but spread lies; wrap themselves in concepts such as empowerment and liberty but surveil us relentlessly.”
Our Congress is concerned about the side effects of big tech. Both House and Senate routinely summon one or another tech executive to address those concerns. Those hearings are perhaps a modest start. Collective and individual action on the part of the public is urgently needed. A few groups are on the case. For example, Collective Action in Tech (www.collectiveaction.tech/unions) maintains a list of organizing efforts among employees in the big tech sector. Mothers Unite to Stall Technology (www.mothersunite4kids.org) advises parents on the harmful effects of mobile devices and more. (Ironically, these citizen efforts rely on tech platforms to spread their ideas and this column appears on a website.)
Citizens should keep basic principles in mind. First, as Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) warns us, all technology individuates. Contrary to the propaganda of the social media platforms, communication through mobile devices puts users further apart. One’s so-called friends on Facebook are likely not genuine friends unless honest and vulnerable face-to-face contact also occurs. Second, as Marshall McLuhan preaches, “the medium is the message.” That is, the content is less relevant than the hardware (the device itself, the satellite and the earthbound transmitters and cables). Merely having a TV in one’s home changes the household environment, no matter the content of one or another TV show. A mobile device in one’s pocket changes one’s outlook, no matter who is texting whom.
These principles and others should, by the way, cause reflection on the part of church leaders—particularly those in liturgical denominations. For example, a camera inside a church in itself makes the worship a little bit more entertainment and a little less participatory liturgy. Say it this way: There is no such thing as reality TV or reality streaming. The image from a camera signal sent up to a satellite and back down to a TV, a computer or a mobile device is not reality. It is a projection, and it necessarily individuates. Be honest: Do you drink coffee or surf channels while watching TV Mass?
Droel is the author of Public Friendship (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $6)

Brewing at Starbucks

The Working Catholic: No Contract, Yet by Bill Droel

In recent times employees for some well-known companies have voted for a union at their store or warehouse. These apparent employee victories do not, however, signal improved labor relations in our country.
It is difficult for employees to achieve a pro-union vote. The parent company retains union-busting lawyers and consultants who, in round one, teach executives and branch managers how to disrupt an organizing effort by making side promises to a few quiet workers, discrediting the leaders, telling the public that costs will increase and more.
In round two (after a pro-union vote) the local manager might continue to intimidate employees with threats of layoffs and decreased benefits. Meanwhile the company challenges the vote. When the company loses its challenge, it proceeds to appeal the decision. More months go by.
In round three the paid negotiators for the company move “with spectacular slowness,” reports Steven Greenhouse for The New Republic (2/24). They pick an out-of-state meeting place. They ridicule the thoughts of the unpaid employee team. They take long lunches and often break-off negotiations for weeks or months at a time. The goal is to wear down the employee team and to discourage their fellow workers.
It was December 2021 when baristas at a Starbucks in Buffalo voted for the first-ever union at that company, Starbucks Workers United (2495 Main St. #556, Buffalo, NY 14214; www.sbworkersunited.org). There is no contract as yet in Buffalo. About 30% of newly formed unions have no contract even after three years, Greenhouse details.
Why does Starbucks invest in expensive union-busting lawyers and consultants over one, small outlet near Lake Erie? “Because reaching a good contract will obviously provide enormous incentives for workers in their nonunion stores to organize,” Greenhouse explains. Yet knowing of the delays in Buffalo, baristas in 385 Starbucks shops around the country have recently voted for a union. By the way, Starbucks can afford its lawyers. Its cash registers ring up more than $30billion per year. Profit is up less than Starbucks would like—an increase of about only $2.6billion per annum. Starbucks says its slow profit performance is due to the raises it gives employees. (Those raises can be interpreted as another tactic to stare off unions.)
Howard Schultz served as CEO of Starbucks for 14 years, retiring in 2000. He came back for nine more years at the helm. After a second retirement, he came back once again for two more years, leaving the position in April 2023. Schultz has a net worth of about $5billion. He owns about 2% of Starbucks.
Schultz is a prominent neoliberal. He is big on individual free choice, though free choice doesn’t seem to include choosing a union. “I was convinced that under my leadership, employees would come to realize that I would listen to their concerns. If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union,” Schultz says.
Among its presumptions, the neoliberal “ideology holds that both parties to an employment contract hold equal power and can easily walk away,” writes Anthony Annett for Commonweal (1/24). The presumption assumes that “if a worker feels mistreated, she can always quit and find another job.”
Catholicism values freedom, but “the notion that employers and employees enjoy equal power” is nonsense, Annett writes. He provides references. For example, Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) explains the principle of a just wage and notes that if through necessity or fear of a worse evil, an employee accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will give no better, the worker is a victim of force and injustice. (On the Condition of Workers #34, 1891)
Our 2024 Catholic Compendium of the Social Doctrine puts it thus: “The simple agreement between employee and employer with regard to the amount of pay to be received is not sufficient for the agreed upon salary to qualify as a just wage.” In Annett’s words, “Mutual consent alone does not guarantee a fair contract.”
What can be done to make organizing and negotiating at Starbucks and other places efficient and just? Some suggest that the technicality of organizing store-by-store give way to a company-wide vote on a union. Catholicism proposes the industry council plan (what in Germany is called co-determinism) in which a quasi-legal body of representatives of executives, employees, consumers and government set some sector-wide standards. Another idea is currently banging around our Congress. The PRO Act (Protecting the Right to Organize), among its reforms, might include a penalty for employers who unnecessarily stall negations with a new union. The bill was first introduced and passed in the House in May 2020. Its latest version (HR #20), introduced in February 2023, awaits proper voting.
Readers of this column might sign a pledge of solidarity on the website of Starbucks United (www.sbworkersunited.org). And why not freely choose another coffee shop until Starbucks acts in good faith?
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free newsletter on faith and work.

