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.