Pope: For Christians, work is more than an occupation, it’s a mission

Pope Francis at the General Audience Oct. 11, 2017. Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA.
.- In a letter for the conclusion of a conference on labor on Friday, Pope Francis said work is about more than just doing something for money, but about cooperating with Christ’s work of redemption in how we care for others and the earth.

“According to Christian tradition, (work) is more than a mere doing; it is, above all, a mission,” the Pope said Nov. 24.

“We collaborate with the creative work of God when, through our work, we cultivate and preserve creation; we participate, in the Spirit of Jesus, in his redemptive mission, when by our activity we give sustenance to our families and respond to the needs of our neighbor.”

Jesus of Nazareth, who spent most of his life working as a carpenter, “invites us to follow in his footsteps through work,” he continued. This way, in the words of St. Ambrose, “every worker is the hand of Christ who continues to create and to do good.”

Pope Francis sent the letter for the conclusion of a Nov. 23-24 international conference at the Vatican on work and worker’s movements, and how these are at the heart of sustainable and integral human development.

At the same time that we consider the value of work, the Pope stressed the importance of not exaggerating the “mystical” side of work, as observed by Pope Paul VI. The person “is not just work,” Francis said. “There are other human needs that we must cultivate and consider, such as family, friends, and rest.”

This is why, he stated, it is important to remember that work must always serve the human person, and not the other way around. Therefore, “we must question the structures that damage or exploit people, families, the companies and our mother earth,” he said.

In the letter, the Pope decried the utilitarian attitude faced by many workers, who in their struggle for just work, have been forced to accept the presence of a utilitarian mentality which does not care if there is excess waste, “social and environmental degradation,” forced child labor, or pollution.

“Everything is justified by the money god,” Francis said, noting however that many of the people who participated in the conference have contributed to the fight against utilitarianism in the past and are “well positioned to correct it in the future.”

“Please address this difficult subject and show us, according to your prophetic and creative mission, that a culture of encounter and care is possible,” he said.

Drawing a connection between the three topics of time, work and technology, the Pope criticized the constant intensification of a rapid pace of both work and life, saying it is unfavorable for sustainable development.

Technology as well, which we receive many benefits and opportunities from, can also hinder sustainable development when “it is associated with a paradigm of power, dominance, and manipulation,” he said.

To talk about development in a fruitful way, we must start from what we have in common, he said, which is: our origin, our belonging and our destination. “On this basis, we can renew the universal solidarity of all people, including solidarity with the people of tomorrow.”

“We will also be able to find a way out of a marketplace and monetary economy that does not give work the value it is due, and move it towards another in which human activity is the center.”

Communion, not competition, is key to job growth, pope says

Communion, not competition, is key to job growth, pope says

In this file photo, Pope Francis smiles during an audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican. (Credit: Claudio Peri/EPA via CNS.)

Pope Francis says the economy is part of human life, not some autonomous machine, and so it must be regulated either by governments or by input from people who know that making money is not the highest human value. “In the world of work, communion must be victorious over competition,” he said.

ROME – Working for economic growth based on increased consumption without concern for creating dignified jobs and protecting the environment “is a bit like riding a bicycle with a flat tire: It’s dangerous,” Pope Francis said.

The dignity of workers and the health of the environment “are mortified when workers are just a line on a balance sheet, when the cries of the discarded are ignored,” he said Oct. 26 in a video message.

Addressing participants at a week-long Italian conference on Catholic social teaching, Francis noted how many people in the Bible are defined by their work: Sowers, harvesters, vine dressers, fishers, shepherds and carpenters, like St. Joseph.

Work can give people dignity by allowing them to use their talents to support themselves and their families and contribute to society, the pope said. But “there are jobs that humiliate human dignity” like prostitution and child labor or “offend the worker’s dignity,” like jobs that pay under the table, offer only a series of temporary contracts or do not pay enough attention to worker safety.

“This is immoral,” the pope said. “This kills. It kills dignity, kills health, kills the family, kills society.”

Francis noted that Catholic social teaching formally began in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” which he said was written to “defend workers” from exploitation and to combat child labor, 12-hour workdays and poor working conditions in factories.

The Church’s concern for workers continues today, he said, and extends to those without work, those who are so discouraged they have stopped looking for a job, those who are underemployed and those who live in fear of losing their jobs.

The economy is part of human life, not some autonomous machine, and so it must be regulated either by governments or by input from people who know that making money is not the highest human value, he said.

“In the world of work, communion must be victorious over competition,” he said. Owners have a responsibility to invest in their workers and workers have a responsibility to do their best to make that investment pay off.

And, he said, governments have a role to play as well. Using the example of taking bids for public works, Francis said governments cannot focus only on getting the lowest bid “without taking into account the dignity of labor as well as the environmental and fiscal responsibility of the company.”

Francis revives the workers’ church

The Catholic Church in America—once an ally of workers and their unions—grew deferential to big money in recent decades. Now, prompted by the Pope, a new generation of labor priests and bishops is trying to change that.

John Gehring,    The American Prospect  October 23, 2017
This article appears in the Fall 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Jorge Ramirez still remembers his Mexican immigrant father coming home with a bloody face after trying to organize his fellow workers in the Back of the Yards, a storied industrial area in Chicago. “My mom would stitch him up in the kitchen,” says Ramirez, 46, now the president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. “It was brutal, but we always had the Catholic Church. There was always a Catholic priest around.”