Race Relations

The Working Catholic: Race Relations by Bill Droel

Efforts these days to improve race relations are of related types. There is virtue signaling, as in ubiquitous TV ads featuring a mixed-race couple or the obligatory progressive statements from businesses and national religious denominations. There is social therapy, as when church-sponsored groups examine and then admit to their racism. Thirdly, justifiable racial grievances are expressed through marches and rallies that unfortunately lack any specific goal.

Saul Alinsky (1909-1972), considered the dean of community organizing, was known for his confrontational yet non-violent tactics, his sharp-edged comments and his exaggerated personality. Alinsky was a person of “keen sociological imagination” and “thoughtful action,” as Mark Santow details in Saul Alinsky and the Dilemmas of Race (University of Chicago Press, 2023).  Alinsky never wavered from a commitment to equal dignity, regardless of race or ethnicity. Yet he was not ideological. He did not crusade for integration per se. He believed that if people have confidence in their own agency and in the democratic process, they will usually make better choices and support true pluralism. The problem, as Alinsky saw it, was the lack of power at the local level. There were too few viable mediating institutions through which people could effectively engage others. Thus, Alinsky dedicated his career to forming peoples’ organizations.

In 1938 Alinsky (then 29-years old) left his job at a university institute to, with Joseph Meegan (1912-1994), organize Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (www.bync.org) in Chicago’s stockyards area. This is the first of Santow’s case studies. BNYC had a promising beginning. However, BYNC feared a possible influx of Black residents. The declining stockyards weakened the neighborhood economy. The older housing stock might appeal to Blacks. Thus, BYNC launched a conservation program. On the surface its beautification theme and its opposition to panic peddling and its campaign to upgrade infrastructure was constructive. The unspoken premise, however, was retaining white families in the area and prohibiting integration. Those white families and their institutions (principally churches) felt their defensiveness “was sanctioned by public opinion, economic sense and the law.” Many of those whites, Santow explains, did not realize how government housing programs were designed to “resist integration [through] subsidized suburban home ownership for whites while consigning Blacks to segregated urban neighborhoods.” (See The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, W.W. Norton, 2017.)

