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Why are Catholic bishops backing unions at the Supreme Court?

Newark Cardinal Joseph Tobin, left, speaks during a labor and faith forum at Seton Hall University on March 6, 2018, in South Orange, N.J. Tobin was joined by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, far right, and explained the church’s support for unions. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which the RNS staff gives you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.
(RNS) — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in January sided with unions in a case before the Supreme Court, submitting an amicus brief in support of public-sector unions and their right to collect money from nonmembers for collective bargaining.The bishops’ involvement with Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees surprised some. But church leaders have since doubled down, taking part in a forum last week on labor and faith at Seton Hall University. Newark Cardinal Joseph Tobin, on stage with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, explained the bishops’ interest in the case and reiterated the church’s enthusiastic support for unions.

“You should not be able to join a union shop and then turn it upside, any more than you should be able to join a church and then insist we stop meeting on Sunday mornings and instead gather for worship on Mondays during Monday night football,” he said. “And you should not be able to benefit from all the work that unions do to represent workers without paying your fair share.”

So where does this affinity between Catholic bishops and labor movements come from? Let us ’Splain …

How far back does Catholic support for labor unions go?

One of the earliest expressions of solidarity between the Catholic Church and modern labor movements came in 1887, when Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore defended a secretive pro-labor society known as the Knights of Labor in a letter to the Vatican. Church leaders had condemned various secret societies at the time, but Gibbons argued that the Knights — who claimed a number of Catholic members — were not an enemy of Catholicism and that church leaders should stand with working people. It worked: Gibbons persuaded his superiors not to condemn the American group.

Did that support for unions go all the way to the top?

Cardinal James Gibbons worked for union rights during his tenure as archbishop of Baltimore. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

The Knights declined as an organization soon after, but Gibbons’ arguments had an impact on Pope Leo XIII, who incorporated many of them in his 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum.” Leo railed against unrestricted capitalism and lifted up unions as an important form of “private society,” cementing the burgeoning spiritual alliance between labor groups and the church.

“The most important of all (private societies) are workingmen’s unions, for these virtually include all the rest,” he wrote.

The encyclical, which Tobin described as “the Magna Carta of Catholic social doctrine,” became a rallying cry throughout the 20th century for various unionizing campaigns and labor rallies.

OK, so there’s a pro-labor encyclical. What else has the church done to support unions?

The church remained involved in the lives of workers and sometimes even took on their plight: In the 1940s, some clerics in France became “worker-priests,” joining everyday workers on factory assembly lines. (Side note: This turned out to be a dicey move, as the pope later cracked down when the priests became involved in politics.)

Meanwhile, church leaders continued to voice support for unions. In his 1981 encyclical “Laborem Exercens,” St. John Paul II lauded organized labor organizations as “an indispensable element of social life” (although he cautioned they should not “play politics” or associate themselves too closely with political parties). Pope Benedict XVI also acknowledged the lengthy history of Catholic-labor relations in his own 2009 encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate.”

“The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level,” he wrote.

Finally, Pope Francis carried on this tradition, telling a gathering of union delegates in 2017, “There is no good society without a good union.”

Why do the bishops care so much about the Janus case?

The precise issue in the case hasn’t been addressed by a full assembly of the bishops. But their brief argues that ruling against the unions would “constitutionalize” a “‘right-to-work’ position” — the phrase used to describe state-level laws that prohibit the practice of requiring all who benefit from a union contract to pay dues that fund their union representation. The brief points out that not only has no U.S. bishop ever publicly supported right-to-work laws, but that the group has also been “generally been very inimical” to the idea, and that some individual bishops or state conferences have even spoken out against them.

To wit, they note bishops opposed the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 — the law that created right-to-work laws — and have supported its repeal.

To show their seriousness of purpose, the bishops’ brief goes on to argue that ruling against the unions would “represent another unfortunate decision of this Court that marginalizes the voice of the bishops.” They point to Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion, and Obergefell v. Hodges, the ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, as other examples of “marginalizing” Catholic voices (the bishops opposed the high court decision in both cases).

What about Catholics who don’t like the bishops’ stance on labor?

They can be as vocal as the bishops on the issue, and on the Janus case in particular. Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., issued a statementcritical of the bishop’s amicus brief in the case, writing, “While church teaching clearly supports freedom of association and the right to form and join a union, it does not mandate coercing people to join a union or pay dues against their will.”

While Paprocki went on to suggest his own neutrality on the subject, writer Ed Whelan, who is also Catholic, rejected the brief’s argument in a piece in the National Review. He did not deny the history of solidarity between Catholics and labor unions but questioned “how these principles apply to whether public-sector unions today should be able to extract agency fees from objecting nonmembers.”