As unions face an increasingly hostile political climate and grapple with fresh approaches to becoming relevant to a new generation, there are signs that an old ally is once again stepping up. The Catholic Church, which has an imperfect but long history of using its institutional muscle and moral voice to defend workers’ rights, is getting a serious pep talk from a pope who has put labor rights back at the forefront of the Church’s public agenda.

Unions are “prophetic” institutions that “unmask the powerful who trample the rights of the most vulnerable workers,” Pope Francis said in a June speech to the Confederation of Trade Unions, Italy’s equivalent of the AFL-CIO. While conservative politicians, corporate leaders, and well-funded organizations on the right have spent decades trying to dismantle the labor movement, Francis recognizes that what he calls the “dictatorship of an impersonal economy” is the result of an ideology that demonizes unions, worships individualism, and champions unfettered markets. “The capitalism of our time does not understand the value of the trade union because it has forgotten the social nature of the economy,” he said. “This is one of the greatest sins.”

American union leaders have been energized by this unexpected boost from one of the world’s most popular and influential religious leaders. The shout-outs from a pope with a global bully pulpit are not only symbolically potent. There are tangible signs of a “Francis effect” on the Church’s relationship with the American labor movement. When Ramirez of the Chicago Federation of Labor first met the new archbishop whom Pope Francis appointed to the Chicago archdiocese in 2014, it didn’t take long for Cardinal Blase Cupich to express his commitment to workers. In a major address at Plumbers Union Hall on the city’s west side two years ago, Cupich delivered a clear message. “I have come today to tell Chicago workers: The Catholic Church is with you. Pope Francis is with you. I am with you,” Cupich said.

International Longshoremen’s Association/AFL-CIO
On the Waterfront: Longshoremen’s union official Michael Vigneron with Cardinal Joseph Tobin, archbishop of Newark

Nor did the cardinal stop there. He specifically took aim at “right to work” laws, arguing that the Church is “duty-bound to challenge such efforts.” He also made clear that the Church has “never made a distinction between private and public sectors,” a critical point as public-sector unions are frequently targeted by conservative opponents both inside and outside the Church.

For Ramirez, with his childhood memories of Catholic clergy standing up for his father, the speech struck a nerve. “Workers are so hungry for this message,” he says. “It resonates because it shows the Church is in touch with workers, and that the Church hears them and has the courage to speak out.” Ramirez notes that the Chicago Federation of Labor, which represents 300 unions and has more than 500,000 members, is reaffirming a project labor agreement with the Chicago archdiocese that ensures union labor is used on construction projects. The Chicago archdiocese, which employs 15,000 full- and part-time workers, also honors picket lines and encourages priests to support the labor movement.

Union leaders beyond Chicago are also buzzing about the new climate. Damon Silvers, policy director at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, admits he was surprised when Catholic scholars and advocates began reaching out to the federation after the Pope’s election in 2013. Silvers knew about the Church’s role in labor history, including Pope John Paul II’s support for the solidarity movement in Poland, but he wasn’t used to Catholic leaders beating down his door. The election of the first pope from Latin America was a game-changer.

“Pope Francis set the tone,” Silvers says. “The dignity of work really matters to him. Both the labor movement and the Church are remembering again that Catholic social teaching is one of the fundamental principles of the American labor movement.” Catholic immigrants from Europe found a refuge and an advocate in the Church and unions a century ago. Today Latino immigrants, a large percentage of them Catholic, make up a significant share of workers trying to climb up from the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

Silvers recognizes not only the historical parallel, but a potential template for the future. “The labor movement needs a larger ecosystem to grow and thrive,” he says. “A critical part of that ecosystem is the Catholic Church. We have to be embedded in the lives of working people in a multidimensional way and have a connection to the spiritual life of its members. There is a deeper thing here we’re trying to do as a movement. People are not simply the sum of their economic parts. Workers are not a commodity. The Church at its best is trying to help people live as something more than a thing. In that sense, the Church and labor need each other because we’re engaged in a common project.”

Behind-the-scenes conversations between the AFL-CIO and Catholic leaders led to a high-profile conference at the union’s headquarters a few months before Pope Francis’s 2015 visit to the United States. More than a dozen Catholic bishops and cardinals—several of them close advisers to Pope Francis—took part in public dialogues around the theme “Erroneous Autonomy: A Conversation on Solidarity and Faith.” It was the first time in recent years that a number of Catholic heavyweights, including a cardinal, spoke at the federation’s headquarters. In a keynote speech, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington cited a “renewal of appreciation” for the “Catholic idea of solidarity.” He told labor leaders in the audience that the church cannot be “bystanders” in the fight for workers’ rights and referred to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka as “our president.” A Catholic and the son of a coal miner from southwestern Pennsylvania, Trumka spoke in glowing terms about the Pope. “Part of the greatness of Pope Francis is that he sees everyone,” Trumka said. “And in seeing those who are excluded and suffering, he lifts all of us up so we can see and hear each other.”

Stephen Schneck, the recently retired director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, played a leading role in bringing AFL-CIO officials and the Catholic hierarchy together in recent years. “The picture of all those bishops standing with union leaders was amazing,” he said. “The optics sent a powerful message.”

