From the 1930’s through the 1950’s, Catholic parishes operated more than 100 labor schools in the basements of immigrant churches. Parishioners learned about their rights as workers, Catholic social teaching and how to organize unions. For many, being a good Catholic and a good labor leader were one and the same. Remnants of these historical connections between church and labor continue in the ministries of a handful of labor priests, as well as the vocation of some of the nation’s labor leaders. Mr. John Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., cites his three priorities as family, church and union. Still, when people think of issues on which the Catholic Church is providing leadership in the society, labor is not the first that comes to mind.
So, do Catholics still care about labor?
Catholics care greatly about workers in low-wage jobs. Members of parishes understand that the number of people living in poverty is increasing, the disparities between rich and poor are growing and long-term trends in society suggest that more families will be poor. They understand that poverty is no longer a temporary condition that changes once a person is employed. Rather, more and more families in poverty have at least one adult who works full time. The working poor are seen as an ever-growing group as the percentage of low-wage jobs increases. Recent studies suggest that more than half of the new jobs being created are poverty-zone jobsthat is, they pay minimum wage or just a few dollars more.
While Catholics in general care about the low-wage workers, many, like others in American society, are less clear about the role of organized labor in helping these workers. In the last few decades, the percentage of workers represented by labor unions has tumbled from about one-third of the workforce to about one-tenth. Fewer native-born Catholics have much experience with labor, and some are downright hostile.
And yet Catholic social teaching on work and labor remains clear. The Web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lists some key ideas from recent church teaching. They include:
The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.
A fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the poor and vulnerable are faring.
All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions, as well as to organize and join unions or other associations.
The teaching is clearboth about work and about unions.
Many parishioners, pastors and bishops, moreover, are realizing that if they are serious about helping workers in low-wage jobs, especially the many immigrants who are filling the parishes, they must take a fresh look at unions.
Consider the Rev. John Celichowski. When he was a seminary student at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Father Tom Joyce (one of those labor priests) urged him to intern with the newly formed Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues (the forerunner to Interfaith Worker Justice). Father John was initially doubtful about the contributions of unions. He had not grown up with unions and was skeptical about their role. After meeting with dozens of immigrant concession workers who were trying to organize a union at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, he got it. For these workers to have power and the ability to improve wages, benefits and working conditions, they needed a union. Father John, now pastor of St. Benedict the Moor Parish in Milwaukee, is one of the new generation of labor priests.
Or consider the parishes in Houston, Tex., filled with immigrant janitors. Janitors in commercial buildings in Houston make $5.15 an hour, have no benefits and work only four hours a day. Janitors in Chicago, working for the same janitorial contracting firms and the same building owners, earn almost double that amount, have family health care benefits and work full time. Why the difference? Janitors in Chicago are represented by a union; janitors in Houston are not.
The 7,000 janitors in Houston are planning to change this situation. They are organizing a union. Many parishes are supporting the janitors, hosting rallies in their churches. Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza has spoken words of encouragement to the workers. Parishioners are advocating for the workers. They understand that the janitors need a union.
Another example of parish involvement is St. Charles Borromeo Parish, the only Catholic parish in Morganton, N.C. Its new Guatemalan immigrants, drawn to the poultry plant in Morganton, joined the parish, which was previously viewed as one for transplanted Northerners. When the poultry workers got fed up with the treatment at the plant and went out on strike, the parish became the strike center. Parishioners, with mixed views on labor, heard the stories of the workers and supported them when they chose to organize a union.
And then there is St. Pius V Parish in Chicago. This parish, in the heart of a Mexican neighborhood, is the prime meeting place for workers with problems. When workers gather to talk about organizing, they meet there. When workers plan strikes and actions, they meet there. In June 2005, when management at a neighborhood grocery store abused workers who tried to organize a union, two of the pastors, Father Chuck Dahm and Father Brendan Curran, organized all the area parishes to rally outside the store. Do Catholics still care about labor? They are one and the same at St. Pius.
Not all employees may need a union, nor do all want a union, but economic trends in society show a growing workforce characterized by low wages and negligible benefits, even in highly profitable industries. Given the widening disparity in wages and the apparent demise of a social contract between companies and their workers, workers themselves are seeking ways to improve their wages, benefits and working conditions. Despite the difficulty workers have in organizing and getting contracts in this country (the United States has the weakest labor laws in the industrialized world), workers are seeking unions as a vehicle for challenging poverty and injustice. More than two-thirds of working Americans, 68 percent, say workplace rights need more protection today. Recent polls report that 54 percent of young workers and 36 percent of older workers would vote to have a union if given the opportunity.
Workers say they want unions because they want just wages, health care benefits for their families and a voice on the job. That sounds like Catholic social teachingwhich is why Catholics should be supporting labor. Labor Day 2005 is a fitting time for our parishes to demonstrate that support and rebuild partnerships with labor. Here’s how.
Advocate an increase in the federal minimum wage. Members of Congress recently allowed their own wages to increase, calling it a cost-of-living adjustment instead of a raise. Workers in minimum-wage jobs urgently need a cost-of-living adjustment. They need an increase in the minimum wage. Write members of Congress and urge them to support the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2005 (HR 2429 and S 1062) that would raise workers’ wages from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour. Increases would occur in three increments of 70 cents each over a two-year period.
Support or organize a workers’ center. Workers’ centers are safe havens for immigrants, where workers learn about their rights, learn how to form unions and how to seek back wages or changes in workplace policies. Workers’ centers are similar to the Catholic labor schools of old, but most centers now are ecumenical. If there is a workers’ center near your congregation, support it. If there isn’t one, consider organizing one.
Link up with a local interfaith religion-labor group. The local organization will have the best handle on local labor struggles that need public support.
Pray for workers, employers and elected leaders. The Bible tells us to pray without ceasing. Sometimes prayers are quiet connections with God. Sometimes they are offered outside an unjust employer’s business. All prayers are important.
Resources for Congregations
Establishing an Ethic for Worker Justice: An Assessment Tool for Congregations. This tool helps a congregation assess its own employment and purchasing practices.
Building Projects and Religious Values. This is a good resource for a congregation that is considering a building project.
Bulletin inserts about worker rights. These are particularly effective if the congregation includes low-wage and immigrant workers among its members.
For texts of inserts and more information about these documents, as well as a list of interfaith worker justice groups, helps for forming workers’ centers and other educational resources, visit the Web site of Interfaith Worker Justice at www.iwj.org.