I have known Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza since September of 1949. I always admired him and have been very proud to call him friend for these many years, but my pride reached its high point this week at the bishops’ meeting in Baltimore. For some strange and tragic reason, the American bishops have been giving indications that they are trying to back away from their magnificent 200 year tradition of caring for the poor and the vulnerable. They don’t verbally challenge Rerum Novarum and they haven’t contradicted the magnificent pastoral letter of 1986, entitled Economic Justice for All. They certainly have not challenged the fact that the Second Vatican Council moved concern for justice high up on the Church’s agenda. What they do is that collectively they are very silent, and silent especially about the Church’s 200 year old commitment of the right of workers to join unions.
Last year when a number of Midwestern governors were moving cruelly to crush unions and cancel retirement programs by an administrative fiat, Church leaders were sadly quiet. One letter came out of the USCCB bemoaning the scene but nothing more than that. In the spring of this year, the bishops met almost on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council but virtually no mention was made of its social implications. One thoughtful bishop stood and called his brothers attention to the fact that the country was in an agonizing recession, and governmental equipment was log jammed and virtually nothing was being done to alleviate the situation. Bishops voted to issue a pastoral message (message mind you) on work, poverty and the economy. Well, this powerful document surfaced recently at the bishops’ meeting in Baltimore and it was a shocking disappointment for anyone who is concerned about the Church’s traditional commitment to social justice.
One such person was Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, retired Archbishop of Galveston-Houston. Archbishop Fiorenza eloquently reminded his brother bishops that the “message” was grossly inadequate, failed to utilize the powerful tradition of the Church’s commitment to the poor, especially workers, and verbally gave an outline of what the document should really be like.
This blog is far too long so tomorrow I will give you a summary of Archbishop Fiorenza’s remarks. I have always been proud of him as a brother and as a bishop, but I have never been more proud than his challenge to his brother bishops to confront the issues that are before us.
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With the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, giving labor the legal right to organize, with the strong support of some churches, most especially the Roman Catholic Church, and with a friendly Democratic administration manifesting itself via the Secretaries of Labor, efforts to unionize working people expanded across the country. By the 1950’s, nearly one-third of all workers were dues paying members of unions. Sadly, that was not to last.
All of that success in organizing gave some labor leaders an exaggerated sense of their own importance and power. In their organizing efforts, they got careless and sometimes inflicted unnecessary harm on private businesses. They began an internal struggle as unions competed with each other to organize particular groups of workers. They began to use a very unfair and destructive tool called “the secondary boycott.” The great strength of unions in this period is that they had successfully trained their members to not cross ANY picket line where some type of labor conflict existed. If they saw Union A organizing a company and Union B felt that this was their territory, then they should have that opportunity to organize there. Union B would then put a picket line up around the company involved and for all practical purposes that company would be shut down even though it had no direct involvement in the labor dispute. It was between two unions, not a union and the company.
This situation was so bad that it could not go on very long. Congress reacted by the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. The results were devastating for unionization and persist to this day. For 60 years, organized labor has had as its goal the removal of the Taft-Hartley Act but when they could not succeed even when they were really very strong, it is obvious that they cannot do it today. Unions continue to exist, continue to improve the lives of millions of its members (non-members as well!) but it is but a shadow of what it was in the 1950’s.
The Taft-Hartley Act placed a heavy burden on labors organizing efforts. It solved the unjust problem of “the secondary boycott” but it put in many other restrictions as well and labor has never recovered.
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For the most part, Americans are rather forward looking. They are optimistic and ready to take on the future. That is a good trait but it comes at a cost. As a nation, most of us are not overly interested in history. Here I pass up the temptation to use that tired, hackneyed expression about who is going to repeat it, but you know what I mean. One thing that most Americans are not familiar with is the history of organized labor. It is a great story of courage, heroism, some violence and, for a while, a period of triumph…but only for a while.
Labor has been in the news quite a bit of late but almost always in a negative light. Dues paying members have dropped dramatically over the last 25 years and the only area where successful organizing has been occurring is in the public sector unions. Realizing that, the opponents of organized labor have moved effectively to undercut and, if possible, break the backs of the public sector unions. For the last two years, we have seen a number of states move to block organizing efforts by their employees, cancel pensions, cut back benefits and blame the working people for the economic problems that these states face. I am saddened by the fact that while all this is going on the voice of the Church has been strangely silent.