When Pope Francis addressed the second Popular Movements event in Bolivia in 2015, he almost sounded like a fiery union agitator.

Mary Kay Henry grew up immersed in an environment where the priests, nuns, and lay Catholics in the pews at Holy Name parish in the suburbs of Detroit viewed the dignity of work as central to their faith. The president of the Service Employees International Union, Henry made her way through an eclectic gathering of faith-based organizers, union leaders, and Catholic bishops during a February meeting of “Popular Movements” in Modesto, California. Pope Francis had inspired the meeting as part of the World Meeting of Popular Movements, which he launched in 2014. Held in Rome, the first event brought together activists from five continents: migrants, landless peasants, indigenous leaders, and representatives from trade unions. The themes of tierra, trabajo, and techo (land, labor, and housing) structured the original gathering and have remained the guiding focus during subsequent events. When Pope Francis addressed the second Popular Movements event in Bolivia in 2015, he almost sounded like a fiery union agitator. “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers, and the elites,” he said. “It is fundamentally in the hands of people and in their ability to organize.”

In Modesto, Henry chatted up a Vatican cardinal close to Pope Francis, briefing him about the Fight for 15 movement to raise wages of low-income workers, and told Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez she wanted to bring the union’s home health-care workers and janitors into closer dialogue with the church. More than half of SEIU members are Catholics, union officials estimate. “I’ve always felt the power of faith is key to any breakthrough that working people have made,” Henry told me. “I’m a Catholic, and my first experiences with solidarity came from the church and my family.” Several SEIU organizers and workers in the union visited the Vatican in 2015 for a round of meetings with church officials. Topics included the Fight for 15 movement, immigration reform, and mass incarceration.

“Pope Francis is really opening a space for those toiling in the vineyard to rise up,” Henry says. “The way he talks about economic inequality and links that to racism and care for the common home of our environment really affirms so much of what we’ve been fighting for over the years.”

One of the most significant ways a pope can steer the massive ocean liner that is the Catholic Church in a direction that reflects his priorities is through the bishops he appoints. In the United States, several Francis picks are emerging as strong allies of the labor movement. Cardinal Joe Tobin in Newark can bench-press more than 200 pounds, has the sturdy frame of a dock worker, and is at home at union events. This summer, he celebrated mass on the waterfront with members of the International Longshoremen’s Association who work for the Port of New York and New Jersey. The cardinal was also one of the keynote speakers at the New Jersey state AFL-CIO meeting in June held at Harrah’s casino in Atlantic City. He’s also been a vocal critic of President Trump’s aggressive immigration orders, calling them “the opposite of what it means to be an American.”

AP Photo/David Goldman

In a keynote speech at the AFL-CIO headquarters in 2015, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington told labor leaders that the church cannot be “bystanders” in the fight for workers’ rights. Here, Wuerl stands with Pope Francis following a mass outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

In Kentucky, Lexington Bishop John Stowe blasted his state’s right-to-work push in January. Strong labor unions, the bishop wrote in an open letter, “lead to more fair negotiations which benefit all workers in the state. The weakening of unions by so-called ‘right to work’ laws has been shown to reduce wages and benefits overall in the states where such laws have been enacted. This cannot be seen as contributing to the common good.”

Another sign that Catholic leaders are redoubling their efforts on worker justice issues is a project to create a new generation of “labor priests.” From the 1920s through the 1960s, clergy who stood with and advocated for workers were a central part of the labor movement. Priests ran labor training schools, often in parish halls, where workers learned about the minutiae of collective bargaining and the principles of Catholic social teaching. Reverend Clete Kiley, a Chicago priest and director for immigration policy at UNITE HERE, which represents more than 270,000 workers in the hotel, gaming, food service, laundry, and airport industries, is determined to revive that tradition. He launched a labor priest initiative in 2012, a loose network of more than 100 priests across the country who are trained to support workers through the framework of Catholic social justice. About half of the priests are immigrants. Most are under 40 years old. “Priests who work in immigrant communities are asking themselves what is happening to my parishioners when they go to work,” says Kiley, who is also chaplain for the Chicago Federation of Labor. “They hear about wage theft and unsafe working conditions. Some of the most egregious violations are against immigrants.”

Clergy receive training and opportunities to network at workshops hosted in different cities. Along with learning about Catholic teaching on labor, the clergy often hear directly from workers attempting to unionize. At one gathering last year, workers from several Las Vegas casinos shared their experiences about efforts to form a union.

During a recent visit to Owensboro, Kentucky, Kiley heard from priests who have watched well-paying factory jobs with solid benefits vanish from their communities, to be replaced by low-wage work with little security. Some clergy who are new to labor issues, especially in the South, can be skittish about speaking out. Kiley doesn’t force things. “I don’t start off talking about unions,” he says. “I talk about workers and their rights.”

The golden era between the Church and labor in the United States lasted roughly from the end of World War I to the late 1950s.

The golden era between the Church and labor in the United States lasted roughly from the end of World War I to the late 1950s. Inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on labor and capital, Reverend John Ryan, a priest from Minnesota, became a nationally prominent social reformer whose writing and advocacy on behalf of living wages for workers later helped mold Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Ryan drafted a bold 1919 statement, the Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction, that put moral weight behind what were then radical social reforms: a minimum wage, public housing for workers, and unemployment insurance. During the Great Depression, a generation of priests who had firsthand experiences with injustice and poverty came of age in an immigrant church that reflected a working-class ethic.