A disappointed Alinsky avoided public criticism of BYNC. He only slowly admitted that, in Santow’s words, his effort “contributed to both the ability and willingness of [BYNC] to engage in racial containment…to protect and preserve an island of segregation.” Today BYNC says it “substituted an emphasis on community and economic development for Alinsky’s confrontational methods.”

In 1940 Alinsky formed his Industrial Areas Foundation. About 20 years later IAF returned to Chicago’s neighborhoods, starting with Organization for Southwest Community (Santow’s second case study).

Though OSC is overlooked in most chronicles of Alinsky, including the website of his foundation, the section on OSC in Saul Alinsky and the Dilemmas of Race is the most interesting. The area in 1959 was white with some upwardly mobile Black residents around its perimeter. IAF never said that integration was a goal of OSC. In fact, its organizers patiently and persistently solicited those mistrustful of Blacks. But many of those active in OSC were at best ambivalent, suspecting the goal was to move Blacks into the neighborhood.

OSC unraveled. Member groups exited. First, over an internal proposal to abolish term limits for officers. It was opposed by a faction who thought the hidden reason for the proposal was the retention of racially tolerant clergy officers. More groups quit OSC when its leadership drafted a letter to support an Illinois State bill on open occupancy. The measure could help neighborhood stabilization by giving Blacks more housing choices, particularly in the suburbs. But again, some OSC groups wanted nothing to do with racial improvements.

To judge by the Chicago neighborhood examples, Alinsky’s success was quite limited. Yet his moral stature, now 50 plus years since his death, remains high. Alinsky was consistently willing to risk failure in order to act in the real world. For Alinsky, too many people are “dismissive of messy compromises and far too enamored of the power and sufficiency of legislation and goodwill,” Santow concludes. Moralizing from the sidelines about race (or other issues) is cowardly.

Alinsky was constantly evaluating: Maybe a single neighborhood lacks enough power to deal with larger divisive forces. In 1970 his IAF organized a metropolitan organization, Campaign Against Pollution, soon called Citizens’ Action Program. Today the IAF has 63 county-wide or metro-wide organizations in the United States. Each is multi-issue and, like Alinsky, each believes that racial and ethnic relations improve as its member groups strive for the widest public conversation possible.


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

36 Hours on the Job

The Working Catholic: UAW Strike by Bill Droel

Autoworkers are not only seeking higher pay, writes Binyamin Appelbaum in N.Y. Times (10/2/23). “They are also, audaciously, demanding the end of the standard 40-hour workweek.”
This is not the first time employees have sought fewer hours. In fact, our feast of St. Joseph the Worker/International Workers Day (May First) was inspired by an 1886 Chicago protest for shorter hours. The Federation of Trades and Labor held a May rally in our Haymarket area (now a trendy restaurant spot). Late in the evening someone threw dynamite. Eight workers were rounded up, including a lay minister, a printer and others. Seven were convicted; four were hanged. The incident gave rise to an annual, worldwide day for worker dignity.
Mondelez Bakery, commonly called Nabisco, has a large facility in my neighborhood. Two years ago members of Bakery, Confectionary Union were on the sidewalk or in a lot across the street, striking over pay and retirement plans. As pressing, however, was their concern about shift length and overtime. Like other companies, Mondelez addressed the side effects of Covid-19 by asking or requiring overtime. This remedy became counterproductive because it created stress among the employees and added to operating expenses.
Covid-19 likewise brings attention to the topic of onsite vs. remote working hours. It also prompts experiments around the number of hours on the job per week. The popular crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, to mention one example, is experimenting with four days per week on the job. Pay remains the same. This is not a gimmick, says Kickstarter’s CEO Aziz Hasan.
Other experiments in Sweden and Great Britain have favorable outcomes so far.
An experiment in Iceland among several companies and backed by unions and civic groups was a success. The employees clocked 36-hours over four weekdays. Productivity remained the same. Sick days decreased. Customers noted better quality of service. Now, 86% of Iceland employees are allowed a four-day week, reports Wall St. Journal (7/31/21).
This past January Rep. Mark Takano of California (www.takano.house.gov) introduced legislation for a nation-wide 36-hour workweek. Even during our so-called labor shortage, Takano’s proposal should get consideration, concludes Appelbaum. It “would be better for our health, better for our families and better for the employers, who would reap the benefits of a more motivated and better rested workforce.”
From a Catholic perspective a 36-hour workweek has a prior requirement: the principle of a family wage. That is, one worker per household with one job should be paid enough to reasonably support the family. (A family may include other workers, but that income is extra, not a dire necessity.) Presuming a family wage is established, an employer will pay a 36-hour per week employee at the former 40-hour rate. (Some employees who can afford to do so might negotiate pro-rated pay for 36-hours, but not from a distorted sense of vocation.)
Second, Catholicism says that a shorter workweek is betrayed if it really means less time in the office while bringing more work home. This caution particularly applies to salaried employees. Further, hours gained by less time on the clock cannot be spent on unnecessary consumption or excess time using screens.
In other words, a change in culture must accompany any change in work hours. A whole/holy life involves employment, but also true leisure. It means leaving behind our culture 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,” writes Josef Pieper (1904-1997) in Leisure: the Basis of Culture (Ignatius Press, 1952). Our culture currently needs “the illusion of a life fulfilled.” But 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. “Have leisure and know that I am God.” –Psalm 46:11
Whatever the outcome of the autoworkers job action, their proposal for a shorter workweek should not be dismissed.

