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Staying on Message: The Need of the Catholic Church and the Labor Movement to Stay Focused on Saving Vision

Rare is an organization that calls its members, and the greater society to raise its head from individual self-centeredness, and see all people as brothers and sisters. Such calls do not move people only to dream about what could be done to create a more loving and life-giving world, but also to recognize a responsibility that each man and woman has for the well being of each and every person. The Catholic Church, for more than two thousand years has made this affirmation by spreading the proclamation of Jesus Christ. Through centuries of missionaries traveling from their homelands to far, and often dangerous new lands, the church spread the words of Jesus, and the good news of his Father’s love for all people. In addition, these words of Jesus were manifested in very concrete ways. Schools were built which have educated millions of young men and women. Hospitals were constructed which offer healthcare for people from Dol Dol, Kenya to midtown Manhattan. Finally, the Catholic social justice teachings have offered a seamless vision of human dignity that respects and honors the human person in society and the workplace. The American labor movement, especially the member unions of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, has a message that has proclaimed the intelligence, skill and diligence of working men and women. There is no better expression of this vision than the two spectacular mosaics which adorn the lobby of the AFL-CIO building in Washington, D.C. In this vision, the American working man or woman teaches the young, heals the sick, builds great ships to sail over the oceans, and construct rocket ships to fly to the stars. The vision of the American worker is also promoted in very concrete way by organized labor’s social agenda. A quick check of the AFL-CIO’s web site shows that the federation is active in issues ranging from civil rights to immigrant worker rights. Many of the issues (i.e., minimum wage, reduction of workers classified for overtime and prescription drug benefits) will have a greater effect on those workers outside the labor movement than those in it. This is because many of these legislative initiatives are already covered in the contract or collective bargaining agreement between a union and its employer. At the 1989 AFL-CIO’s Constitutional Convention, a resolution was submitted to have the federation take a pro-choice stand regarding abortion. Lane Kirkland, president of the federation at that time, referred the resolution to a special committee to consider whether the AFL-CIO should take a position. On July 31, 1990, the executive committee of the federation overwhelmingly endorsed a neutral position on the issue of abortion. This position was binding on the AFL-CIO, its state federations and the local central labor councils. However, it was not binding on the individual international unions that make up the federation. In 1986, the Catholic Bishops of the United States issued their groundbreaking pastoral letter: Economic Justice for All. In it, they laid out the essential goals that must be respected, preserved and promoted in our American capitalist system. One of these goals was the right of workers to organize into unions, and to participate in collective bargaining. This goal was not limited to the private sector. Rather, the U.S. Catholic bishops explicitly included themselves, and Catholic institutions as sharing the same responsibilities as other employers. They wrote: “353. All church institutions must also fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with the institution through whatever association or organization they freely choose. In the light of new creative models of collaboration between labor and management described earlier in this letter, we challenge our church institutions to adopt new fruitful modes of cooperation. Although the Church has its own nature and mission that must be respected and fostered, we are pleased that many who are not of our faith, but who share similar hopes and aspirations for the human family, work for us and with us in achieving this vision. In seeking greater justice in wages, we recognize the need to be alert particularly to the continuing discrimination against women throughout Church and society, especially reflected in both the inequities of salaries between women and men and in the concentration of women in jobs at the lower end of the wage scale.” In the last few years, both the Catholic Church and the AFL-CIO has allowed external values to seep into its organization, and has had the effect of driving members and potential new members away. Specifically, the Catholic Church in many of its diocese has failed to actively carry out its social justice teaching, and in its place, instituted classic market principles that have brought about hostile battles between the church as employer, and its workers who wished to exercise the church’s teaching regarding unions. On the other hand, the AFL-CIO has been donating money to organizations and PAC’s which have abortion rights as their primary goals in their agendas. Also, though the executive committee’s 1990 position was not binding on individual unions, it appears that the AFL-CIO has done little to spread its neutrality policy to individual member unions. In the last four years, the Catholic Church has witnessed a number of ugly, and painful organizing drives. In some of these drives, the union was not able to organize the Catholic facility, in others, the union did win collective bargaining rights. However, in both instances, the viciousness, and acrimony that developed between Catholic employees and their Catholic employers not only damaged the church’s credibility in proclaiming its social justice gospel, but in too many cases, caused Catholics to lose their faith, and leave the church. If the church has a special role in the salvation of people, then for her to be the cause of such hardship that Catholic employees leave the church is more than just a scandal. The church may be the means by which a Catholic employee loses his or her faith, and therefore eternal life. This type of situation is going on in the Diocese of Brownsville as I write this Labor Day column. There four parishes signed union contracts with the United Farm Workers. Subsequently, some of the pastors have been replaced, and the new pastors have fired the union staffs. It is too complicated of a story for this column, but one can read more in the August 1, 2003 edition of the National Catholic Reporter, in their article “Turmoil in Texas” (http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/archives2/2003c/080103/080103a.php). At the same time, the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions have contributed to Emily’s List. As its web site describes: “EMILY’s List is the nation’s largest grassroots political network, raising campaign contributions for pro-choice Democratic women candidates running for the House, the Senate and for governor; helping women candidates build strong, winning campaigns; and helping mobilize women voters.” According to information gathered from the Federal Election Commission by the Democrats for Life, the AFL-CIO Political Contributions Committee gave $5,000 in 2002 to Emily’s List. In addition, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Committee on Political Education gave $5,000, and the American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) – PEOPLE, Qualified gave $5,000. The Democrats for Life also report that AFSCME donated another $5,000 as a cosponsor for the upcoming April 25, 2004 March for Choice in Washington, D.C. As a Roman Catholic priest who is committed to his church, an active union member of the Seafarers International Union, and committed to workers’ efforts to organize unions, the ever greater presence of non-institutional principles is very troubling. Too often, I read and hear of instances where my church has either ignored, circumvented or actively replaced Catholic social teachings with hardball, laissez faire capitalist principles. On the other hand, the only legitimate workers’ organization in our country gave a wink and a nod to its neutrality position, and actively participated in organizations that have as primary goals the right to kill the unborn. As a pastor, I see too many people buying into the culture of death. This is a culture that is characterized by consumerism, narcissism and greed. Instead of the church actively witnessing to the vision of Christ, it has too often bought into the gospel of the marketplace. So when people come looking for something different to give their lives meaning, they find too much of the same thing. As a supporter of unions, I have participated in a number of organizing drives. Many of these have been decided by the slimmest of margins one way or the other. I wonder how many Catholics, Baptists or other pro-life workers voted against the union because their employers pointed out that the union supports abortion. On this Labor Day, my prayer is that both my beloved church, and labor movement will recommit themselves to their core values, drive out extraneous ideologies, and focus on their life-giving visions that see the image of God in every person, and dignity in every worker. Fr. Sinclair Oubre, J.C.L. www.catholiclabor.org Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 9 – September 2003