Labor Priests Certify “Card Checks” for Workers Seeking Union

The typical way workers form a union in the United States is ugly. When a majority of workers expresses interest in forming a union, management makes it their mission to talk them out of it by fair means or foul. At best, they force employees to sit through long lectures on the clock while they badmouth unions and hint that they might close their doors if the workers exercise their legal right to join a union and bargain collectively. At worst, supervisors fire the ringleaders to intimidate the others. The process culminates in a representation election run by the National Labor Relations Board. Whatever the outcome, it leaves both labor and management bitter for years thereafter.

There is an alternative. Some employers, preferring amicable relations with their workforce, announce at the start of the process that the decision to join a union or not belongs to the employees. Instead of waging a bitter campaign leading to a labor-board sponsored election, they just tell the workers: show me that a majority of you have signed up to join a union and we’ll bargain with the union you have chosen. This process is called “card check.”

Card check can bypass a lot of hard feelings between company and workers, but it relies on a critical intermediary – the two sides need a third party they both trust to actually count the cards. In this role, it’s not unusual to turn to clergy. The Catholic Labor Network has been training priests to perform this critical duty, and in recent months several have had the opportunity to do so for low-wage food service workers seeking to join the union UNITE HERE. In the past few months, their work has enabled nearly 1,000 low-wage food service workers in six locations to secure union membership.

When you think about it, it’s a natural fit. Since the time of Rerum Novarum, the Church has condemned class conflict while supporting the right of workers to organize in trade unions. Card check is of a piece with the higher aspirations of Catholic Social Teaching – the notion that unions and management can collaborate in a partnership that respects the legitimate needs of both workers and employers. Priests who have volunteered for this important work have found it uniformly rewarding.

Take the example of the workers who staff the Senate cafeteria in our nation’s capital. For years, workers had been trying to organize the conventional way there, but this year management and labor agreed to take the less conflictual path of card check. Fr. Martin Burnham at the Catholic University of America volunteered to count the cards. He concluded:

Having heard that the process at the Senate had been going on for roughly 7 years, it was satisfying to know that I was able to help play a part in bringing resolution to the question of union representation. The process was easy, and bot representatives from the union and the company made the process painless. Their implicit trust in my determination of results was humbling. I look forward to being called upon again to help with a card count in a future card check.

Fr. Brian Jordan, a former New Yorker (now Pastor of St. Camillus in Silver Spring, MD) agreed to check the cards for hundreds of workers at the UBS arena where the New York Islanders play. He observed,

As a Franciscan priest, it is a real honor to be asked to serve as a person to conduct a card check between a union local and representatives of management.  There is a sense of trust, civic duty and a moral obligation to correctly count cards during the card check. Before the card check is taken, there is a sense of expectation on both sides for fairness, accuracy and hope.  After the results of the card check is officially announced, there is mutual acceptance and a willingness to work together as sisters and brothers of the same God.  Since I have been entrusted with this sacred responsibility, I definitely see the card check as a vital sign of priestly ministry within Catholic Social Teaching.

Fr. Sinclair Oubre of Port Arthur, TX knows the benefits of union membership from his own membership in the Seafarer’s International Union. But he was determined to set aside his own preferences to play an impartial role called for when workers at one of Google’s cafeteria’s wanted to join UNITEHERE.

During the process, the word that kept echoing in my ears was “Integrity.” I strongly believe in our Catholic Social Teaching that the most praiseworthy association that one can be part of is a workers association. So, I want workers to be in unions. However, I was entrusted with a task could build up trust between the union and management in this particular case, and appreciated the general trust by union and management that this card check verification process was a good method that avoided unnecessary emotions, labor, and hard feelings.

So, when I reviewed the cards, integrity echoed in my mind. It was just a whisper for some of the cards. These were the ones that had signatures that obviously matched. “Integrity” was a little louder for the signatures that really were chicken scratch, but I was able to identify common loops, and letters that made these “unreadable” signatures verified as coming from the same person. Then there were those that absolutely did not match. I do not doubt for a minute they came from the same person, but if I was going to have personal integrity, and the process was going to have integrity, I had to reject these cards because I could not verify that these signatures matched. Fortunately, there was an overwhelming majority of the signatures matched.

Thanks to all the priests who have recently participated in card check processes, enabling workers to secure union representation without a contentious battle between labor and management. If you are a priest or religious and are interested in volunteering in this role, contact clayton@catholiclabor.org for more information.

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