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

Social Justice

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine #14 by Bill Droel

The term social justice is regularly used but rarely defined. It often means a government program is on the way. “Social justice requires an increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).” It can mean a general concern. “The status of women is a matter of social justice.” It can describe an event. “We went to a social justice conference.” Or describe a personality type. “She’s a social justice warrior.” In many circles it is simply substituted for the word charity. “Our parish food pantry is a social justice effort.”
Social justice actually has a Catholic pedigree and refers to a type under the general term justice. There is criminal justice, distributive justice (the duty of government), individual justice or commutative justice (fair exchange either implied or in a contract) and social justice (and more).
Fr. Luigi Taparelli, SJ (1793-1862) of Italy coined the term social justice in 1845. He was rightly worried about individualistic tendencies that characterize modernity–all the more extreme in our day. Taparelli favored an organic society in which many interdependent parts add up to more than their sum. Such a society needs healthy intermediate institutions that give individuals wider agency and also buffer individuals from big forces—families, parishes, workplace units, professional associations, ethnic clubs and more. This dynamic is called subsidiarity in Catholicism.
By about 1900 Catholic philosophers were equating social justice with what St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) calls legal justice. Now, for Aquinas legal justice does not refer to what is approximated on TV shows like Chicago P.D. and Judge Judy. He means that by divine law all the parts of an organic society must be directed toward the common good, not entirely to one individual’s good. The 20th century Catholic philosophers thought the term social justice was better than legal justice because many people think the word legal only means what is expressly prohibited or commanded. Such people stay within minimum behavior but consider social obligations to be strictly optional. In fact, they often expect some recognition when they help out in the community.
The academic conversation continued, treating both process and outcome. Process: How does social justice come about? Outcome: What does a social justice society look like?
Fr. William Ferree, SM (1905-1985) of Ohio greatly clarified the topic—in my opinion. First in a dissertation and then in an influential 1948 booklet, Introduction to Social Justice, Ferree said the unique act of social justice is organization and its outcome is improved policies or institutions.
This means that social justice is a virtue. It is something that is done, not a fond wish. It is more than calling out a problem. Like all virtues, it must be done habitually.
This means that social justice is a collective virtue. An individual can be generous but cannot alone practice social justice. Like-minded people must get together. Thus, mixed motives are always involved. Each participant gets something out of the effort; the group also benefits in some way; but the greater good is a primary object of the practice.
This means that the aims of social justice must stay in the practical realm, though the initial ambition can reach beyond what will be achieved. Compromise is a necessary part of social justice. It is not a virtue for purists or utopians.
This means, to paraphrase a great polka song: In heaven there is no social justice; that’s why we do it here. In heaven there is perfect love, but in our messy here-and-now domain, things are incremental. There’s need for social justice today and more need tomorrow.
This means that social justice is for insiders. Protest is often necessary to get inside, but marches and rallies are not in themselves social justice.
This means that social justice is not charity, though charity might precede or accompany social justice. Charity in itself does not change policies, though people involved in charity often turn to lobbying (social justice) in order to make charity more efficient or even less necessary.
Social justice is a specific activity done by a group within an institution to improve a policy or, if necessary, to start an alternative institution. With a better appreciation for the definition of social justice more might be accomplished. As Elvis sang in 1968, “A little less conversation, a little more action.”

