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This article appears in the Fall 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Jorge Ramirez still remembers his Mexican immigrant father coming home with a bloody face after trying to organize his fellow workers in the Back of the Yards, a storied industrial area in Chicago. “My mom would stitch him up in the kitchen,” says Ramirez, 46, now the president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. “It was brutal, but we always had the Catholic Church. There was always a Catholic priest around.”
As unions face an increasingly hostile political climate and grapple with fresh approaches to becoming relevant to a new generation, there are signs that an old ally is once again stepping up. The Catholic Church, which has an imperfect but long history of using its institutional muscle and moral voice to defend workers’ rights, is getting a serious pep talk from a pope who has put labor rights back at the forefront of the Church’s public agenda.
Unions are “prophetic” institutions that “unmask the powerful who trample the rights of the most vulnerable workers,” Pope Francis said in a June speech to the Confederation of Trade Unions, Italy’s equivalent of the AFL-CIO. While conservative politicians, corporate leaders, and well-funded organizations on the right have spent decades trying to dismantle the labor movement, Francis recognizes that what he calls the “dictatorship of an impersonal economy” is the result of an ideology that demonizes unions, worships individualism, and champions unfettered markets. “The capitalism of our time does not understand the value of the trade union because it has forgotten the social nature of the economy,” he said. “This is one of the greatest sins.”
American union leaders have been energized by this unexpected boost from one of the world’s most popular and influential religious leaders. The shout-outs from a pope with a global bully pulpit are not only symbolically potent. There are tangible signs of a “Francis effect” on the Church’s relationship with the American labor movement. When Ramirez of the Chicago Federation of Labor first met the new archbishop whom Pope Francis appointed to the Chicago archdiocese in 2014, it didn’t take long for Cardinal Blase Cupich to express his commitment to workers. In a major address at Plumbers Union Hall on the city’s west side two years ago, Cupich delivered a clear message. “I have come today to tell Chicago workers: The Catholic Church is with you. Pope Francis is with you. I am with you,” Cupich said.
On the Waterfront: Longshoremen's union official Michael Vigneron with Cardinal Joseph Tobin, archbishop of Newark
Nor did the cardinal stop there. He specifically took aim at “right to work” laws, arguing that the Church is “duty-bound to challenge such efforts.” He also made clear that the Church has “never made a distinction between private and public sectors,” a critical point as public-sector unions are frequently targeted by conservative opponents both inside and outside the Church.
For Ramirez, with his childhood memories of Catholic clergy standing up for his father, the speech struck a nerve. “Workers are so hungry for this message,” he says. “It resonates because it shows the Church is in touch with workers, and that the Church hears them and has the courage to speak out.” Ramirez notes that the Chicago Federation of Labor, which represents 300 unions and has more than 500,000 members, is reaffirming a project labor agreement with the Chicago archdiocese that ensures union labor is used on construction projects. The Chicago archdiocese, which employs 15,000 full- and part-time workers, also honors picket lines and encourages priests to support the labor movement.
Union leaders beyond Chicago are also buzzing about the new climate. Damon Silvers, policy director at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, admits he was surprised when Catholic scholars and advocates began reaching out to the federation after the Pope’s election in 2013. Silvers knew about the Church’s role in labor history, including Pope John Paul II’s support for the solidarity movement in Poland, but he wasn’t used to Catholic leaders beating down his door. The election of the first pope from Latin America was a game-changer.
“Pope Francis set the tone,” Silvers says. “The dignity of work really matters to him. Both the labor movement and the Church are remembering again that Catholic social teaching is one of the fundamental principles of the American labor movement.” Catholic immigrants from Europe found a refuge and an advocate in the Church and unions a century ago. Today Latino immigrants, a large percentage of them Catholic, make up a significant share of workers trying to climb up from the lowest rung of the economic ladder.
Silvers recognizes not only the historical parallel, but a potential template for the future. “The labor movement needs a larger ecosystem to grow and thrive,” he says. “A critical part of that ecosystem is the Catholic Church. We have to be embedded in the lives of working people in a multidimensional way and have a connection to the spiritual life of its members. There is a deeper thing here we’re trying to do as a movement. People are not simply the sum of their economic parts. Workers are not a commodity. The Church at its best is trying to help people live as something more than a thing. In that sense, the Church and labor need each other because we’re engaged in a common project.”