In the postwar decades, this sensibility began to shift as American Catholics grew wealthier, moved out of urban enclaves, and the church came to reflect the upwardly mobile aspirations of its parishioners, according to Joseph McCartin, a Georgetown University history professor and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. To be sure, caught up in the social activism of the 1960s and the spirit of Vatican II, Catholic leaders marched with Cesar Chavez behind banners of Our Lady of Guadalupe during grape boycotts organized by the United Farm Workers—and the U.S. Bishops’ Conference called efforts to bust unions “an intolerable attack on social solidarity” in a major 1986 economic justice national letter.

But McCartin points to well-funded efforts on the right in more recent years that have created a formidable counterweight to traditional church teaching on the economy and unions. “There have always been elements in the church that have not looked fondly on labor, but what is different now is the vast wealth pushing those points of view,” he says. The business school at Catholic University of America, McCartin notes, has accepted nearly $13 million from the Charles Koch Foundation over the last several years, despite the Koch brothers’ abysmal track record of labor violations, toxic chemical spills, and funding of anti-union campaigns. In October, Catholic University’s business school is hosting a $2,500-per-person conference called “Good Profit,” featuring Charles Koch. Another well-funded foe of the labor movement is the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, led by a Catholic priest, Reverend Robert Sirico. Acton has benefited from the Koch Foundation and the Christian conservative DeVos family, the billionaire heirs to the Amway fortune who have bankrolled anti-union efforts in Michigan.

The boards of trustees at Catholic universities are also often populated by wealthy CEOs and business leaders who made their fortunes in private equity. “Many of these people are in the top 1 percent and they profited from and helped lead the transformation in our economy that benefited the wealthiest few,” McCartin says. “Many college presidents have boards who say, ‘Why should we deal with unions?’ In their own businesses, they don’t deal with unions.”

While some Catholic universities such as Georgetown have unionized janitors, food service workers, and adjunct professors, a number have aggressively resisted organizing drives by citing religious freedom arguments. Gerald Beyer, a Christian ethicist at Villanova University and Donald Carroll, an adjunct professor of law at the University of San Francisco, challenge that posture as blatant hypocrisy. “By deterring unionization efforts, universities violate adjuncts’ ability to live out Catholic teaching,” they wrote in the National Catholic Reporter.

BEYOND HIS VOCAL SUPPORT for the role of unions, the Pope is striking at the heart of neoliberal economics and market fundamentalism in ways that make some well-heeled donors in Catholic circles jittery. After Francis wrote an encyclical that blasted trickle-down economics, questioned “the absolute autonomy of markets,” and said that poverty would never be addressed without “attacking the structural causes of inequality,” the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot complained to New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan (not one of Pope Francis’s appointees). Ken Langone, who spearheaded a $180 million restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, confided to the cardinal that one of his wealthy friends was so upset by the Pope’s words that he was considering pocketing his contribution to the renovation. Cardinal Dolan told CNBC that he would assure the reluctant donor that he was “misunderstanding” Francis. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “The Pope’s Case for Virtuous Capitalism,” Dolan offered a much sunnier assessment of 21st-century capitalism than the pope has. The free market, the cardinal wrote, “has undoubtedly led to a tremendous increase in overall wealth and well-being around the world.” He argued it was a mistake to “reject economic liberty in favor of government control.” When Larry Kudlow, a CNBC commentator who had questioned the Pope’s understanding of capitalism, tweeted that he helped Dolan with the op-ed, the optics were awkward, to say the least.


L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP

The White Hat and the Hard Hats: Pope Francis meets with workers in Genoa.

Some wealthy Catholics seem content to blatantly co-opt and deliberately misconstrue the Pope’s words. John and Carol Saeman, who are active in a network of Catholic business leaders called Legatus, started by Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, wrote a head-scratching Washington Post op-ed in 2014 in which they strained to align themselves with Francis. “For us, promoting limited government alongside the Kochs is an important part of heeding Pope Francis’s call to love and serve the poor,” wrote the couple, who are financial contributors to the Koch-backed Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. Every summer, wealthy Catholics active in Legatus and a cadre of the U.S. hierarchy’s more conservative bishops gather at the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa Valley, owned by Catholic philanthropist Timothy Busch. The business school at Catholic University is named after Busch, who gave the university $15 million, its largest-ever donation. Busch has called the minimum wage “an anti-market regulation,” cites the Koch brothers as an inspiration, and hosted a conference at the Trump International Hotel in Washington earlier this year where he praised the president for being a staunch “pro-life” leader.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, a leading conservative voice in the hierarchy, acknowledged in a 2014 speech at the Napa retreat that the Pope’s views on economics are likely not in line with many of the Catholic CEOs gathered at the resort. “What Francis says about economic justice may be hard for some of us to hear,” the archbishop said. “So we need to read the Holy Father’s writings for ourselves, without the filter of the mass media. Then we need to open our hearts to what God is telling us through his words.”