Ferree’s booklet ($6) and Droel’s booklet, What Is Social Justice ($5) can be obtained from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Child Labor

The Working Catholic: Child Labor by Bill Droel

It is a fallacy to believe that if teenage members of a family spend more time on a job, the family will necessarily gain upwardly mobility. Nor is it true that our economy prospers when young people neglect their studies for the sake of income. Yes, employment trains teenagers and young adults in public disciplines plus gives them some outlook on social psychology. However, excess hours on the clock are not beneficial.
The current though relative labor shortage does not justify what N.Y. Times reporter Hannah Drier brought to light about child labor in articles from late February 2023 until early May 2023. Several companies are using children in restricted jobs for excessive hours and sometimes failing to pay them justly—835 companies last fiscal year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Packers Sanitation Services based in Kieler, WI, as one example, had 102 teenagers on overnight shifts cleaning back saws, brisket saws and head splitters in meat processing plants. Packers, which is owned by Blackstone investments, was fined $15million.
Drier found children illegally employed in retail, construction and manufacturing plus in sawmills, in an industrial laundry and in a slaughterhouse. Some were on the overnight shift and underpaid. Hearthside Food Solutions based in Downers Grove, IL contracts with popular brands to package food. Drier found many children at its Michigan facilities. Hearthside blames its staffing agency.
There are many ways to address a labor shortage, reports John Miller in Dollars & Sense (6/23). Raise wages and improve workplace conditions, though “both would drive up costs.” Immigration reform would also put more adults into the job pool legally. A few columnists and several trade associations favor another remedy: child labor.
“Ten states, six in the Midwest, have considered proposals” to loosen child labor restrictions, Miller details. A 1938 law (the Fair Labor and Standards Act) specifies conditions for employing teenagers after school, on weekends and holidays for reasonable hours in non-hazardous settings like cashier, caddy, hostess, usher, lifeguard, school janitor, delivery person, clerical and the like with leeway on family farms and in family shops. Despite these reasonable guidelines the pro-family governor of Arkansas recently signed legislation to eliminate a simple permit that required a child’s age verification, parental approval and a non-hazardous situation for employment. The N.Y. Times comments: The new law “is not to protect those children from exploitation but instead to make it legal.” Iowa is likely next.
The full story, as Drier writes, includes the plight of unaccompanied migrant children of whom about 130,000 came into the U.S. in the past 12 months. These fearful young people are easily exploited. Some are put in dangerous jobs. Most are underpaid and some are cheated out of their pay entirely. Not all these young adults come to the U.S. with full knowledge and will. Some are trafficked by cartels and then sold to construction subcontractors or to agricultural entities. Some are forced into prostitution or thievery.
What is our federal government doing to protect children? Well, the administration of President Joseph Biden is eager to clear out shelters near our border. Day labor agencies and even traffickers, posing as hosts, have moved some of these migrant children into dangerous and exhausting jobs. The Department of Labor, Miller mentions, is “severely understaffed.”
A retired Department of Labor official provides The Working Catholic with details. He was stationed in Chicago for ten years and then 18 more in Florida. There is “an immediately apparent difference” between southern states that have a so-called right to work law and those states with viable unions. Further, many northern states have local laws pertaining to child labor and sometimes fund apprentice training programs. “Active union presence serves to minimize child labor violations,” he says.
“Violations are typically not easy to see,” his narrative continues. Investigations occur after-the-fact and “must be developed from employer records, which is not easy. The Department of Labor is a civil enforcement arm, not criminal. Thus, the documented cases must then be adjudicated by the Department of Justice.”
What can law-abiding businesses and citizens do? Use union labor. If not, stipulate in writing that a contractor all not allow its subcontractors to use child labor. Second, support a local worker center. Arise (www.arisechicago.org), a sophisticated worker center here in Chicago, takes up cases of wage theft and other labor violations. Escucha Mi Voz (www.escuchamivozia.org) is a Catholic-based worker center. It helps people from ten language groups. Child labor in meatpacking is one of its concerns. Women religious, as on many issues, are leaders in anti-trafficking. They publish an informative newsletter, detail some action steps and supply reflection material. Their website is www.sistersagainsttrafficking.org. Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org) is based in New York City. It conducts research and reports on the topic.

