As we approach Labor Day 2018, I am struck by similarities between the current situation of the Catholic Church (at least in the Eastern and Midwestern United States, what sometimes go by the derogatory title “Rust Belt”) and unions.
• Both are older institutions, in a time when institutions of all kinds are suspect in our society.
• Both seem to be on a downward spiral. Both have regrettably declining memberships. (Our diocesan planning initiative, On Mission for The Church Alive!, is a direct response to such membership decline.)
• Both are perceived by the general public to be out of touch with the real world, and maybe even irrelevant.
• Both are known today not for their immense accomplishments over the decades, but for their sins and faults. (For the Catholic Church, the clergy sex abuse scandal; for unions, officials who seem to defend a few bad apples over the entire membership.)
• Both the Catholic Church and unions of all kinds are worldwide in their reach and impact, which is not appreciated in U.S. society today, with its myopic focus only on our own country.
If I am anywhere near the target by my admitted generalizations, what is an appropriate response?
Let me suggest three paths forward, using theological concepts that can readily be adapted to unions. They are: evangelization, solidarity before individualism, and prophetic care for the poor and marginalized.
Before the church or the unions were seen as institutions, they were movements of powerfully motivated people. People are moved by good news. Evangelization is nothing more than telling the good news. In the church, this is the good news of Jesus Christ, his love for the whole human race and salvation for all who embrace him. In the union movement, this is the good news that when working women and men come together in unity, in the face of the power of unbridled capitalism, good things happen. What are they?
• Higher wages through collective bargaining.
• Health care for workers and their families (which I hope and pray will soon lead to health care for all people in our society).
• Safer working conditions.
• Non-discriminating practices.
• Fair retirement pensions.
• In a word, that the dignity and worth of working people is respected and honored everywhere.
A challenge for the churches, and for unions, is that the role of being an evangelist, a “seller” of good news, cannot be limited to the clergy or to leadership. Each and every working person has to see himself or herself as a teller of the good news of their union, of their bargaining power, of their benefits from coming together.
Second, solidarity is the virtue that has to be emphasized over and over again. What is solidarity? The understanding that all are responsible for all. That we are neighbors to each other, and need to care for each other. We see solidarity in the unselfish charitable acts of saving individuals and families whenever there is a natural disaster. Complete strangers rescue people trapped in their homes or cars. First responders go the extra mile to carry out their important missions. Caring people ignore the differences of skin color, ancestry or class, and just want to help because it’s the right thing to do.
In this regard, let me make a distinction between opponents and enemies. When we mix up these two categories, we fail the test of solidarity.
Unions have several opponents — business owners, Congress and state legislatures, technologies and automation, the swiftly changing places of work, even the government itself. But these are not the enemy. You engage with, compromise with and resolve differences with opponents. In this tug of war you lose some and you win some. Through relationship-building, honest dialogue and common interests, opponents can become partners in building up a more just society.
The real enemies are those forces that want to make illegal the right to organize and form a union or worker association. The real enemies are those moneyed interests that want to put down the dignity of working people in favor of incredible profits for a very few; those who want to destroy the very concept of a union; those of authoritarian bent who want to eliminate the common good espoused by unions.
The real enemy is a rabid individualism in our society that pits one worker against another, and thinks that none of us needs help to achieve our full potential as persons, citizens and family members.
These are the enemies unions should be fighting, with the help of political leaders, social activists and the churches.
Finally, both the Catholic Church and our unions have to follow the Jesus principle: we do our best work when we care for the poor and most vulnerable, the marginalized and the immigrant, the weak and the powerless. Pope Francis has been a champion of this essential aspect of working out our salvation ever since he was elected. But all previous popes of the past 125 years have embraced this. Unions need to redouble their efforts to work with coalitions to:
• Move the minimum wage closer to a living wage, beginning with the implementation of a legal $15-an-hour wage for hourly workers.
• Make peace and friends with immigrants — those with and those without proper documents — and fellow strugglers in fighting for the rights of workers.
• Support unions in economically struggling countries.
• Reach out to young adults and people of color, whose unemployment rate is twice that of the rest of the country.
• Be prophetic voices that call our country to be more, not have more.
In an address to European trade unions last year, the pope said, “The union is born and reborn whenever it gives a voice to those who have none, denounces those who would ‘sell the needy for a pair of sandals’ (Amos 2:6), unmasks the powerful who trample the rights of the most vulnerable workers, and defends the cause of the foreigner, the least, the discarded.”
The rich will always take care of themselves. God will bless those who take care of the poor and lowly. History, and the power of the righteous, is on the side of the union movement.
Our numbers — in church and in card-holding union members — may be fewer. But this does not diminish the incredible value of each member’s mission and goals. The real power of the church and the union movement is to make the dignity and worth of each and every person visible in all the workplaces, homes and communities of our country.
Father Almade is pastor of Mary, Mother of Hope, St. Joseph the Worker, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Vitus parishes in New Castle.