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.

The weakening of unions by so-called “right to work” laws...cannot be seen as contributing to the common good.

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. 

There are a lot of empty seats at today’s union meetings—and at Sunday Mass.

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.

Published in the October 6, 2017 issue: View Contents

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]

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