US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The Catholic Church must do a better job of supporting workers’ rights, says this priest

According to Father Clete Kiley, organized labor has made great strides in improving the workplace, but there is still more work to be done.

By A U.S. Catholic interview | Print this pagePrint |

Father Clete Kiley receives an enthusiastic greeting when he shows up at labor union meetings in his clerical collar. Many longtime union members recall the heyday of the “labor priest”—Catholic clergy whose full-time ministry was fighting for workers’ rights—but are surprised to see a priest doing this work today. They tell Kiley, “We thought you were all gone.”

As a priest of the Chicago archdiocese, Kiley comes from a long line of clergy dedicated to labor issues. His first introduction to union organizing came in the late 1990s when Msgr. Jack Egan, another well-known priest-activist from Chicago, asked Kiley to help out a group of food service workers at O’Hare International Airport. That was Kiley’s first involvement with UNITE HERE, a union that represents workers in the hotel, food service, gaming, and transportation industries.

In 2010, with the blessing of his then-archbishop Cardinal Francis George, Kiley joined UNITE HERE full time. As a leader in a new era of labor priests, Kiley emphasizes the church’s longstanding support of organized labor.

 “The fact is that Catholic social teaching says, no matter what, the strongest vehicle for workers to protect themselves and to defend their rights is a union,“ he says. “The choice to have a union belongs to workers, not to anybody else. That’s our teaching.”

What are some of the biggest challenges workers face today? 

Immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, are facing a lot of issues. As I began to meet parish priests in different parts of the country, I started going 

to meetings focusing on immigration issues in different cities. What I found was that the question of what happens to immigrants at work always came up in these discussions.

For example, construction workers are often pulled in by what I’d call unscrupulous employers who provide no safety training. They work long hours. They don’t get overtime pay like a union worker would. There are no safety regulations on the job.

These workers are classified as independent contractors. They’re working for a recruiting agency, so the company they are doing the work for isn’t really their employer. If someone gets hurt on the job the company might say, “It’s not our problem; you don’t really work here. You work for this contractor.”

This also leads to stolen wages. Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said a million dollars in wages are stolen every day in Chicago. I thought he meant a year, but no, that is in one day. Who is it stolen from? Most often it is from undocumented immigrants who work for a third party.

When you listen to farm workers, not much has changed there either—the pesticides that they’re exposed to every day, child labor, and things like that.

For women, there is also a serious problem with sexual harassment. I’ve had meetings with some undocumented hotel housekeepers, and the sexual harassment they have to put up with is unbelievable. They say it happens all the time.

Those who are undocumented are terrified to report harassment. They’re terrified to report that their check doesn’t seem to be adding up right. Sometimes they don’t know that every one of these things is a violation of their rights. 

Do unions make a difference for individual workers?

I always remember one housekeeper who had a union contract. She came to Chicago from Ecuador, where she had been a teacher. When she moved here she was told that she couldn’t be a teacher, and so she felt diminished. She ended up getting a job as a housekeeper.

She was at work one day and she saw a new coworker, another Latina, who was crying. She said, “Mija (my daughter), what happened to you?” She said, “The manager yelled at me. He said I was speaking Spanish and I shouldn’t do that, and if he caught me again he’s going to fire me.”

So this woman said, “OK, have you read your union contract?” And then she pulled one out because she carried it in her pocket, with parts of it highlighted. She had the contract in English and Spanish. 

“Now,” she said, “look at this on page six right here. Read that to me.” She read it in Spanish: Any worker can use their native language in the workplace. This was part of the contract. 

The woman said, “You take this home. Tomorrow I’m going to ask you if you read the whole contract. Now tell me, which manager was it?” The woman went to the manager’s office and knocked on the door. 

Now here is a lady who’s found her voice. She asked the manager, “Can you read?” He said, “Yeah.” She opened up the contract to the paragraph on page six and said, “Read that to me.”

The manager read the paragraph: An employee cannot be harassed for using their native language. She said, “You broke the contract. Your owner signed with the union. You broke his word. We’re going to have to write you up.”

I could see that she was delighted. She said to me, “I knew I had him.” The manager didn’t know what to say, so she said, “OK. I’ll make a deal with you. You go apologize to her and never do it again, and we won’t write you up this time.” 

It’s a great story. You have to admire this lady. To her, the union is having those copies in her apron and having the right to tell the manager when he’s out of line, so she does not lose power in the workplace.

Is the church doing a good job in supporting workers’ rights?

I think we have a lot of work to do, honestly. When I went through Catholic grammar schools and even the seminary, there was a lot more focus on these issues. We don’t talk about them as much today.

I was talking to a priest from a small town in Kentucky about how to preach on Catholic social teaching. He said, “We’re a one-industry town. The word union is never said except with expletives in front of it. It’s considered a bad thing.”

There’s a large nonunion auto factory there. The priest said, “You know, it’s kind of scary. You look out and who is in your pews? The workers and the managers. The managers are probably more significant financial contributors to the parish, so how do you walk the line?”

I think the reaction from Catholics is mixed. Some people, if you talk about workers’ issues, very quickly jump to unions and think that unions are all bad. Even when working with other priests on this issue we tell them they are not going to be called “union priests,” they are going to be “labor priests.”

I think there are a lot of Catholics who breathe the air of U.S. politics. You watch one news station and the message is that unions are always bad. Another one might say unions are OK, but they are limping along and they’ve had better days.

How can the church help change that perception of unions?