FAR FROM NAPA VALLEY, a union leader in Atlantic City often found himself wondering why it was so hard to find Catholic clergy ready to stand with workers fighting against casino bosses who squeezed their employees. Bob McDevitt, the president of UNITE HERE Local 54, started in the union as a 19-year-old bartender’s assistant in the Playboy casino. He now leads a union that has lost 40 percent of its members over the last decade. Five casinos have closed since 2013. He recalls one civil disobedience action with workers at the now shuttered Taj Majal casino. Only one priest showed up, and he came from outside the city.

“From a practical standpoint, if so many people in your pews are in organized labor it doesn’t make sense for the church to be tone-deaf to this experience,” McDevitt says. “I’m not the best Catholic, but I know the church talks all the time about social justice. It’s just a matter of doing what you said should be done.”

Things started to change when a new young pastor, Reverend Jon Thomas, was assigned to McDevitt’s church, the Parish of St. Monica, in 2015. Thomas is part of the labor priest network. The pastor teamed up with McDevitt to plan a special mass dedicated to solidarity with workers. The local bishop fully supported the idea, and while he couldn’t attend because of an illness, his letter was read to the congregation. After the service, Thomas and his parishioners marched down Atlantic Avenue in a procession behind a banner of St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers. It was the kind of visual, public support that showed the church and labor walking side by side. “So many of my parishioners are union members, and they bring their fears of downsizing or losing their jobs to church,” Thomas says. “I need to be involved. I’m trying to make the church relevant to their lives.”


The Pope video 10-2017 – Rights of workers and the unemployed – October 2017

Reunion! Can the Church & Labor Join Forces Again?

By Clayton Sinyai, September 20, 2017, Commonweal Magazine

Father Clete Kiley and Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City talk with men at the Aid Center for Deported Migrants in Nogales, Mexico, March 31, 2014. The center, run by the Kino Border Initiative, was one stop a group of U.S. bishops made during their tour of the border area near Nogales. Father Kiley is the director for immigration policy at Unite Here labor union. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Last January, as labor union activists struggled against the odds to stop Kentucky from becoming a “right-to-work” state, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington addressed a letter of opposition to every state legislator. In Iowa, public employees were targeted, and the state’s Catholic Conference counseled legislators to preserve their union bargaining rights. And in the Lone Star State, Texas bishops and union leaders lined up to defend immigrants, testifying against the now-notorious SB4 or “show your papers” law targeting “sanctuary cities.”

The 2016 elections transformed our politics overnight. Church leaders preoccupied with religious freedom issues during the Obama administration woke on November 9 to find new federal, state, and local officeholders who were eager to accommodate the church on religious liberty—but sharply at odds with Catholic doctrine on labor, immigration, and social justice. Increasingly bishops, priests, and lay activists found themselves alongside labor unions, fighting to defend “the least of these.” But after years of drifting apart, can church and labor work together again? And will it make any difference if they do?

President Donald Trump began his term with a flurry of executive actions targeting immigrants and refugees: a travel ban denying entry to refugees fleeing violence in the Mideast, plans for a vast crackdown on undocumented workers and their families, denial of federal grants to “sanctuary cities” whose police did not cooperate with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and a headlong rush to start work on a massive wall along the Mexican border. These actions drew vigorous protests from both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the AFL-CIO.

These protests went well beyond press statements critical of White House policies. Newark’s Cardinal Joseph Tobin earned national headlines by accompanying Catalino Guerrero, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, to the Peter Rodino Federal Building to challenge his deportation order. The AFL-CIO issued “know your rights” publications to advise workers confronted by immigration enforcement agents. Unions like the Hotel Workers (UNITE HERE) put immigration-related demands on the bargaining table, calling on employers to demand a warrant before permitting ICE agents on their property.

The political shockwaves weren’t confined to the federal level; similar events unfolded in many states. Iowa’s Republicans captured the Senate, securing complete control of state government, and abruptly targeted the union rights of government workers. Taking their cue from Governor Scott Walker’s 2011 actions in Wisconsin, Iowa legislators debated a measure stripping bargaining powers from unions representing public employees. As teachers protested and lobbied, Iowa’s bishops pointedly reminded legislators that “workers retain their right of association whether they work for a private employer or for the government.” Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines personally buttonholed Governor Terry Brandstad and several state legislators to make his concerns known. But the bid failed, and Iowa public workers face the same calamity that has decimated unions in the Badger state.

In Kentucky, it was private-sector workers who found their union rights under siege. As in Iowa, Kentucky Republicans had at long last captured unified control of the state’s levers of power, and moved quickly to propose “right-to-work” legislation that would gravely weaken the state’s labor unions. (Right-to-work laws permit individual workers to opt out of paying union dues, even when the majority of their peers have voted for union representation. Since such “free riders” continue to enjoy the wages and benefits of the union contract, many workers drop their union membership.) Bishop Stowe responded with a remarkable letter to the Kentucky legislators, expounding Catholic teaching on labor unions and concluding that

The falsely named “right-to-work” legislation proposed does not in fact create new rights to work, but rather strives to limit the effectiveness and power of the unions.  When all workers benefit from the negotiations of the labor unions, through better wages and conditions, it is only just that the workers should participate by paying dues to the union which represents them in the workplace. The weakening of unions by so-called “right to work” laws…cannot be seen as contributing to the common good.

In the event, Kentucky legislators had no more interest in prophetic voices than their Iowa counterparts, and the state is now “right to work.”

