Labor Day 2015

by Michael Sean Winters

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A couple of years back, I was having a conversation with Professor Stephen Schneck, the director of Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, where I serve as a visiting fellow. He wanted to pull together a conference that contrasted libertarianism with Catholic Social Teaching. It was a brilliant idea. We immediately knew we wanted Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez to deliver the keynote. And we knew with equal immediacy that we want the then-Bishop of Spokane, +Blase Cupich, to give the response. We knew we wanted a panel of theologians to frame the issues and a panel of policy experts to apply the issues. In a subsequent conversation, Fr. Clete Kiley suggested we invite Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO to give the introduction. “Labor gets this,” I remember Kiley saying.

The following June 3, we gathered in the conference room at Bread for the World for the conference, entitled, “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism.” The intellectual energy in that room was like nothing I have ever seen. And no one was more receptive than our friends in organized labor. This year, we worked with the AFL-CIO to co-sponsor a second conference, focusing on the positive antidote to erroneous autonomy, solidarity, and the conference was held in the Gompers Room at the AFL’s headquarters. Cardinal Donald Wuerl gave the keynote and, again, Trumka introduced him. Both men are ‘exiles” from western Pennsylvania and have an easy rapport. Again, panels of theologians and policy folk framed and applied the issues. You read about both conferences here at NCR.

This effort to help re-forge the alliance that once characterized relations between organized labor and the Catholic Church is critical to the future of this country. The rise of an ever expanding middle class in the twentieth century was largely a product of that alliance in earlier times, when union locals often held their first meetings in the basement of a Church. During the first Gilded Age, people looked around and realized that society was not working for everybody, only for the plutocrats. In Catholic Social Teaching they discerned an intellectual and moral framework to address that problem and in organized labor they found the means of organizing political power to affect change. Now, in the second Gilded Age, people again look around and see that things are not working as they should, that too many people are excluded from participation in the economy, too many people are poor, the disparities between the rich and the poor only seem to grow larger with each passing year. And, again, it is Catholic Social Teaching that stands as a bulwark of moral sanity in the face of rapacious laissez-faire ideology. And, again, it is labor that first grasps this and can supply the organizing potential to affect change.

A lot has happened between the two Gilded Ages and rebuilding the relationship between labor and the Church will not be without some bumps in the road. Since the 1970s, the progressive movement, of which labor is a central part, has focused on issues unrelated to those which affect the prospects of working men and women. Think of the 2012 election which was cast as a “war on women.” Some in the Church have bought into, and tried to baptize, laissez-faire ideas about how the economy should be structured. Think of the Acton Institute. I suspect you could work at the AFL headquarters and mostly interact with people who, for example, do not grasp the moral value in the Church’s opposition to abortion. Few bishops ever interact with people who are pro-choice. Trumka and +Wuerl both took something of a risk in coming together to discuss the centrality of solidarity at the heart of both Church and labor.

With good faith and patient dialogue, this alliance can be rebuilt. Indeed, it must be rebuilt: The country needs it. It is one of the things that I most admire about organized labor that it stands up for those who are not its members, for the immigrants, for a higher minimum wage for those who will never belong to a union, even for Mother Earth. One of the things that I love most about the Church is our witness on behalf of the “un’s,” the unemployed, the undocumented and the unborn, all those who are so excluded by society that we designate them by that exclusion, affixing an “un” to their name.   

In a few weeks, Pope Francis will come to town. I can tell you from my conversations with friends in labor that no one is more excited than they about the papal visit. Part of this is because the Holy Father’s repeated efforts to hold up and celebrate Catholic Social Teaching ring true for labor, for the leaders and for the rank-and-file. As Fr. Kiley said at the second Erroneous Autonomy conference, many of the pope’s critics say that they do not understand the pope, that he is confusing them, but immigrant workers, and non-immigrant workers, people who work by the sweat of their brow, they are not confused. The pope looks at the economy from the bottom up, which is the only perspective an immigrant worker has. As well, there is a demographic aspect of this alliance between labor and the Church, in addition to the shared ideals: The unions and the parishes that are growing, that are having more baptisms than funerals, these are the Spanish-speaking unions and parishes. Labor and the Church are ahead of the demographic curve the rest of the nation will feel later on.

In a powerful, well crafted Labor Day statement, Archbishop Thomas Wenski, Chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, drew the connection between work and family, and the urgent need to repair the social fabric, writing:

Is there any question that families in America are struggling today? Too many marriages bear the crushing weight of unpredictable schedules from multiple jobs, which make impossible adequate time for nurturing children, faith, and community. Wage stagnation has increased pressures on families, as the costs of food, housing, transportation, and education continue to pile up. Couples intentionally delay marriage, as unemployment and substandard work make a vison of stable family life difficult to see.

The toolkit of the capitalists has no remedy for these situations, as least not the capitalism that has been practiced in the West since the Thatcher-Reagan era. The resources of the Church, aligned with labor, does. So, the next time a candidate proclaims him or herself as “pro-family” ask what that means, and if it does not mean a commitment to the kinds of policies the Church and labor endorses for working people, such as a living wage, the claim is a sham.

On this Labor Day, my prayer is that the Church and organized labor will continue to strengthen their relationship, with both sides bringing the bricks needed to rebuild the bridge. The future looks grim without it. On the other hand, if that alliance is reconstituted, while we cannot expect the eschaton, we can hope for a more humane society. Our culture, our society, our economy and our politics all need a large infusion of solidarity, and they need it now.


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