Bill Droel (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629) is eager for any reports on child labor.


The Working Catholic: Immigration by Bill Droel

The immigrant “can sense that the United States is of two minds,” writes Hector Tobar of the University of California in Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation (Farrar, Straus, 2023). “Like the indentured servants, the Poles, the Germans and the Chinese people of other centuries, she knows there are factory owners and affluent families on the other side of the fence or the ocean who really want her to make it across… She knows that she has something that is prized on the other side.” At the same time the “walls, barbed wire and restrictive immigration laws announce they hate her kind.”
A country by definition must have borders. A phrase like open borders, if taken literally, erases the existence of nation states. The trick is to maintain an orderly system so that tourists, students, temporary workers, immigrants and refugees can safely enter a country and by their labor, knowledge and consumption they can contribute to their surroundings.
The current number of foreign-born people living in our country is the highest it has been in about 100 years; 45million by one estimate, reports Idrees Kahloon in The New Yorker (6/12/23). Many are immigrants who have become full-fledged legal U.S. citizens (about 970,000 within the past 12 months). Other foreign-born residents are guest workers (in Silicon Valley, in hospitals, in vineyards and on farms) and students (in technical fields, medical research and business) and others are immigrant/refugees–those who are in the legal process and those who have drifted into society without status.
The current influx actually began over 60 years ago when Congress changed its immigration limit and its general ban on those from Asia, details Dexter Filkins, also writing in The New Yorker (6/19/23). Our society’s need for more skilled and manual laborers attracts foreigners. More arrive under our policy of family preference or chain migration by which one immigrant can assist family members. Several factors push families toward the U.S., including drug violence, natural disasters, a bad economy at home, oppressive politics, the profitable smuggling/trafficking business (coyote cartels) and more.
Arrivals in the U.S., as Hector Tobar describes, have always encountered nativism. Some current U.S. residents say that their life would be better if immigrants were not unfairly given social services. Some residents also say that their own ancestors had to learn English, but that today’s arrivals don’t do so. They also say that new arrivals take away jobs that longer-standing residents would like to have.
Data can counter these points, but the objections are not really about what they are about. The concern about jobs, for example, is only valid for a limited time in a specific place where “cheap labor can hold down wages for some workers,” says Filkins. However, the demand for employees in our country far exceeds the current supply. In the bigger picture immigration has no effect on jobs or wages. It is employment sectors that set wage scales and it is free trade and tax policies that send jobs overseas. Yet no one opposed to today’s immigrants is persuaded by the facts.
Migrants and refugees crossing our country’s southern border are resented more than well-educated technicians and doctors and trades people arriving from Asia or Eastern Europe, though each foreigner encounters nativism.
“Determining the exact number [of refugees is] remarkably difficult,” Filkins explains. There are possibly 11million undocumented people in the U.S. today; not all of whom intend to stay or will be allowed to stay. Even now our government does not know how many migrants it has sent back. The legal process for entry is backlogged and caught-up in conflicting court rulings. There are over two million pending cases just for those who claim refugee status. They are legally entitled to wait in the U.S. for a hearing on their case, but they have no right to a public defender. The wait time for the initial hearing is now five years. If the decision is unfavorable to the refugee, they can appeal. The wait time for that appeal hearing is another five years.
Reform of our dysfunctional immigration/migration system is, as any objective observer realizes, slow-going. A policy of exclusion, Filkins explains, is impractical. No matter how big a wall is built, people are not deterred from fleeing misery and staking their hope on our beautiful country. Total exclusion also damages the U.S. economy plus betrays the story of our country and it is inhumane. Three parts must come together simultaneously for acceptable reform. 1.) Tougher boarder security. 2.) More funding for local police in states like Texas and Arizona plus in cities that welcome migrants; more social services and processing assistance; more immigration judges. 3.) Better legal opportunities for immigrants, enforced fairly.
At the moment both Republican and Democrat leaders tolerate the frustrating chaos because they can blame one another. Additionally, Democrats and Republicans share the ambivalence of our citizenry. They want more immigration because it bolsters U.S. productivity. They want less immigration because more of it fuels resentment and politicians get the blame.
A final consideration: No matter the administrative chaos and the political muddle of the moment, there is an ethical obligation to assist the immigrants/migrants among us. To be continued…
Droel serves the board of National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Family Wage