The bitter fight over the Texas “show-your-papers” law earned more national attention than all these other setbacks combined. In several Texas cities, city governments and police departments had set a policy of steering clear of immigration matters in order to win the trust and cooperation of immigrant communities; they wanted undocumented immigrants to report violent crimes and testify against criminals rather than keep silent for fear of deportation. Governor Greg Abbott and his supporters in the legislature advanced a bill to end this practice, requiring city and county governments to assist ICE and granting police sweeping powers to question suspects about their immigration status.

The Texas AFL-CIO and the Texas Catholic Conference strongly supported immigrant groups fighting the punitive legislation. “We reject the premise that persons who are merely suspected of being undocumented immigrants should be rounded up by state and local police agents,” testified Austin Bishop Joe Vasquez. “The overwhelming majority of immigrants, whether documented or undocumented, are not criminals.  They simply need a job or need to flee from desperate situations. God has brought them before us—perhaps not in the way that you or I would have preferred for them to be brought before us—but they are before us now and we need to care for them.” But in the end, neither immigrant nor labor nor faith groups could defeat the bill. Governor Abbott signed SB4 into law in May.

Catholic social doctrine has defended workers’ right to organize in labor unions since Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum—issued just a few years after America’s young labor unions banded together in 1886 to form the American Federation of Labor (the “AFL” in today’s AFL-CIO). Both groups have advocated strongly for a living wage and safe and healthy working conditions ever since. The church in America has been a passionate defender of the newest Americans since the Irish mass migration of the mid-nineteenth century. American trade unionists once favored limiting immigration, believing that it depressed wages, but began changing course in the 1980s. Union activists became convinced that both prudence and justice pointed toward organizing immigrant workers rather than barring the door, and have worked hard to build support in union ranks for comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for the undocumented.

But pouring this old wine into today’s bottles is no easy task. In the 1950s and 1960s, shared experiences and innumerable personal relationships tied church and labor together, creating mutual trust and making teamwork common sense. They had a common history supporting the economic reforms of the New Deal, including the Wagner Act (the law that gave workers the right to organize in unions without retaliation from their employers) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (the law that created the federal minimum wage). Moreover, the people who attended a union meeting on Thursday evening were in the pews Sunday morning. A local union president might have a brother who was a parish priest; bishops and national labor leaders sat on civic boards together. Both sides understood each other: their needs, their challenges, and their aspirations.

Today the situation is very different. Neither church nor union commands the social influence it did in the mid-twentieth century. There are a lot of empty seats at today’s union meetings—and at Sunday Mass. There’s a good chance the pastor no longer knows any shop stewards, and the union president no longer serves on the parish council. That means the pastor probably doesn’t understand “right to work,” and doesn’t realize that unions are lobbying for his immigrant parishioners in their visits to the state capitol. The local union president, in turn, is likely unfamiliar with Catholic social doctrine, and probably doesn’t know that his state’s Catholic Conference has been campaigning for a bill to increase the minimum wage.

Our polarized political environment aggravates this problem. Potent social issues such as abortion and gay marriage—not on the agenda in the 1950s—have entered our politics and driven a wedge between the two groups. Most of today’s labor leaders and activists (if not all union members) see themselves as part of a progressive movement in the Democratic Party, a movement that believes contraception, abortion, and gay marriage are civil-rights issues. Catholic leaders and activists (if not everyone in the pews) see these issues as moral ones, with progressives on the other side of a great ethical divide. Worse, after the Affordable Care Act contraceptive mandate and a platform promise to repeal the Hyde Amendment (which ensures that taxpayer dollars are not spent on abortion), many Catholics are convinced that the Democrats are waging a purposeful assault on their religious liberty by compelling them to pay for practices violating the tenets of their faith.

These differences should not prevent labor and church from working together to promote the values they already hold in common: social solidarity, economic justice, workers’ rights, and protection of the immigrant and the stranger. But as a practical matter, collaboration is built on relationships, and relationships are built on mutual respect. In today’s hypercharged political debates, we tend to stay in our own partisan corners, talk with people we already agree with, and see opponents not as mistaken but as malevolent. I can cooperate with a well-meaning person who has different political positions, but it’s hard to work productively with someone I’ve labeled a callous baby-killer or an irrational homophobe.

Can church-labor cooperation still happen today? It has in Maryland, where a coalition of faith, labor, and community organizations called Working Matters has been campaigning since 2012 for a paid sick-leave law. While most professionals and white-collar workers enjoy a paid sick-leave benefit, most low-wage service workers don’t, say advocates—leaving custodial workers unable to take a day off to care for a sick child, and food-service workers reporting to kitchens while ill. Although the Democrats control the state legislature, the campaign has been a grueling one, with many legislators hesitant to endorse a new government mandate on business. In 2016 the bill finally passed the Maryland House, but remained bottled up in the Senate.

SEIU (Service Employees International Union) State Council Director Terry Cavanagh, who’s  an active parishioner at St. Ignatius in Baltimore, has worked closely with Maryland Catholic Conference Executive Director Mary Ellen Russell during the campaign, developing a close rapport. Both point to the strategic benefits of a partnership on the issue: labor organizations can round up progressive votes, but the church can help worker-justice advocates get beyond the usual suspects. “From past work on life and education issues, we knew some of the conservative Democrats who were on the fence on paid sick leave,” said Russell. “It was easier for us to reach them on this issue because of our existing relationships.” In 2017 the bill won strong majorities in both houses. Though Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the bill, supporters had enough votes for an override—and plan to bring the bill back when the legislature reconvenes.