Still, Whelan’s skepticism does not appear to be the prevailing viewpoint among Catholic leaders in the United States.

When Tobin was asked about this kind of pushback in a March 6 news conference, he looked flummoxed. After sharing a bewildered glance with Trumka, the AFL-CIO president, the cleric said: “I would want to talk to them, personally: I would want to say, ‘Tell me how you got there. How (do) you think the values of solidarity, of the nature of economic goods, and innate human dignity — do you think those have changed?’”

Francis hailed for catapulting concerns of working people and labor

Crux, March 8, 2018, Christopher White

Francis hailed for catapulting concerns of working people and labor

(Credit: photo courtesy to Crux.)

SOUTH ORANGE, New Jersey – Pope Francis has “catapulted” the concerns of working people and placed them at the center of the conversation for the Church, said an all-star panel assessing Francis’s influence on the labor movement.

Newly elected Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey joined with Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), at Seton Hall University on Tuesday evening to offer reflections on the significance of the first five years of the Francis papacy for working men and women.

The event, titled “Solidarity is Our Word,” served as a commemoration of the long history of the American Catholic Church’s support of the labor movement, an honest reckoning with its current challenges, and a celebration of a pope that has given it a megaphone in recent years.

A Gilded Age 

Kicking off the event, Tobin spoke in personal terms of his long-held conviction of the importance of unions in the United States. While his father was a white-collar worker for General Motors and was not a member of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union, he said his father made it clear to the Tobin household that they benefited from organized workers.

“We ate well…we had clothes, and we had possibilities with our lives because of the UAW,” said Tobin.

Tobin offered a strong indictment of the modern market economy and the powerful interests of corporate lobbies that control resources without sharing them with workers, marking a sharp decline in America’s long-standing influence of unions.

“In some ways, we are living in a second gilded age. To gild something is to cover it in gold, to make it look attractive and more valuable than it really is. So we can see the stock market going up…but the new wealth is not being shared widely and it creates much more resentment than it does investment. We give billions in tax breaks to the über-rich, and throw a few scraps to the working class,” he lamented.

“Ours is a gilded age, but not a golden age,” he declared, while also noting that Francis has served as the antithesis to a culture defined by consumption and greed.

“In just 5 short years, he’s challenged the Catholic Church to remember the basics,” said Tobin. “He is exactly the opposite of gilded.”

Trumka, who is head of the largest federation of unions in the United States, concurred with that assessment and said that the core of Francis’s message for working people has been a message of love and a reminder that “our lives count.”

“Five years ago Pope Francis was elected to the papacy and in his first moments of pope he ministered to a world deeply hurt by the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, where it seemed at every turn, working people paid the price of unmitigated greed on Wall Street,” Trumka reflected.

“When Pope Francis says solidarity is our word, his message contradicts the morality adopted by so many of the world’s wealthy and powerful,” he continued. “His message is an affront to selfishness…it exposes the illusion and reveals the truth, which is that we are bound together by love and that we must care for each other and for our world.”

Murphy, who in his first three months as governor has already partnered with both the AFL-CIO and the Catholic Church on several initiatives, said that the past five years of the Francis papacy have been “faith restoring for so many.”

He praised Francis for offering “voice and hope to working men and women in every corner of the globe,” and said that his example as pope has reminded the world that “the root of leadership isn’t braggadocio, it is humility. The goal of leadership isn’t individual achievement, but the betterment of society.”

Murphy said that he believed that the message of solidarity that is preached by Francis should become not just “our word, but our default attitude.”

The Janus Case: The Church Stands with Unions in Court

Tuesday’s event comes just one week after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Janus v. AFSCME – in which the Court will decide as to whether unions can collect fees from public workers who are non-members to cover the costs of representing those workers and negotiating contracts.

Trumka maintained that case is of critical importance to the future of the union movement and bemoaned the fact that there are those that want to “benefit from all the work unions do without paying [a] fair share.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) filed an amicus brief for the case in support of the union in strong terms – comparing it to Roe v. Wade – and stating that the case is critical for the future of workers’ rights to organize.

He added that he was “profoundly grateful” to the USCCB for filing the brief and said “at stake is whether the workers’ movement will have a fair and free vehicle to carry out Pope Francis’s message of solidarity.”

Tobin added that it was his privilege to join with his fellow bishops in support of the unions and told the audience of mostly union members that “we are standing with you now as we await the Supreme Court’s decision.”

Challenges Ahead: The Environment, Women, and Immigrants

Despite widespread praise for Francis, all of the panelists agreed that the pope has done more than just offered a booster shot to the working movement, and that he’s also offered challenging demands.

Trumka said that while he knows the Holy Father has the back of unions, it doesn’t mean they’re off the hook.