Part of the problem is that the issue is so politicized. It is not about our theology. I think too often we are caught in the political framework. When we are really true to Catholic theology we have something positive and something critical to say to both ends of the political spectrum. 

Are there unions that have failed? Of course. Are there corrupt union leaders? Of course. Are there corrupt bishops and priests? Of course. We should acknowledge these facts. That doesn’t mean you get to hammer it constantly. 

It would be good to sit down with a group of immigrant workers and have them tell you what a union is to them. Listen to people like this housekeeper. She didn’t lose her dignity in the workplace. To her, solidarity is standing with her coworker, and that’s what a union is. 

We need to tell that story more often. Actually we don’t need to tell it; we need to give those folks the opportunity to tell it. I’d love this housekeeper to be on every news show, rather than (AFL-CIO president) Richard Trumka. Not that he’s a bad spokesperson; he is a terrific leader. But people might understand the issue better if they heard about it directly from the workers.

Do you think so-called union bosses give unions a bad rap?

Anytime I hear someone talk about “union bosses” I know they got a packet of political talking points. I don’t hear workers talking about their union bosses. At a good union they will say, “We are the bosses.”

One of the things I appreciate about UNITE HERE is that they constantly reinvigorate their committees in every site where they are organized. It is not, “OK, that is done. Now the union bosses will handle the contracts.” They have those same workers sitting in the negotiations. It is their fight. It is their victory.

Can you give an example of how union organizing works today?

When there is a campaign against a particular industry or a company, unions first do a lot of research. They say, for example, “Here is a hotel chain, what groups hold programs there?” The researchers will say, “Almost every religious denomination picks this particular hotel chain. Why is that?” In the past, the answer might have been that they are all union hotels, but that’s not always true anymore. You might have a Sheraton or a Hilton, but it is not really owned by them. There are individual private owners.

In Beverly Hills there is a hotel owned by the Sultan of Brunei. People found that out and said, “Well, no wonder we can’t get decent wages. In Brunei people are stoned to death.”

Some unions will do research and say, “Here is the real owner. Here is who is on the board of directors.” Then you go find those people and you say, “You are on a board. Do you know what goes on in that company’s businesses?”

To use the Sultan of Brunei as an example, the workers attempting to organize at his hotel were getting pushback, so they reached out to community allies. They started talking about what happens to women in Brunei and the National Organization for Women became a partner. They started talking about how gay people are treated in Brunei, and then the LGBT community started asking, “Why does this guy have a hotel here?”

You see the point. Good union organizing today connects with community partners and sees things in a larger movement to protect peoples’ rights and dignity. When you begin to see that it’s the same invisible hands doing a lot of this stuff, you find logical partners and then the organizing effort is successful.

What is your take on right-to-work laws that prevent workers from being required to join unions?

My own view is that theologically it’s a violation of solidarity. In every campaign that promotes right-to-work laws, the appeal is always to self-interest. The message is, “You’re not getting anything from that union. Keep your money.”

I think underneath is a veiled—and often not-so-veiled—attempt to smash unions. The church says, “Unions are a good thing. Workers have a right to have them if they want them, and solidarity is a fundamental principle.” I think right-to-work is against all of that. 

I hope that every state Catholic conference will start looking at these laws. I think we have “right-to-work-for-less” laws in 25 states now.

“Right to work for less”?

That’s what we say in the labor movement. The whole framework is rotten. 

If you look at the negative impact of right-to-work laws on wages and other worker rights, it’s significant. Wages go down. I think we as a church need to oppose it on theological grounds, but everybody ought to oppose it on economic grounds. 

Do you think the church is taking a strong enough stance on this?

No. I think it hasn’t quite been on the radar. I don’t think that the U.S. bishops have stepped up. 

I did see a letter from the New Mexico Catholic Conference. There was a right-to-work bill before the state legislature, and the New Mexico bishops wrote a letter saying this was seriously flawed and a violation of solidarity. The bill got stopped in the State Senate.

I don’t know if there have been statements from other Catholic conferences. But I hope that as a church we will take a significant look at this issue.

What can Catholics do to support workers’ rights?

Start by gathering parishioners and asking what happens when they go to work. I don’t think we know. People spend most of their day at work. What’s the impact of work on their sense of dignity and self-worth? Does it strengthen their family or does it work against it? 

Give people a chance to talk about work. Then, in the process, you begin to hear that some people seem to have good places to work and other people do not. 

Some say, “I was so happy when I got to this country, and I feel very proud I’m a housekeeper. I make $17 an hour now; it’s a good job.” You see their pride, a real sense of worth and achievement. If we asked the question we’d hear that. I think we’d also hear people say things about their work that aren’t as positive.

But we don’t talk about it. If there’s inherent dignity in work, why aren’t we helping each other see it? Our tradition is so rich when it comes to the value and the dignity of work and workers. That’s what I’d like to see us pay more attention to. The U.S. bishops’ Labor Day letter every year is great about this, but I’m not sure it’s disseminated to most Catholics. It should be because it is an excellent reflection of our doctrine.

I remember years ago people used that term “cafeteria Catholics.” It used to be about people’s personal lives. We’ve grown to be cafeteria Catholics when it comes to economic issues. I don’t think we’ve been really prophetic about this yet. 

This is something I’ve been working on with priests. And now we have Pope Francis presenting a different economic message, talking about the “economy that kills.” These are powerful words. 

I’ve found since Pope Francis came on, it is way easier to get through to priests on this issue. They’re listening. 

I think a lot of Catholics are, too. 

This essay appeared in the September 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 9, pages 22–26).

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Jim Stapleton

Tuesday, August 27, 2019