First in Germany and then across Europe and the United States, the Roman Catholic Church espoused the cause of the working people and stood staunchly beside them as they struggled in the face of overwhelming odds. Although Leo XIII strongly supported workers rights to organize in 1899, American workers did not get that legal right until 1935 with the passage of the Wagner Act. Following the passage of that act, labor unions grew enormously in this country. Secretaries of Labor in the Democratic Administration were staunch supporters and bishops and priests became very public in their endorsement of working people’s right to better their economic condition. Things were going wonderfully well and then labor made a terrible mistake from which it has not yet recovered.
More on that tomorrow.
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We have all heard that old expression, “what goes around, comes around.” That is true of many aspects of life but not necessarily in economics. Things won’t come around (and improve) unless some entity starts things moving and other entities work to keep things moving.
The economic news of last week was frightening and reflects the lack of confidence in the economy by a large percentage of the American public. Now, that lack of confidence is shared by somebody in Standard and Poor’s. They have downgraded the American’s rating from AAA to AA+. Our economy is extremely complex and sensitive, but one of the big problems is the wages of American workers are tragically down. The Chief Investment Officer of J.P. Morgan Chase released in July that the U.S. labor compensation is now at a 50-year low with both company sales and GNP. A 50-year low! Actually, the report was not really about wages. It was about PROFITS! The same report said that the profits of 500 of the largest companies in the country are at the highest level since the 1960’s. There is a large part of our problem. Profits are very high and wages are down dramatically.
Despite this painful discrepancy between wages and profits, corporate America continues its unending campaign against unions and opposition to any structural changes that would make union organization easier. Harold Meyerson said it very succinctly recently when he stated that, “In America, we just look the other way as the power of workers to claim their share of the proceeds declines” and that decline is one of the basic problems our economy is facing.
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Some of my readers have accused me of being anti-clerical. Isn’t that hilarious? I am a Catholic priest for 55 years and a bishop for 30. How could I be anti-clerical?
To prove that I am not, let me tell you about one of my new heroes. He is Bishop Gabino Zavala, Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles and he is one of the few bishops who is aggressively stepping forward to defend the rights of working people, most especially their right to form labor unions.
Although the Church has defended this right vigorously for the last 120 years, the bishops in the United States have of late had very little to say about the subject. The absence of bishops involvement in the rights of workers makes for a difficult situation but to refrain from active support at a time when a massive counterattack on workers rights has spread across the country and is betraying our nation’s commitment to serve the common good and defend the dignity of work of people.
Today, I bring up Bishop Zavala because he recently issued a statement justifiably praising the National Labor Relations Board, which had taken a small but important step in leveling the playing field for workers. The bishop is referring to the fact that the NLRB has recently changed the rules on the timing of union elections. This is a relatively minor rule change that restores fairness to a process that has been tilted heavily in favor of employers who often delay union votes by months and even years with excessive litigation. Bishop Zavala points out that “irresponsible companies that stall to prevent workers from voting to form a union frequently retaliate against employees with threats and intimidation. In fact, during the organizing campaign, more than a third of employers simply fire workers who are pro-union.”
Today, the unions are weak, vilified in the press and suffering from an unprecedented assault of workers rights. Some of it was brought about in the past by union mistakes but the union movement is still a great source of strength in our never-ending fight for justice and equality as we argue as to how to divide up the nation’s economic pie.
May God bless you, Bishop Gabino Zavala.
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I mentioned earlier how saddened I was by the fact that thousands of hard working men and women are frequently cheated of the wages that they have struggled so hard to earn. Wage theft in America is a tragic reality. I am encouraged by the fact that concerned citizens and the workers themselves are making progress in confronting this crime.
Let’s celebrate the development of a new form of self-help assistance to such cheated workers. These responses are called “Worker Centers” where the workers themselves come together to cooperate in developing their rights under the law and to move in a unified fashion against corrupt employers who systematically endeavor to steal the wages of hard working but vulnerable employees.
I am very proud and happy to report that Austin has a very excellent worker center, Workers Defense Project, located at 5604 Manor Road. Recently, the Austin center was able to assist a group of masonry workers to recover nearly $12,000 in back wages which had been kept from them illegally. Victories such as this give workers the knowledge and the courage to defend their rights to work together to improve their working conditions and to secure the proper payment for frequently very difficult labor.
Like the Roman Catholic Church itself, I am a strong supporter of workers rights to organize into unions. Regretfully, in this country working people have always faced hostility in their efforts to organize themselves. Actually, they only got the legal right to do this in the mid-30’s with the passage of the Wagner Act. Regardless of where a person stands in their attitude towards unions, however, no right thinking person could be opposed to hard working men and women getting their completely fair share of payments that are owed to them for labor expended. The anti-union situation is not likely to change any time soon but in the meantime we should all be willing to encourage society to see that workers are properly paid for efforts that they have expended to provide for their families.