“He’s said to us in the labor movement that we must embrace prophecy and innovation,” said Trumka.

Among those innovations, he said that the movement must do a better job of heeding Francis’s call in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ to respond to the ecological crisis at hand. While he said that the unions have made progress on this front, he said there was work ahead as they aim to “transition to a low carbon economy.”

He also said that Francis has reminded the labor movement that they cannot forget the injustices faced by women, particularly those in the workforce.

“Pope Francis has spoken of chauvinism that always wants to control the woman,” said Trumka. “For too many, the workplace is a setting of dangerous vulnerability. Our pope challenges all of us to ask ourselves, ‘what part do we play in the vulnerabilities of others?’”

He also cautioned that those involved in organized labor must not merely be self-referential, but that “the pope urges us to look externally, as well.”

He cited the thousands of men and women both inside and outside unions who live in anxiety over their undocumented immigration status – who are beneficiaries of DACA or TPS – and the fears they experience over the government potentially ending the very programs that protect them.

“These are our neighbors, these are our friends, this is us,” said Trumka, as he called on those present to embrace Francis’s call to “protect those who do not yet have rights.”

“Our solidarity, our unionism, must be the antithesis of social exclusion,” he said.

Catholic institutions must heed Pope Francis’ call to respect the worker

National Catholic Reporter, Feb 3, 2018, by Mary Kay Henry

(Unsplash/Greyson Joralemon)

Growing up in the pews of Holy Name parish in the suburbs of Detroit, my community of faith centered on respect for work and working people. We were taught to stand beside the most vulnerable among us and to respect the dignity of work. Our church stood for social justice and common good.

But in an era when many Americans’ real wages have stagnated and working moms and dads worry about their kids’ economic prospects, many have felt that their church was standing on the sidelines when it came to matters of work. Far too often, working Catholics did not see their place of worship as someplace to turn for solidarity or support in trying times.

It has been inspiring to see Pope Francis lead a renewal of this question. He has called on the church to once again stand squarely alongside working families.

In a moving 2015 speech to organizers of popular movements, Francis reminded us that “the first task is to put the economy at the service of peoples.” When it comes to how people work and live in our modern economy, Francis has boldly called for “us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change.”

These calls have reverberated throughout the church. Just this month, American bishops took a stand when they filed an amicus brief opposing an attack on working people that is now before our Supreme Court.

American Catholic institutions, as employers themselves, have an important role to play in joining the church’s movement to make real change. Many are already acting responsibly by fully respecting the rights of the people they employ. Some are not, which dismays those of us who believe our church should lead the way when it comes to creating meaningful work for all.

The reality today is that many adjunct faculty at Catholic colleges and universities are facing a precarious and uncertain future because their compensation is so low. Many are forced to drive long distances from campus to campus just to piece together enough courses to make a living. They often face last-minute course cancellations that leave them wondering when their next paycheck will come. Despite high levels of education and credentials, they are forced to eke out livings at subsistence wages. In some cases, they are driven to extreme poverty and forced to rely on food stamps or even live out of their cars.

As a result, a growing number of faculty who teach at Catholic institutions have decided to join together in unions to advocate for secure and decent work.

The church has long supported working people’s right to organize unions. Francis has reaffirmed that support. Last year, he met with me and a group of fellow labor union leaders from around the world, calling on us to build organizations that defend “human values in a profit-driven global economy.”

It has been heartening to see many examples of Catholic and Jesuit colleges and universities honoring faculty members’ rights as workers by not interfering when they decide to organize unions. Last fall, Fordham University leadership worked collaboratively with their employees as contingent faculty formed a union. To date, professors at more than a dozen other faith-based higher education institutions have successfully started unions.

But other institutions have declined to extend the same respect to their faculty. Administrators at Seattle University and St. Martin’s University have attempted to block their faculty from forming unions with dubious claims that they are somehow not obligated to recognize their employees’ rights because they are Catholic institutions. Our faith must not be distorted to serve as an instrument that holds back our brothers and sisters, but instead should serve to light their path forward to a better life.

I stand with adjunct and contingent faculty in Catholic higher education in calling for their institutions to work constructively with their employees’ organizations to create sustainable, family-supporting work. That starts with acknowledging that contingent faculty, like all working people, have the right to organize unions.

As Francis has said, ordinary people want to be “artisans of their own destiny. They want to advance peacefully towards justice. They do not want forms of tutelage or interference by which those with greater power subordinate those with less.”

Amen. It is time for leaders who hold power in Catholic institutions to stop interfering with the rights of their employees and to respect the dignity of their work.

[Mary Kay Henry is president of the Service Employees International Union, a 2-million member union of people in service and care jobs in North America.]