Connecting Church and Labor by Clayton Sinyai

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the bishops’ anti-poverty program, has supported an admirable number of community-based programs. CCHD supports workers’ centers, cooperatives, and voter registration campaigns, and mandate that at least half the board seats in these organizations be reserved for low-income people themselves. Through this strategic support, CCHD—born in 1969 and echoing themes of the War on Poverty—fosters leadership skills among the poor, recognizes the dignity of every person, and “helps people help themselves.”

Today CCHD is helping the church reconnect with the original self-help organization for the poor: labor unions. CCHD has provided seed money for the Catholic Labor Network’s Church-Labor Partnership Project (CLPP), which fosters collaboration between labor and church organizations to promote justice for low-income workers and immigrants.

Catholic social teaching has emphasized the importance of labor unions since the start of the industrial revolution. Pope Leo XIII, in the encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), saw that modern society was dividing into two classes: owners of capital, whose wealth consistently increased, and hired workers, who were pressed toward poverty by highly competitive labor markets. Leo stressed that every person had the right to a living wage, and pointed toward two institutions to guarantee this: legally mandated minimum wages and labor unions. Indeed, Leo not only defended the right of workers to form labor unions, he encouraged them to do so, wishing that unions “become more numerous and more efficient.”

In the United States, Monsignor John Ryan—the first Social Action Director of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, predecessor of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops—helped interpret Rerum Novarum for American conditions. Ryan’s book A Living Wage propelled the campaign for minimum wage laws. As social action director he brought together unions and the church behind the economic reforms of the New Deal, including the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 that guaranteed the right Leo had proclaimed more than four decades earlier: the right of workers to organize and form labor unions to bargain collectively with their employers.

By mid-century, the church and America’s labor unions held one another in a tight embrace, and both institutions were at the zenith of their social influence. More than one-third of American workers belonged to a labor union, and few were the priests who didn’t have a brother or nephew who was a union member. Labor and church understood one another, not least because the same people who attended their union meeting on Tuesday night filled the pews Sunday morning.

Today things are different. There are a lot of empty seats at both the union meeting and the Sunday mass: only 1 in 10 workers enjoys the protections and rights of a union contract, and “nones” who have no religious affiliation have surpassed Catholics to become the nation’s largest religious group. Even so, in a world whose ruling ethic seems to be individualism, competition, and inequality, organized labor and the church are among the largest institutions in America preaching a vision of social solidarity. So it’s not surprising that as they feel their way forward in the new millennium, they are finding one another once again.

Ever since the election of Pope Francis, leaders of the American labor movement have taken a renewed interest in the church’s witness, and many of the bishops are looking to organized labor again for leadership in fighting what the Holy Father called in Evangelii Gaudium “an economy of exclusion and inequality” (53). In 2019 CCHD awarded a national strategic grant to the Catholic Labor Network (CLN) to foster partnerships between church and labor organizations that promote justice for immigrants and the working poor.

The CLPP functions on three levels. At the policy level, the church and the labor movement pursue an agenda with considerable overlap. Both promote increasing the minimum wage to make it a living wage; both support paid family leave; both oppose punitive laws targeting immigrants in our midst. However, they have not always worked together to promote this common agenda. In each state, the Catholic Labor Network seeks to bring together the state Catholic Conference, representing the church, and the state AFL-CIO, which represents the common interests of the state’s labor unions, to strategize about advancing these goals in their state legislatures.

At the enterprise level, there are workers across the country who are organizing to form unions and bargain collectively. This should be a path to a family-supporting wage, but too often employers engage in illegal retaliation against union activists when they try to organize, and resist signing a fair contract even when the workers succeed. The Catholic Labor Network helps train union activists to conduct outreach to their pastors and congregations and solicit support. Solidarity actions by clergy can be a powerful tool in persuading employers to settle with their workers.

At the individual level, the CLN works with Catholic Charities and in low-income parishes to connect the poor with living-wage jobs in the high-road union economy. For example, an apprenticeship in a union construction trade can lead to a good career as a carpenter, electrician, or plumber, but many eligible candidates don’t know where to begin. The CLN is working with Catholic Charities USA to connect promising candidates with pre-apprenticeship programs that enable candidates to test their interest and aptitude for a construction career.

For 25 years, the Catholic Labor Network has brought together clergy and Catholic union activists to promote Catholic Social Teaching on labor and work. Today, with support from CCHD, we are expanding this project to renew the historic relationship between church and organized labor.

Clayton Sinyai is the Executive Director of the Catholic Labor Network. A former rubberworker, railroad clerk, and letter carrier, he has spent the past two decades in a variety of union staff roles. Clayton is a member of (Construction) Laborers’ Union Local 11 in Washington, DC, and Knights of Columbus Council 17056 in his home parish of St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Church in Falls Church, Virginia. He’s also the author of Schools of Democracy: A Political History of the American Labor Movement (Cornell, 2006). If you are interested in bringing the Church-Labor Partnership Project to your community or diocese, contact clayton@catholiclabor.org.

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