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Catholic education supports workers. Why not Catholic leaders?

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Every year, as Labor Day approaches, we commentators follow newspaper headlines for reports of strikes or union drives, like zoologists tracking down an endangered species. We are looking for signs that the American labor movement is ready to wake up from its decades-long slumber.

This summer, strikes and rumors of strikes surfaced across the country, particularly at the construction sites of flagship companies such as Apple, Starbucks and Amazon. Could 2022 finally be the year of work?

This is not a good time for a relaunch of work. Politicians are barely concealing their desire to push unemployment up to avoid the runaway inflation of the year. Corporate leaders agree that 2022 is not the “right time” to revamp labor compensation, rights and privileges against management prerogatives. As bankers sound the inflation alarm, a familiar sleight of hand has been performed.

Hidden in inflation figures, corporate profit margins have reached historic highs in 2022 and executive compensation has reached new levels of excess. The average CEO compensation in 2020 was 351 times higher than the salary of a typical worker. And after years of pandemic-related disruption, workers have begun to question policies that continually tilt pay and work-life balance in favor of employers. Now, acute labor shortages in industrial sectors present workers with a historic opportunity to renegotiate not only wages, but also their place in American life. Will someone be at the table to negotiate for them?

Union membership has seen a virtually uninterrupted decline since 1955. Decades of declining union power have contributed to deepening inequalities in the distribution of wealth, income, health care, and power in the United States. Today, America’s mostly at-will workforce is unaware of a time when union power meant better wages and benefits, a higher standard of living, and better safety and security. remuneration for all workers, regardless of union affiliation.

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The American Church has traditionally been an ally of American labor, emerging from a time when most lay Catholics in the United States were themselves workers. Now, Catholics are just as likely to be found among the political and managerial classes that lock horns with Labor over its fair share of the American pie. If recent history is an accurate predictor, these fellow Catholics are just as likely to push back hard against labor demands, regardless of what they might find in the dusty tomes of Catholic social teaching.

This is not an inevitable result – we believe, after all, in a mystical solidarity that transcends class and culture – and groups within the church, such as the Catholic Labor Network and the National Center for the Laity , have valiantly continued to keep this church-labour alliance alive through the many lean years of the working world.

Leaders of Catholic institutions could play an effective role as examples of meaningful and productive labour-management relations.

The American bishops could do much more to urge Catholics on corporate boards to remember their roots and the demands of human dignity. In the meantime, the church at the local level could rededicate itself to its historic role alongside the nation’s working class, whether that means joining them on a picket line or systematically speaking from the pulpit the demands of human dignity. And the leaders of Catholic institutions could play an effective role as examples of meaningful and productive employer-union relations.

Latino workers, working in sectors long ignored by labor organizers, will increasingly be at the forefront of the American labor movement, just as they gain a similar leadership position in the American church. With an eye on the future of the Church and the American working class, today’s Catholic leaders would be wise to reclaim a place alongside Catholic workers at the bulwarks of economic dignity. That’s where the church belongs.

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This article also appears in the September 2022 issue of US Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 9, page 42). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Kentaro Toma