Catholic Church and labor leaders vow joint push for social justice

WASHINGTON – The Roman Catholic Church and the U.S. labor movement are working more closely together than ever, uniting on social justice, immigration and income inequality issues, leaders of the two say.

That’s because the social justice aims of U.S. workers largely coincide with those of the Church, on everything from immigration to workers’ rights, add AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C.

The increasing cooperation between the two came through at a June 15 “Conversation on Solidarity and Faith” at the AFL-CIO, along with a brief Trumka-Wuerl press conference. The conversation attracted union activists and church leaders from dioceses nationwide.

The activism will last through and beyond the coming visit, this September, of Pope Francis I to the U.S., when the pontiff is scheduled to stop in Philadelphia, New York and D.C., and possibly elsewhere.  “The labor movement will be at the complete disposal of the Pope,” Trumka, a practicing Catholic, told the all-day conference.

The closeness began even before the AFL-CIO decided to reach beyond its member unions and recreate itself as a workers movement, “We started with the church,” Trumka said.  “Our automatic focus is on the renewal of human solidarity in the face of currents going the other way,” Wuerl elaborated.

The joint movement of unions and the church is important: Catholics hold a high share of union leadership and activist slots and because Catholics and Jews are traditionally overrepresented in unions.  And unions and the church share the idea of solidarity, Wuerl said.

“Solidarity is coming together to embrace the dignity of the worker,” he declared in his keynote address. Wuerl added that when he, like Trumka, grew up in the coal country of southwestern Pennsylvania, “We learned ‘Don’t cross a picket line.’

“And the efforts to be inclusive” of workers and the poor in U.S. society and economy, rather than leaving them behind, “are the new picket lines of today,” he added.

“The new picket lines have to be respected for our people who are struggling to be part of this world, to engage with them and to defend them – and don’t cross that picket line!” the cardinal declared.

The catch is that the church and the labor movement face the same opposing forces with their emphasis on materialism, unbridled capitalism, and economic libertarianism, Wuerl added.  Pope Francis has been outspoken against those forces, saying they ravage and deny the humanity of workers and the poor.

Instead, the Pope has been reemphasizing 125 years of Catholic Social Teaching, which includes all-out endorsement of unions, and ordering clergy to implement it. “The Catholic vision of Solidarity” is the “need for reawakening the vision of a life of economic justice based on faith,” the cardinal explained.   “That’s a shared experience with organized labor.”

But at the press conference, Wuerl admitted that not all Catholics, or Catholic institutions, follow church social justice teachings. 

He did not name names, but prominent lay Catholic politicians in the U.S., such as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, enact or implement policies – such as cutting food stamps – that ignore those teachings. 

And Catholic institutions, including the Resurrection Health Care hospital system in Chicago, many Catholic-run universities nationwide and the schools of archdiocese of St. Louis, have acted like other anti-union employers in battling workers’ rights and sometimes breaking labor law, to boot.

Wuerl admitted the church’s clergy must take responsibility for that waywardness.

“I’d better get better at teaching,” he said with a smile when reminded of such transgressions.  “We have to start all over again, highlighting something that needs to be said in the hope that it’ll be heard. We have a saying in the office that ‘You need to say something three times before it is heard.'”

Pope Francis has been giving that message of standing up for workers and the poor even before he took over the church’s overall leadership.  His latest denunciation of excesses of corporate greed is in an encyclical – an official church document of teaching and faith – on how to combat global warming and climate change. The capitalist rush to exploit fossil fuels, Francis said, has come at the expense of the planet and of lives.

The conference, the second such session the AFL-CIO has hosted, comes along with concrete steps the church and the labor movement have taken to work together on social justice causes, Trumka and Wuerl said. 

That’s despite what Trumka admitted are occasional disagreements – the only allusion, however indirect, to the church’s consistent and continuous stand against reproductive choice. The Coalition of Labor Union Women, an AFL-CIO constituency group, and many unionists, are on the other side of that issue.

Instead, the two concentrated on areas of agreement, notably comprehensive immigration reform, where both are mobilizing at the grassroots.

But the church and labor also share something else, Wuerl said: Many times, society isn’t listening to them.  “It’s not that the church and the labor movement are not on the same wavelength.  It’s that we’re not being heard,” the cardinal admitted.

Photo: Pope Francis waves to crowds in Vatican City. The labor movement has made it clear ahead of the Pope’s September visit that the Catholic Church and unions have a lot in common when it comes to social justice.  |  Gregorio Borgia/AP


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.