AFL-CIO leader sees Francis countering a ‘solidarity deficit’

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.
Pope Francis meets a group of Nigerian refugees at the Vatican Aug. 12. (CNS/Reuters/L’Osservatore Romano)

Pope Francis meets a group of Nigerian refugees at the Vatican Aug. 12. (CNS/Reuters/L’Osservatore Romano)

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There is no escaping the 17-by-51-foot art deco mosaic mural that stretches along a wall in the lobby of AFL-CIO headquarters here, its message conveyed through exaggerated figures overwrought with noble purpose. Labor is triumphant.

Except labor no longer is.

If the house of labor once regarded itself in heroic, larger-than-life terms, that thought remained in the lobby earlier this summer when academics and religious and labor leaders (including a not insignificant smattering of Catholic bishops) gathered there for the second conference in a year to critique extreme individualism and “a global economy that kills,” to put it in the blunt words of Pope Francis.

The conference, said Damon Silvers, director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO, “comes at a critical time. We live in a nation and a world that suffers from a profound solidarity deficit.”

Francis’ emphasis on social justice and the poor were an integral part of the two conferences, headlined “Erroneous Autonomy” and jointly sponsored by the labor organization and The Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.

Whether the Francis effect will extend to revitalizing the union movement in the United States is unknown, but Silvers, central to fashioning the AFL-CIO’s approach to life’s big questions, is an ardent fan.

The balding 50-year-old lawyer is a kind of self-contained brain trust with a lively interest in religious traditions and a social conscience developed early around the family table and honed later at, of all places, Harvard. There, he graduated summa cum laude and went on to earn a Master of Business Administration with honors from Harvard Business School and a degree with honors from Harvard Law School.

The June conference was subtitled “A Conversation on Solidarity and Faith.” For Silvers, solidarity means more than political unity. It “flows from our understanding that we are all in this together, that your hopes and fears are not dissimilar from mine, but that our various experiences constitute one large human experience.”

He quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Solidarity is not the product of being human. Being human is the product of human solidarity.”

It is not that the AFL-CIO has suddenly gone all metaphysical. That same day, the house of labor was fighting a nasty and ultimately unsuccessful battle to derail the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, and it remains a huge spender on political campaigns.

But some weeks later, during a conversation in his office (where a poster of the pope is taped by the entrance), Silvers explained the attraction. While “pope-watching is not everything I do,” he said, he started paying attention to Francis soon after he was elected because what he did “was so extraordinary.”

From 2008 to 2011, during the heart of the financial crisis, Silvers was deputy chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program). Francis was elected in 2013 and began to speak about economics, and though he hasn’t spoken in detail about the United States, “what he said matched my sense of the unacceptable moral bottom line of what went on at that time -- that we rescued the bankers by making the poor pay for the crisis,” Silvers said.

Self-described as “a barely observant Jew,” Silvers said he knew enough about Catholic social justice teaching to understand that Francis, in his bold declarations about economic matters, “was drawing upon pretty rich tradition.” The pope’s assertion that the global economic system was immoral and unjust matched Silvers’ own conclusions.

And as someone familiar with the corridors of power and those who wield it, he said, “I can only extrapolate from that what it means to be pope.”

In the lives of such people, he said, there are “already four things to do for every moment of the day, things with enormous institutional imperatives behind them.” So for the pope to stop off at a soup kitchen or to decide to move Holy Thursday services from a church to a prison for young people and to wash the feet of a Muslim woman requires, perhaps, more than meets the eye.

Someone in the pope’s position would “have to insist on the apparatus that surrounds you allowing you to do things like that,” said Silvers.

Religious questions

One gets the sense that Silvers by now understands such dynamics instinctively. Power is Washington’s oxygen. Knowing how it works, how it moves, is as essential as breathing. Silvers, however, pushes the conversation in another direction, deeper.

“There is something more than that that I wanted to tell you about,” he said. “I think a lot about religious questions in a broad sense.”