I am proud of the Workers Defense Project and I am proud of the good work that it has done here in Austin.
Is one of your church organizations looking for an exciting and interesting subject for a presentation and discussion? Why don’t you suggest to your president or chairman that the issue of wage theft in America be a subject of thoughtful discussion and prayer and maybe then some very real action on behalf of justice. The Workers Defense Project will supply speakers. Just call (512) 391-2305 or their e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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One of the sad realities that I personally have had to deal with in my late years is the gradual lessening of the strong relationship that once existed between the Catholic Church and labor unions in the United States. The story of organized labor’s efforts to better the working conditions of its people in this country is a story that is filled with idealism, courage and occasionally blood. Because of their size, the railroad workers were one of the first to get legislation that enabled them to organize themselves effectively. It was not, however, until the Wagner Act of the mid-‘30’s that labor achieved a solid legal right to exist and organize. That right would be largely undercut by the passage of the Taft Hartley Act in the 1950’s. I’ve mentioned this before but organized labor is but a shadow of its former self.
There is, however, one exception and that is the organization of public employees unions. They have experienced very strong growth over the last 30 years and that has been seen as a threat by many who oppose any efforts of working people to organize to better their own pay and working conditions.
I have been saddened by the lack of any real visible support from bishops as state governments in the Upper Midwest have aggressively moved to remove their rights to collective bargaining. There was a statement here and a mild protest there but, for the most part, there has been silence.
Blessed Pope John Paul II was really very strong in this area. He wrote two encyclicals on the rights of labors to organize and was the driving force behind the growth of solidarity in Poland which ultimately led to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. I had the privilege of being a speck in the crowd of 700,000 in Gdansk who stood cheering the Pope as he spoke out for the rights of workers in Poland and across the world.
One of the reasons of the distancing between the Church and labor is that the great majority of American priests in the United States come from affluent homes. They did not see their fathers come home battered and dirty from exhausting jobs in mills and factories. They did not see the price that had to be paid in order to improve working conditions for laborers. Therefore, the natural tendency to support labor is absent. However, as the flow of wealth in this country continues to move to a tiny, tiny percentage of our citizens and as the conditions of the middle class grows steadily more difficult, we may see priests and bishops rediscover the richness of the Catholic heritage in this area.
Onward through the fog.
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Look at that crowd of demonstrators! Is that Cairo? Is that Tripoli? No, it’s downtown Madison, Wisconsin. That surging crowd of demonstrators at the state capital are school teachers struggling to protect their economic future. Governor Scott Walker wants to balance his state’s budget, a commendable goal, but he wants to accomplish it by slashing wages and benefits of state employees and eliminating their collective bargaining rights. Those efforts are being watched by other governors. The unions recognize that what they are dealing with is not just a budget shortfall in Madison but a determined effort by strong forces in our society to break the back of the labor union movement.
The high point of organized labor was in the 1950’s when a third of all American workers belonged to the unions. Today, that figure is less than 15%. Of those who are in unions, more than 50% of them are in the public employee unions. If these unions can be taken out, then what is left of the American labor movement will be but a shadow of its former self. It is the realization of this fact that has generated so much support from other union members and from the citizens at large. The recent CBS poll showed that Americans oppose cutting union organizing rights by more than two to one and that is one of the best signs for organized labor in many years.
With the decline of union membership, we have also seen a steady decline of the incomes of all workers in middle class employees in this country. If we match that with the concentration of wealth among the top 1% of earnings, it has reached levels not seen in almost 100 years. Peter Steinfels, reviewing the book Winner-Take-All Politics stated, “Our democracy has become the most economically unequal nation in the advanced world.” This did not happen by accident. Commonweal magazine reminds us in their online issue of February 28th, which will appear in print on March 11th, that “over the past three decades business and corporate interests has spent billions to limit taxation, constrained the reach of government, delegitimize unions and attack any effort to distribute the nation’s wealth more equitably. Institutions that used to look out for the welfare of the average American worker have disappeared or looked the other way – and that includes the Democratic Party. Is it any wonder that the average citizen is so alienated from the government or that the nation’s politics have become so bitter and confrontational.”
In my opinion, this downward trend is destructive not just for the individuals who are hurt by it, but for democracy itself. For the market to work in a free economy, workers must have a say in the decisions that affect them and their families well-being. The situation is so bad right now that it may well be that we will see a resurgence of union organizing efforts in this country.
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