Behind-the-scenes conversations between the AFL-CIO and Catholic leaders led to a high-profile conference at the union’s headquarters a few months before Pope Francis’s 2015 visit to the United States. More than a dozen Catholic bishops and cardinals—several of them close advisers to Pope Francis—took part in public dialogues around the theme “Erroneous Autonomy: A Conversation on Solidarity and Faith.” It was the first time in recent years that a number of Catholic heavyweights, including a cardinal, spoke at the federation’s headquarters. In a keynote speech, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington cited a “renewal of appreciation” for the “Catholic idea of solidarity.” He told labor leaders in the audience that the church cannot be “bystanders” in the fight for workers’ rights and referred to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka as “our president.” A Catholic and the son of a coal miner from southwestern Pennsylvania, Trumka spoke in glowing terms about the Pope. “Part of the greatness of Pope Francis is that he sees everyone,” Trumka said. “And in seeing those who are excluded and suffering, he lifts all of us up so we can see and hear each other.”
Stephen Schneck, the recently retired director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, played a leading role in bringing AFL-CIO officials and the Catholic hierarchy together in recent years. “The picture of all those bishops standing with union leaders was amazing,” he said. “The optics sent a powerful message.”
Mary Kay Henry grew up immersed in an environment where the priests, nuns, and lay Catholics in the pews at Holy Name parish in the suburbs of Detroit viewed the dignity of work as central to their faith. The president of the Service Employees International Union, Henry made her way through an eclectic gathering of faith-based organizers, union leaders, and Catholic bishops during a February meeting of “Popular Movements” in Modesto, California. Pope Francis had inspired the meeting as part of the World Meeting of Popular Movements, which he launched in 2014. Held in Rome, the first event brought together activists from five continents: migrants, landless peasants, indigenous leaders, and representatives from trade unions. The themes of tierra, trabajo, and techo (land, labor, and housing) structured the original gathering and have remained the guiding focus during subsequent events. When Pope Francis addressed the second Popular Movements event in Bolivia in 2015, he almost sounded like a fiery union agitator. “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers, and the elites,” he said. “It is fundamentally in the hands of people and in their ability to organize.”
In Modesto, Henry chatted up a Vatican cardinal close to Pope Francis, briefing him about the Fight for 15 movement to raise wages of low-income workers, and told Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez she wanted to bring the union’s home health-care workers and janitors into closer dialogue with the church. More than half of SEIU members are Catholics, union officials estimate. “I’ve always felt the power of faith is key to any breakthrough that working people have made,” Henry told me. “I’m a Catholic, and my first experiences with solidarity came from the church and my family.” Several SEIU organizers and workers in the union visited the Vatican in 2015 for a round of meetings with church officials. Topics included the Fight for 15 movement, immigration reform, and mass incarceration.
“Pope Francis is really opening a space for those toiling in the vineyard to rise up,” Henry says. “The way he talks about economic inequality and links that to racism and care for the common home of our environment really affirms so much of what we’ve been fighting for over the years.”
One of the most significant ways a pope can steer the massive ocean liner that is the Catholic Church in a direction that reflects his priorities is through the bishops he appoints. In the United States, several Francis picks are emerging as strong allies of the labor movement. Cardinal Joe Tobin in Newark can bench-press more than 200 pounds, has the sturdy frame of a dock worker, and is at home at union events. This summer, he celebrated mass on the waterfront with members of the International Longshoremen’s Association who work for the Port of New York and New Jersey. The cardinal was also one of the keynote speakers at the New Jersey state AFL-CIO meeting in June held at Harrah’s casino in Atlantic City. He’s also been a vocal critic of President Trump’s aggressive immigration orders, calling them “the opposite of what it means to be an American.”
In a keynote speech at the AFL-CIO headquarters in 2015, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington told labor leaders that the church cannot be "bystanders" in the fight for workers' rights. Here, Wuerl stands with Pope Francis following a mass outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
In Kentucky, Lexington Bishop John Stowe blasted his state’s right-to-work push in January. Strong labor unions, the bishop wrote in an open letter, “lead to more fair negotiations which benefit all workers in the state. The weakening of unions by so-called ‘right to work’ laws has been shown to reduce wages and benefits overall in the states where such laws have been enacted. This cannot be seen as contributing to the common good.”
