Cupich to Chicago laborers: ‘Pope Francis is with you; I am with you’

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Heeding Pope Leo XIII’s century-old call to “go to the worker,” Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich brought to city laborers Thursday a message that the church joins them as part of its “consistent ethic of solidarity” that extends to the unemployed, the unborn and the undocumented.

“I have come today to tell Chicago’s workers, the Catholic church is with you; Pope Francis is with you; I am with you,” he said.

The archbishop delivered his wide-ranging, 40-minute address to the Chicago Federation of Labor before a crowd eclipsing 500 people gathered at the Plumber’s Union Hall in the city’s west side. Shortly after arriving in the Windy City in the fall of 2014, he said he was told about the “Chicago way,” where business, government and labor come together to seek solutions.

“In the church, we call that solidarity, a word I know is very familiar to union members. Simply put, solidarity means that we are in this life together, that we are connected to one another, and that we can never operate as if we were isolated and self-sufficient agents,” he said.

“My central message today is that I want the church to become an even more committed partner in this civic solidarity, joining with business, government, and labor in promoting the common good, especially in protecting the lives and dignity of those who are too often left behind in our city, nation and world,” Cupich said.

More than words, the archbishop made a series of labor-friendly pledges on behalf of the archdiocese that employs 15,000 full and part-time workers, including honoring picket lines, ensuring it employs fair-worker practices and encouraging its priests to support the labor movement.

“We strive to be a just employer. … We will work earnestly to address any gaps. After all, like everyone we also need to be accountable,” he said.

Throughout the speech, Cupich emphasized that the church and labor “share so much in common when it comes to standing with those left behind or left out,” offering immigration reform and education as examples. But the church’s commitment to solidarity, he said, doesn’t end with labor but rather extends to all. Cupich later placed that expression of solidarity in the context of religious freedom, asking of those gathered for “your understanding on a matter that is frequently misunderstood.”

“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,” Cupich said.

Disagreements on such issues may create tensions, the archbishop said, “but they should not break relationships.”

“Some of you will not share our commitments on one or more of these priorities. I ask that you respect that these commitments flow from the same, core belief in human life, human dignity and solidarity as our support for workers and their unions,” he said.

On unions, Cupich said that since at least Pope Leo’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, the church has taught that workers have a right to a voice in their workplaces and to unionize to protect rights to living wages, safe work conditions, health care access and adequate retirement.

“And the church has never made a distinction between private and public sectors of the work,” he added.

“Work and unions are important not simply for what a worker ‘gets,’ but how they enable a worker to provide for a family and participate in the workplace and society. Unions are important not simply for helping workers get more, but helping workers be more, to have a voice, a place to make a contribution to the good of the enterprise, to fellow workers and the whole of society,” Cupich said.

The church, he said, is “duty bound” to challenge attempts to enact right-to-work laws by raising certain questions: Do they undermine unions’ ability to organize and negotiate? Do they protect the weak and vulnerable? Do they promote workers’ dignity and rights?

“Lawmakers and policymakers cannot ignore or brush aside these questions. Others may see it differently, but history has shown that a society with a healthy, effective and responsible labor movement is a better place than one where other powerful economic interests have their way and the voices and rights of workers are diminished,” he said.

Recent months have seen a regrouping of church and labor as bishops have sought to revive relationships with the labor community. In 2014, it was Cupich, bishop of Spokane, Wash., who responded to an address by Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga during a workshop organized by The Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. At this year’s event in June, held at the AFL-CIO headquarters, it was Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl rekindling the alliance

“The efforts to stand together on behalf of all human development, to be inclusive in our outreach to all people, to the commitment to protect the environment and our respect for all human life, including immigrants coming into the country, are the new picket lines of today which we ask all, with us, to respect,” Wuerl said.

More: “AFL-CIO leader sees Francis countering a ‘solidarity deficit’” (Sept. 16, 2015)

In June, community organizers and union leaders with the PICO National Network and Service Employees International Union met with Vatican officials in Rome to address various social justice issues ahead of Francis’ first-ever U.S. visit. As the pope makes his way to Philadelphia, PICO will co-host a “Faith Matters in America” Summit in Philadelphia (Sept. 25-27) with Cardinal Peter Turkson is set to deliver the keynote address.

At various times during his plumber’s hall address, Cupich referenced several popes but relied most on Francis, anticipating the pope to further address the state of workers at some point while in the U.S.

“The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of people and their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change,” Cupich quoted the pope saying in a speech in July to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in July.

“For me these words mean that leaders both in labor and in the church need to stay close to the rank and file members if the transformational change the pope is calling for is to take place,” Cupich said.

More: "Priest-Labor Initiative follows Pope Francis' servant example" (May 6, 2014)

The archbishop outlined four qualities the church can bring to organized labor:

  • A vision and moral framework affirming human dignity of all and the dignity of work;
  • A voice to raise up issues affecting workers and their families;
  • An example as an employer that “can practice what it preaches”;
  • A partner “in the search for greater justice and the pursuit of the common good.”

As one of Chicago’s largest employers, with more 15,000 people working in its various entities, Cupich said he asked his archdiocesan staff to review its human resource policies to ensure they honor workers’ rights and dignity. He pledged to reaffirm the Project Labor Agreement with building trades first initiated under Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and for the archdiocese to honor the fair hotel program by holding its events in union hotels or those free of labor disputes.

He added the archdiocese would honor picket lines and he would encourage his priests to become involved in the labor movement, following the legacy of Msgr. George Higgins, Msgr. Jack Egan and Fr. Clete Kiley. The archbishop also asked laborers to help him maintain the future of Chicago’s Catholic schools, particularly in the inner city.

His address, Cupich said, was the beginning of a conversation, one that must address issues such as workers’ sick days, equal pay across gender and race, maternity leave and the growing income gap.

“We have a lot more to do together -- in solidarity,” Cupich said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

Editor's NoteA previous version of this story misstated that Pope Leo XII said "Go to the worker." The statement was in fact made by Pope Leo XIII in the 1891 encyclical, "Rerum Novarum."

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