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The Second Gathering of the Catholic-Labor Network Takes Place Amid the Social Ministry Gathering

February 26, 2001

The second gathering of the Catholic-Labor Network occurred in Washington, D.C. during the last week in February. Timed to coincide with the Social Ministry Gathering sponsored by numerous departments of the United States Catholic Conference, twenty laity, religious, and clergy gathered to pray, and to hear stories by members who have been involved in recent labor actions that have had Catholics on both sides.

The evening began with an opening statement by Fr. Sinclair Oubre, J.C.L., the web master of the C-L Network web page. He reviewed some of the previous gatherings of Catholics and labor unions. He observed that some of the biggest labor battles over the last few years have taken place in Catholic institutions. These struggles have inflicted a terrible toll on the faith of many of the Catholic employees, as well as raised credibility issues with the Church’s moral authority in the area of workers justice.

Following the opening remarks, the Litany of Work was prayed by those present. This litany was prepared by members of the National Center for the Laity, and prays for all aspects of the work-world.

Prof. Mike Foley of the Catholic University of America outlined the what had taken place at the university during the recent SEIU organizing drive. There were three primary actions by the university that raised questions about its sincerity to maintaining its Catholic social justice tradition. First, when the organizing campaign began, the university hired one of the country’s leading union-busting law firms. Second, they banned Ms. Emily Junge, the SEIU organizer from the campus, and would have her escorted off campus by security anytime she tried to meet with workers. Third, six employees were fired from their temporary jobs when the SEIU filed a complaint that the university was not following its own policy in making people permanent after six months. This last issue was interpreted by the workers as a threat of what would happen if they voted for the union.

Eventually, an important meeting was held between the university and John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. At the end of the meeting, the university replaced its legal consultants, and agreed to hold an election. However, the SEIU lost the election. This loss came as a surprise to the organizers, and many of the employees. However, it was felt that it was caused by the attrition of key workers to other employment, and a core group of members who had certain privileges under the old structure.

Prof. Foley concluded by stating that another union on campus that represents the mechanical employees has expressed interest in picking up these employees, and bringing them into their union.

Mrs. Mary Kambic shared her experiences of leading a group of local Baltimorean Catholics in efforts to bring the social gospel to bear during the recent Crown Central Refinery Lockout. She noted that one of the board members of Crown was Fr. Ridley, S.J. of Loyola University - Baltimore. Over the five years of the lockout, she was never able to get a meeting with Fr. Ridley, nor speak to him directly. The communications that did occur were through either a company attorney or spokesperson. 

Mrs. Kambic raised another concern to the group. The Archdiocese of Baltimore is engaged in a number of large construction projects. At one site, the contractor had posted his sign. To her amazement this sign not only included the contractor, the architect and the other companies involved in the project, but it also carried the logo of the Association of Building Contractors. This is an association of non-union contractors that has worked ardently to promote their philosophy of a “merit system.” 

Mrs. Kambic stressed that there seemed to be an inherent tension when a Church institution uses a company that is part of an association that has a public stand toward unions that is directly contrary to the Church’s stated support of workers right to organize. 

The third presenter was Sr. Mary Priniski, O.P., a past-board member of the National Interfaith Committee for Workers’ Justice. She is now employed by NICWJ in a liaison position with the Service Employees International Union in the Washington, D.C. - Baltimore area. 

Sr. Mary touched on some of the difficulties, and challenges that she has witnessed in the area organizing drives in Catholic health care facilities. She also stressed that there was a need for both sides to develop structures that allowed for greater dialogue, and fewer threats and rhetoric.

Sr. Mary also brought news to the group of efforts by the SEIU to improve wages for hospital staffs at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and other hospitals in the Baltimore area. She shared a petition with participants and asked that those present join their names to those who had already signed asking the directors of the hospitals to recognize the human needs of their workers during the negotiations.

Following Sr. Mary’s remarks, the deck was opened for discussion by any of the participants. Tom Shellabarger noted that he hoped, and would work within the United States Conference of Bishops to make this Catholic - Labor session a regular part of the annual social ministry conference. Glenmary Fr. Les Schmidt, noted that much work has been done in the area of poultry workers. However, there was a new emerging need for union organizing in the rural parts of America. This news was in the state and private prison systems. Like in the poultry industry, many new prisons were being established in rural communities, and becoming the primary employer in the area. Also like the poultry industry, they often paid low wages, few benefits, and seemed to exploit the lack of opportunity that was available to the people in these communities for their own gain.

The meeting formally ended at 9:00 p.m., but the conversation continued for many in an informal setting. Those who were able to be in Washington found the opportunity informative, supportive, and encouraging. As was noted, working with labor can be a real desert experience. When we are able to gather together, it is an opportunity to affirm the value of our Church’s social teaching, and the efforts being made to promote it.



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