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine Part Thirteen, Poverty by Bill Droel

It’s published in Wall St. Journal (4/30/23), so it must be true. It’s an essay about wages by Michael Lind. He begins with a quotation from Adam Smith (1723-1790), a theorist for modern capitalism. For capitalism to thrive, Smith says employees must get a family wage.
Family wage is a principle of Catholic social doctrine. A slogan from Unite Here, a union of hotel workers with headquarters in Manhattan, is a good paraphrase of our Catholic principle: “One Job Should Be Enough.” Our U.S. bishops described a family wage in their 1919 Program of Social Reconstruction. Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) has it in his 1931 encyclical Reconstructing the Social Order, as does Vatican II (1962-1965). St. John Paul II (1920-2005) also writes about it. The idea is that one wage earner should be paid at least enough to support a family, including its education needs, some funds for leisure plus for modest savings. The amount of that wage can differ by location and by the type of job. A family can have a second wage earner, but the family’s survival should not depend on that arrangement. St. John Paul II emphasizes that the measure of a society’s justice is its wage structure. All other compensations and social policies and management plans are accessories.
Lind says that our economy does not abide by the family wage principle but uses a model he calls low-wage/high-welfare. Many employees get inadequate pay but stay afloat through Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, housing vouchers and more. In other words, as Lind writes, “taxpayers pay to rescue workers whose work does not pay enough.”
Lower wages allow for lower costs which benefit some consumers. For example, middle-class and upper-class families are winners in the low-wage/high welfare economy when they hire housekeepers or landscapers. The losers are taxpayers and of course the underpaid.
Matthew Desmond in Poverty, By America (Crown, 2023) agrees. Poverty resists elimination despite charitable endeavors and social welfare because some people benefit from the poverty of others. “Poverty is an injury, a taking,” says Desmond. Normally, people are unaware of how their lifestyle depends on the perpetuation of poverty. However, Desmond’s book makes it plain, using many examples including our tolerance for insubstantial wages.
There’s a corollary to the principle of a just wage. Because an employee agrees to a sub-level wage the criteria for justice is not met. Adherence to this aspect of Catholic doctrine means, for example, that a pastor cannot morally pay a teacher less than a just wage because the teacher understands the job as a vocation. The standard is objective, not subjective. That standard does, however, take into account that a just wage in a small town, for example, might be lower than a comparable wage in Manhattan.
There is plenty of room for debate as to how to achieve just wages. Lind mentions collective bargaining, but he is not happy about a bargaining unit at one Starbucks and then a different unit at the next Starbucks. He suggests sector or multi-employer bargaining might be better. This idea is like the Catholic idea of an industry council plan. To be continued…

For more on this topic get St. John Paul II’s Gospel of Work edited by Bill Droel (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $8.)