His own religious views are “complicated and not well summarized by any given religious tradition. But I do think that the way the pope talks about the relationship between God and human life as it is lived now, and human history, is very compelling to me.”

He was especially taken when Francis, in Ecuador, apologized for the church’s role historically in the mistreatment of indigenous peoples. “He spoke critically and with great power. I’m impressed by how he understands that this is part of his responsibility, to engage with the burdens of history, both as they affect the church itself and as they affect us all in a larger human sense.”

Silvers sees Francis wrestling in unusual ways with his station in life. “I don’t know that I fully understand it as an outsider, but I think he’s every day grasping for what it means to be a human being who is pope. I think he is in a struggle with that rather unusual thing for a person to have become. And what does one do with that?”

Such a struggle -- the need for even a pope to think things through and make choices -- would fit with another conviction Silvers has about religious traditions. They are not monolithic, he said. Instead, they are embedded with multiple moral, philosophical and sociological impulses.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m a Jew, and I think this, and this, and this.’ No, you have to choose. You have to decide. Religious traditions involve all sorts of choices. You’re not done when you identify yourself in one religious faith or another. And the attempt to harmonize these things that are expressed through time in a religious tradition is stupid.”

He brings up the Yom Kippur readings as an example. “A very heavy ritualistic view of what observing a day of atonement means is in the Torah reading, and a completely social-justice-oriented version of what it means is in the haftarah readings. They literally don’t conflict but they represent very different ideas of what this holiday means, of what human beings’ relationship to God is.”

Seen in that light, Francis’ now-famous comment on homosexuality -- “Who am I to judge?” -- is “almost more about him in struggle with his role as it was about the substance of the issue of the church’s teaching on gay and lesbian people. There was this thing about ‘What exactly am I called to do?’ He’s questioning that all the time, and he’s almost doing it openly. That’s very unusual. You don’t hear a lot of rabbis doing that.”

The global economy

Both of Francis’ immediate predecessors made stunningly radical pronouncements condemning an unrestrained market economy and its effect on the poor. As in other areas, however, this pope’s words and actions seem to resonate in ways not seen before.

“We are building a world economy on profoundly inequitable foundations,” said Silvers. “Despite the fact that it’s clearly not working, we keep doing it. And we are also charging toward an ecological catastrophe that will be a civilizational catastrophe if we don’t do something. And he has been elected pope in the middle of these things.”

Just when it seems Silvers is heading off in the direction of talking points suitable for a 2016 Democratic presidential stump speech, he engineers his own switchback. What he likes about Francis’ approach is that he is not asking, “What are good public policies?”, Silvers said, but rather “What is the relationship of these two circumstances to religious values?” And even more fundamentally: “What is the relationship of these facts to our understanding of what it means to be people with a relationship to God?”

Francis, Silvers said, “continually confounds expectations and changes the field around him. That’s a big deal.”

This is, after all, the AFL-CIO and not a theology lecture hall, so Silvers returns to the current state of labor. His is a First World institution and he concedes that the people on the poor end of AFL-CIO membership would, on a scale, end up in the middle of the world community; those at the middle level, by global standards, would be pretty well off.

He believes what Francis has done is “open people’s ears to the message that we really have to be mindful of the billions of people whose lives are at levels of desperation that we have almost no sense of.”

Labor’s resident intellectual is leaning on a pope’s words to help the movement understand that for it to exist “there has to be a sense of solidarity among working people” around the globe.

That realization might quickly run up against a “radical individualism” that “has always had some purchase in American society.” He sees Francis as “a profound weight on the scale on the side of justice and solidarity.”

If the labor movement ceases to reflect those values or if those values are weakened, he concludes, “we’re in trouble.”

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His email address is]

A version of this story appeared in the Sept 11-Sept 24, 2015 print issue under the headline: AFL-CIO leader sees Francis countering a ‘solidarity deficit’.

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