Another sign that Catholic leaders are redoubling their efforts on worker justice issues is a project to create a new generation of “labor priests.” From the 1920s through the 1960s, clergy who stood with and advocated for workers were a central part of the labor movement. Priests ran labor training schools, often in parish halls, where workers learned about the minutiae of collective bargaining and the principles of Catholic social teaching. Reverend Clete Kiley, a Chicago priest and director for immigration policy at UNITE HERE, which represents more than 270,000 workers in the hotel, gaming, food service, laundry, and airport industries, is determined to revive that tradition. He launched a labor priest initiative in 2012, a loose network of more than 100 priests across the country who are trained to support workers through the framework of Catholic social justice. About half of the priests are immigrants. Most are under 40 years old. “Priests who work in immigrant communities are asking themselves what is happening to my parishioners when they go to work,” says Kiley, who is also chaplain for the Chicago Federation of Labor. “They hear about wage theft and unsafe working conditions. Some of the most egregious violations are against immigrants.”
Clergy receive training and opportunities to network at workshops hosted in different cities. Along with learning about Catholic teaching on labor, the clergy often hear directly from workers attempting to unionize. At one gathering last year, workers from several Las Vegas casinos shared their experiences about efforts to form a union.
During a recent visit to Owensboro, Kentucky, Kiley heard from priests who have watched well-paying factory jobs with solid benefits vanish from their communities, to be replaced by low-wage work with little security. Some clergy who are new to labor issues, especially in the South, can be skittish about speaking out. Kiley doesn’t force things. “I don’t start off talking about unions,” he says. “I talk about workers and their rights.”
The golden era between the Church and labor in the United States lasted roughly from the end of World War I to the late 1950s. Inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on labor and capital, Reverend John Ryan, a priest from Minnesota, became a nationally prominent social reformer whose writing and advocacy on behalf of living wages for workers later helped mold Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Ryan drafted a bold 1919 statement, the Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction, that put moral weight behind what were then radical social reforms: a minimum wage, public housing for workers, and unemployment insurance. During the Great Depression, a generation of priests who had firsthand experiences with injustice and poverty came of age in an immigrant church that reflected a working-class ethic.
In the postwar decades, this sensibility began to shift as American Catholics grew wealthier, moved out of urban enclaves, and the church came to reflect the upwardly mobile aspirations of its parishioners, according to Joseph McCartin, a Georgetown University history professor and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. To be sure, caught up in the social activism of the 1960s and the spirit of Vatican II, Catholic leaders marched with Cesar Chavez behind banners of Our Lady of Guadalupe during grape boycotts organized by the United Farm Workers—and the U.S. Bishops’ Conference called efforts to bust unions “an intolerable attack on social solidarity” in a major 1986 economic justice national letter.
But McCartin points to well-funded efforts on the right in more recent years that have created a formidable counterweight to traditional church teaching on the economy and unions. “There have always been elements in the church that have not looked fondly on labor, but what is different now is the vast wealth pushing those points of view,” he says. The business school at Catholic University of America, McCartin notes, has accepted nearly $13 million from the Charles Koch Foundation over the last several years, despite the Koch brothers’ abysmal track record of labor violations, toxic chemical spills, and funding of anti-union campaigns. In October, Catholic University’s business school is hosting a $2,500-per-person conference called “Good Profit,” featuring Charles Koch. Another well-funded foe of the labor movement is the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, led by a Catholic priest, Reverend Robert Sirico. Acton has benefited from the Koch Foundation and the Christian conservative DeVos family, the billionaire heirs to the Amway fortune who have bankrolled anti-union efforts in Michigan.
The boards of trustees at Catholic universities are also often populated by wealthy CEOs and business leaders who made their fortunes in private equity. “Many of these people are in the top 1 percent and they profited from and helped lead the transformation in our economy that benefited the wealthiest few,” McCartin says. “Many college presidents have boards who say, ‘Why should we deal with unions?’ In their own businesses, they don’t deal with unions.”
While some Catholic universities such as Georgetown have unionized janitors, food service workers, and adjunct professors, a number have aggressively resisted organizing drives by citing religious freedom arguments. Gerald Beyer, a Christian ethicist at Villanova University and Donald Carroll, an adjunct professor of law at the University of San Francisco, challenge that posture as blatant hypocrisy. “By deterring unionization efforts, universities violate adjuncts’ ability to live out Catholic teaching,” they wrote in the National Catholic Reporter.
