At a time when unions try creative ways to reach a new generation and labor rights are rolled back in states that were once bulwarks of industrial might, it’s worth reflecting on what contributions Catholic institutions are making (or not) to defend the dignity of work and fight for living wages. There are both hopeful and discouraging signs.

In a major speech to the Chicago Federation of Labor at Plumbers Union Hall last September, Archbishop Blase Cupich gave one of the most impassioned arguments a Catholic leader has delivered in recent decades for why the church and labor should build on their rich history together. Refreshingly, he didn’t speak in abstractions or timidly dance around thorny political realities. The archbishop directly criticized so-called “right-to-work” laws, arguing that the church is “duty bound to challenge such efforts by raising questions based on longstanding principles.” He clarified that the church has “never made a distinction between private and public sectors,” a crucial point given that public sector unions are frequent targets of conservative political leaders backed by wealthy antagonists like the billionaire Koch brothers. Cupich also used an effective and evocative phrase—“a consistent ethic of solidarity”—to situate the church’s historic support for the rights of workers within a broader moral framework:

For us, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, protecting the unborn, caring for the sick and welcoming immigrants are religious duties, not just service to society. Our consistent ethic of solidarity, our teaching on human life and dignity requires the church to speak up on behalf of all the vulnerable, just as it requires us to raise our voice for the dignity and rights of workers and in the pursuit of economic justice.

The archbishop wasn’t just paying lip service to labor rights. The Chicago archdiocese, which employs 15,000 full and part time workers, honors picket lines and encourages priests to support the labor movement. Rev. Clete Kiley, a Chicago priest who works for the union UNITE HERE in Washington, is building a national network of “labor priests” that draws inspiration from the past when clergy like Msgr. George Higgins were at the forefront of labor struggles. Archbishop Cupich also recently made national headlines for instituting a new policy that gives twelve weeks of paid parental leave to its employees.

Beyond Chicago, there are other reasons to cheer what appears to be a revival of the Catholic-labor relationship; those ties had become frayed in recent decades as the hierarchy became increasingly suspicious of collaborating with any organizations that didn’t share the church’s views on abortion, contraception, and marriage. I’ve written a detailed report about how these tensions, stoked by zealous Catholic activists on the right who appoint themselves watchdogs of Catholic identity, have impacted the essential work of the U.S. bishops’ national anti-poverty campaign. These tensions surely still exist, but Pope Francis has opened up new space for a less hunkered-down church that encounters rather than excludes. There are tangible signs of this fresh spirit.

For the past two years, the AFL-CIO has teamed up with the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington for high-profile public events, including one last year at the "House of Labor" headquarters down the street from the White House. Speakers have included Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriquez Maradiaga, a leading figure in the Francis-reform movement at the Vatican, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, also an influential force in the Francis era. “Part of the greatness of Pope Francis is that he sees everyone,” Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO president and a Catholic, said at last year’s session. “And in seeing those who are excluded and suffering, he lifts all of us up so we can see and hear each other. For the labor movement, Pope Francis’s lessons of solidarity and inclusion are exactly what we need.”

In his keynote speech at AFL headquarters, Cardinal Wuerl underscored that the church recognizes organized labor as one of the “instruments of solidarity and justice.” There is now a “renewal of appreciation,” the cardinal said, for the “Catholic ideal of solidarity.” Representatives from another major union, the Services Employees International Union (SEIU), visited the Vatican last summer, along with faith-based community organizers from the PICO National Network, for a round of meetings with church officials. Topics included boosting pay for low-wage workers (a priority of the Fast for 15 movement), immigration reform, and mass incarceration.

The Catholic Church, beginning with Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum novarum, has not only endorsed unions to ensure a wage suitable for families, but also to give laborers a voice in the workplace. If you want to address what Pope Francis calls the "dictatorship of an impersonal economy," giving workers a seat at the table and ownership in decisions is essential. Unions and collective bargaining provide this framework. And as Angela Cornell underscored in her recent Commonweal article ("Sharing the Prosperity") unionized workers earn about 21 percent more than non-union workers, a difference that is even more dramatic for African-American and Latinos who disproportionately have low-wage, service-economy jobs. Declining union membership in recent decades has played a significant role in widening inequality, and reviving the labor movement is critical to addressing that gap.

While the U.S. hierarchy and Vatican officials enjoy a renaissance of positive relations with the labor movement, Catholic universities have sometimes become battlegrounds as administration officials fight organizing efforts from adjunct professors who often make near poverty-level wages and lack health-care coverage. In some cases, Catholic higher education officials have claimed a religious liberty exemption from having to recognize unions, and argue that a series of rulings from the National Labor Relations Board are to blame. “The NLRB is attempting to extend its authority over faith-based institutions, something Supreme Court and appellate court precedent has repeatedly rejected,” Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, president of DePaul University, wrote in a January commentary for Inside Higher Ed. It’s “deeply problematic,” he argued, because it “requires government functionaries to judge the manner in which we implement our faith in a university context.”

As Gerald Beyer, a Christian ethicist at Villanova University and Donald Carroll, an adjunct professor of law at the University of San Francisco argue persuasively, there is something cringe-worthy in this line of reasoning. “By deterring unionization efforts, universities violate adjuncts' ability to live out Catholic teaching regarding their rights and duties to the common good, which arise from natural law,” they wrote in the National Catholic Reporter. “These universities are not only usurping their employees' right to unionize, but also infringing their right to religious freedom. Their actions conflict with the church's teaching in Dignitatis humanae, which states that the exercise of religious freedom is ‘bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all.’"

It’s also troubling to watch Catholics with positions of influence at universities and in the public square diminish the rich history of Catholic teaching on labor rights. Hollow arguments that sound more like they were pulled from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's talking points than inspired by the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church aren't good enough. When Michigan passed a “right-to-work” law in 2012, Rev. Robert Sirico, the president of the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank in Grand Rapids that has received Koch funding, cheered its passage as a “landmark event." After adjunct professors at Duquesne University, a Catholic college in Pittsburgh, began an organizing drive a few years ago, Rev. Sirico argued in the New York Times that the church’s historic support for unions was conditional. “In the industrial revolution, the church was concerned about communism and not just capitalism but savage capitalism,” he said. “People were being brutalized. That’s just not the case in Pittsburgh today." Andrew Abela, the founding dean of the business and economics school at Catholic University in Washington, which has received $14 million from the Koch Foundation in the last few years, told Catholic News Service that “Catholic social teaching says nothing about specifically the issue of public sector unions.” Surely Msgr. John Ryan, a fierce proponent of workers’ rights who wrote his dissertation at Catholic University and went on to national prominence by helping shape New Deal legislation, is rolling in his grave.

We can look to Pope Francis for a more inspiring and authentically Catholic message. “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites,” he told workers and representatives from popular movements in Bolivia last summer. “It is fundamentally in the hands of people and their ability to organize.”

Pray. Vote. Organize.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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