The events in Maryland reveal the church’s unique opportunity to witness for social justice in today’s political environment. With commitments ranging from the right to life to the preferential option for the poor, Catholic Conference staff work with legislators across the ideological spectrum. In a time of especially bitter political division, the Catholic Church is one of the few remaining actors routinely crossing party lines. If worker-justice advocates want a dialogue with red America, Catholic social action is one of the few vehicles left. That should be reason enough to work toward a renewed labor-church alliance.

Clayton Sinyai is the executive director of the Catholic Labor Network, an organization that brings together Catholic trade-union leaders with clergy and lay Catholic activists committed to Catholic social teaching on labor and work. You can reach him at [email protected]

What is YOUR Parish Doing for Labor Day?

The Catholic Labor Network, August 2017
What, no plans yet? Now is the time to talk to your Pastor about how to honor those who work this Labor Day – and reflect on the rich teaching of our faith about labor and work. Why don’t you share with him this great bulletin insert published by the USCCB, Selected Quotations from Catholic Social Thought on the Rights and Responsibilities of Workers and Labor Unions. With selections from the encyclicals and the pastoral letters, it would be just the thing to accompany a homily on the topic!

Labor unions are prophetic, innovative, pope says

Ironworkers are seen in Boston April 28, 2014. (CNS photo/CJ Gunther, EPA)

Michael Sean Winters  |  

Last week, Pope Francis spoke to a delegation from the Confederation of Trade Unions, Italy’s equivalent of the AFL-CIO in this country. It was a short but remarkable speech that mostly got lost because the pope had a general audience an hour later and a consistory to create new cardinals in the afternoon.He sketched for the group two aspects of trade unionism that he thought were especially necessary at this point in history. First, he called the union movement to perform a prophetic role, which it does when “it gives a voice to those who have none, denounces those who would “sell the needy for a pair of sandals” (cf. Amos 2:6), “unmasks the powerful who trample the rights of the most vulnerable workers, defends the cause of the foreigner, the least, the discarded.” He noted that the proudest moments in the history of the Italian trade union movement came when it performed this function.

In the United States today, who has been the stalwart ally of the Catholic Church is speaking up for the rights of immigrants? Organized labor. It was not always so. There was a time when organized labor saw immigrants as driving down wages, but under the leadership of President Richard Trumka and the reality of facts, the labor movement came to recognize that the problem was not the immigrants but the exploitation of immigrants that drove down wages. For the past 10 years or so, labor has stood arm-in-arm with the Catholic Church defending immigrants. The AFL-CIO, through its solidarity centers, also fights the exploitation of workers in those countries that create the supply of immigrants, working to create conditions that allow people the right to stay in their country and earn a decent living.

Who is standing with the Catholic Church in opposition to these draconian and Dickensian overhauls of the nation’s health care system? Organized labor. It is they who began running ads in key states, urging Republican senators to oppose the most recent iteration of reform, which would kick more than 20 million people off the insurance rolls. There are four member unions of the AFL-CIO that represent nurses, so they know from where they speak on this issue.

The second task the Holy Father gave the labor move was innovation. “Prophets are sentinels, who watch from their lookout, the pope said. “The union too must keep vigil over the walls of the city of work, like a watchman who guards and protects those who are inside the city of labor, but also guarding and protecting those who are outside the walls. The union does not carry out its essential function of social innovation if it watches over only those who are inside, if it protects the rights only of those who already work or who are retired. This must be done, but it is half of your work. Your vocation is also to protect those who do not yet have rights, those excluded from work who are also excluded from rights and democracy.” (emphasis in original)

For years, it has been organized labor that has pushed for full employment programs, advocated for better schools and training programs, and, as noted above, stood by immigrants in danger of being exploited by unscrupulous employers and inhumane economic and political “laws.”

Although the pope doubtlessly had such situations in mind, he made it clear that he also wanted labor to confront what is always the 600-pound gorilla in Western society and culture: Capitalism. “The capitalism of our time does not understand the value of the trade union, because it has forgotten the social nature of the economy, of the business,” the Holy Father said. “This is one of the greatest sins. Market economy: no. Let us say, social market economy, as St. John Paul II taught: social market economy. The economy has forgotten the social nature that it has as a vocation, the social nature of business, of life, of bonds and pacts.”

I have written before, as have many others, about the transformation in modern capitalism from one that valued all stakeholders to our current capitalism, which only values shareholders. There was a time when a CEO would negotiate in good faith with the union over wages because there was a stigma attached to union-busting: People did not want to be associated with the tactics of Henry Frick. Ronald Reagan broke the ice when he crushed the air traffic controllers’ strike, and Wall Street titans were only too happy to second the motion, seeing greater profits in lower wages for workers.

Pope Francis, like the prophets of old, is not a revolutionary. He is calling us back to the best of our history, to a time when workers were respected, not always but mostly, when there was not so much economic inequality, when there was a sense of responsibility not only to a company’s workers but to the community that hosted the company. Today, companies pit different jurisdictions against each other in a bidding war to avoid paying taxes. Is that the face of solidarity?