BEYOND HIS VOCAL SUPPORT for the role of unions, the Pope is striking at the heart of neoliberal economics and market fundamentalism in ways that make some well-heeled donors in Catholic circles jittery. After Francis wrote an encyclical that blasted trickle-down economics, questioned “the absolute autonomy of markets,” and said that poverty would never be addressed without “attacking the structural causes of inequality,” the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot complained to New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan (not one of Pope Francis’s appointees). Ken Langone, who spearheaded a $180 million restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, confided to the cardinal that one of his wealthy friends was so upset by the Pope’s words that he was considering pocketing his contribution to the renovation. Cardinal Dolan told CNBC that he would assure the reluctant donor that he was “misunderstanding” Francis. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “The Pope’s Case for Virtuous Capitalism,” Dolan offered a much sunnier assessment of 21st-century capitalism than the pope has. The free market, the cardinal wrote, “has undoubtedly led to a tremendous increase in overall wealth and well-being around the world.” He argued it was a mistake to “reject economic liberty in favor of government control.” When Larry Kudlow, a CNBC commentator who had questioned the Pope’s understanding of capitalism, tweeted that he helped Dolan with the op-ed, the optics were awkward, to say the least.
The White Hat and the Hard Hats: Pope Francis meets with workers in Genoa.
Some wealthy Catholics seem content to blatantly co-opt and deliberately misconstrue the Pope’s words. John and Carol Saeman, who are active in a network of Catholic business leaders called Legatus, started by Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, wrote a head-scratching Washington Post op-ed in 2014 in which they strained to align themselves with Francis. “For us, promoting limited government alongside the Kochs is an important part of heeding Pope Francis’s call to love and serve the poor,” wrote the couple, who are financial contributors to the Koch-backed Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. Every summer, wealthy Catholics active in Legatus and a cadre of the U.S. hierarchy’s more conservative bishops gather at the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa Valley, owned by Catholic philanthropist Timothy Busch. The business school at Catholic University is named after Busch, who gave the university $15 million, its largest-ever donation. Busch has called the minimum wage “an anti-market regulation,” cites the Koch brothers as an inspiration, and hosted a conference at the Trump International Hotel in Washington earlier this year where he praised the president for being a staunch “pro-life” leader.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, a leading conservative voice in the hierarchy, acknowledged in a 2014 speech at the Napa retreat that the Pope’s views on economics are likely not in line with many of the Catholic CEOs gathered at the resort. “What Francis says about economic justice may be hard for some of us to hear,” the archbishop said. “So we need to read the Holy Father’s writings for ourselves, without the filter of the mass media. Then we need to open our hearts to what God is telling us through his words.”
FAR FROM NAPA VALLEY, a union leader in Atlantic City often found himself wondering why it was so hard to find Catholic clergy ready to stand with workers fighting against casino bosses who squeezed their employees. Bob McDevitt, the president of UNITE HERE Local 54, started in the union as a 19-year-old bartender’s assistant in the Playboy casino. He now leads a union that has lost 40 percent of its members over the last decade. Five casinos have closed since 2013. He recalls one civil disobedience action with workers at the now shuttered Taj Majal casino. Only one priest showed up, and he came from outside the city.
“From a practical standpoint, if so many people in your pews are in organized labor it doesn’t make sense for the church to be tone-deaf to this experience,” McDevitt says. “I’m not the best Catholic, but I know the church talks all the time about social justice. It’s just a matter of doing what you said should be done.”
Things started to change when a new young pastor, Reverend Jon Thomas, was assigned to McDevitt’s church, the Parish of St. Monica, in 2015. Thomas is part of the labor priest network. The pastor teamed up with McDevitt to plan a special mass dedicated to solidarity with workers. The local bishop fully supported the idea, and while he couldn’t attend because of an illness, his letter was read to the congregation. After the service, Thomas and his parishioners marched down Atlantic Avenue in a procession behind a banner of St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers. It was the kind of visual, public support that showed the church and labor walking side by side. “So many of my parishioners are union members, and they bring their fears of downsizing or losing their jobs to church,” Thomas says. “I need to be involved. I’m trying to make the church relevant to their lives.”