I read the pope’s words. I saw that the AFL-CIO tweeted out the link and am told it brought tears to the eyes of some pretty hardened, non-Catholic union folk. I asked myself: I can see why a Catholic Democrat would be reluctant to quote the pope, but why are not non-Catholic Democrats quoting him?

We read article after article in which the Democrats admit they have a messaging problem. Well? Here is the answer to that: Talk like the pope, quote the pope, challenge our culture as he does, call the nation back to its finest moments, not its darkest ones, mindful of the challenges but know that deep down in the American psyche there is a secret that helps us liberals: Americans like to root for the little guy. If the Democrats remember the little guy, instead of following the lead of Wall Street, they can take back the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House.

[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]

Pope Francis addresses Italy’s AFL-CIO

On June 28, Pope Francis addressed Italy’s CISL/Confederation of Trade Unionsan umbrella organization of labor unions much like America’s AFL-CIO. The pope had much to share, especially for those of us called to pursue justice in the labor movement. The Holy Father observed that today’s market economy is anti-union precisely because it has cast off ethical and social responsibilities.

The capitalism of our time does not understand the value of the labor union, because it has forgotten the social nature of the economy, of the company. This is one of the greatest sins. Market economy: no. We say social market economy, as Saint John Paul II taught us.

Because of this, Francis told his listeners, labor unions have a prophetic role to play in announcing justice to a broken world:

The labor union is expression of the prophetic profile of society. The labor union is born and reborn every time that, as the biblical prophets, it gives voice to those that do not have it, it denounces [the fact of] the poor one “sold for a pair of sandals” (Cf. Amos 2:6), unmasks the powerful that trample the rights of the most frail workers, defends the cause of the stranger, of the last, of the “rejected.”

But the Holy Father warned that when unions focus exclusively on the welfare of their existing members, they forfeit that prophetic role. Instead, they must also extend their solidarity to the excluded and marginalized:

In our advanced, capitalistic societies, the labor union risks losing its prophetic nature and becoming too similar to the institutions and the powers that, instead, it should criticize… Prophets are watchmen, who watch from their lookout.  A labor union must also watch on the walls of the city of work, as a watchman that guards and protects those inside the city of work, but that also guards and protects those outside the walls…. Your vocation is also to protect those who still do not have rights, the excluded from work who are also excluded from rights and from democracy.

Pope Francis concluded with two striking claims: there is no good society without labor unions, and there is no good labor union that does not exhibit solidarity with the poor and excluded:

There is no good society without a good labor union, and there is no good labor union that is not reborn every day in the peripheries, which does not transform the rejected stones of the economy into corner stones. “Syndicato” [i.e. labor union] is a beautiful word that comes from the Greek “dike,” namely justice, and “syn,” together: syn-dike, “justice together.” There is no justice together if it is not together with the excluded of today.


Labor/Immigration News – Union develops digital ringtone to remind immigrants of their rights

Father Clete Kiley, director of immigration policy for Unite Here, together with community leaders and union members gathered last Sunday in Chicago’s Federal Plaza to promote a campaign aimed at easing the minds of immigrants facing possible deportation.

The promotion involves a ringtone for cell phones that was developed for Unite Here Local 1. In Spanish the ringtone is in the form of a jingle – Nada, Nada. Con la migra tienes el derecho de no firmar nada y no decir nada. It translates  –  “If immigration comes to arrest you, keep calm. You have the right not to sign anything and not to say anything. You have the right to remain silent, and also the right to ask for an attorney.”

Unite Here, a hotel and restaurant workers union has a large immigrant membership.

At the unveiling on Sunday, Father Kiley, who is also founder of the Priest-Labor Initiative and special adviser to Cardinal Blase Cupich stated , “Every person has a fundamental human right and rights guaranteed under the constitution of the United States.”

“One of those sacred rights is the right to remain silent,” he continued

He went on to say, ““These new and aggressive ICE tactics are causing immense fear and confusion in our communities, within our families and in our work places,”

For the Chicago Sun-Times (June 5, 2017) report, click here.

To download the ringtone, go to: http://www.unitehere1.org/ringtone/.

Pope Francis speaks on business and work at Genoa steel mill

The Catholic Labor Network, May 30, 2017

On May 27, Pope Francis visited Genoa’s ILVA steel works, addressing managers, steelworkers, and unemployed members of the community about Christian values and business operations. Francis praised Christian business leaders who treated workers with justice and respect, but feared that creative entrepreneurship was giving way to speculation. Crux reported:

“An illness of the economy is the progressive transformation of businessmen into speculators,” Francis said. “A speculator is a figure similar to what Jesus in the gospels called “money-changers” as opposed to pastors. He doesn’t love his company or his workers, but they’re solely a means for making profits. He fires people, relocates the company, because it’s instrumentalized and eats up people and products.”

The Pope also insisted that work is essential to human flourishing, so we must address technological unemployment in a way that preserves work for all, not just income. As Vatican Radio summarized:

“It is necessary, therefore, to look fearlessly and a sense of responsibility on the technological transformations of the economy and of life, he said, “without resigning ourselves to the ideology that seems to be gaining a foothold wherever one looks, which envisions a world in which only a half or maybe two-thirds of employable people actually work, and the others maintained with a welfare cheque.”

“It must be clear,” Pope Francis continued, “that the true objective to reach is not ‘income for all’ but ‘work for all’.”