A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

‘Labor priests’ renewing church-work ties

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Aug. 29, 30 or 31

The use of “brother and sister” is most common in two institutions: labor unions and the Church, and especially after the March election of Pope Francis – who’s urged clergy to live “with the smell of the sheep” and go “where there is suffering,” many priests, religious and laypeople are encouraged to strengthen ties with the labor movement.

“Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person,” Pope Francis said. “It gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one’s family, to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation.”

Bishop Stephen Blaire of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) added, “Unfortunately, millions of workers today are denied this honor and respect as a result of unemployment, underemployment, unjust wages, wage theft, abuse and exploitation.”

The Catholic Church for decades has embraced the “preferential option for the poor” – the idea that Christians must show special concern for the poor, marginalized and weak. And in the last 14 months a new group of Catholic priests has emerged to offer hope that the “labor-priest” movement could be renewed.

“Our union brother and our union sister need to feel and deserve to experience our own true solidarity with them as priests, called to be brothers to every brother and sister worker,” said Father Ty Hullinger, a central Illinois native who’s now a priest in Baltimore.

Hullinger is from a working-class family in Macon County, Ill., and he remembers seeing difficult labor disputes in nearby Decatur. That’s where in the early ’90s, Auto Workers, Paperworkers and Rubber Workers were in lengthy job actions against Caterpillar, Staley and Bridgestone/Firestone. That’s also where the late Father Martin Mangan told crowds that the “war on workers” was “a spiritual war … and I am compelled by God’s teachings to take a stand. Part of ministering to all people is supporting them when they’re right and calling them to accountability when they’re wrong.”

Hulliger has said, “Some members of my family were affected by that [time there], so I guess I’ve known always in the back of my mind: Work issues were very important for everybody.”

It’s early to pronounce a revival of the labor-priest movement, but many are optimistic and some of that is due to a new national push by the Priest-Labor Initiative, a group formed after meetings in Chicago in 2012 and in Reno, Nev., this spring, organized by the National Federation of Priests’ Councils and endorsed by the USCCB. Besides bringing together dozens of priests from throughout the country to listen to and learn from progressive church and labor groups, the Priest-Labor Initiative enables interaction with the rank and file.

“Having the opportunity to hear from workers about how they are faring in the workplace today has stirred up a more serious reflection in my own mind about what our Church teaches and about how our Church is called to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters,” Hullinger’s said.

The Catholic Church has a rich tradition of social teachings about the rights of workers to collectively bargain with employers, to be paid a just wage, and to safety in the workplace, and also a vibrant history of labor priests from the 1930s to today, with figures such as Monsignors George Higgins and Charles Owen Rice.

Today, age-old subjects such as wages, hours and working conditions are joined by issues such as union busting, wage theft and union avoidance.

“I think that priests and bishops need to hear directly from the people who are affected,” said Father Jon Pedigo of the San Jose, Calif., diocese. “It’s not just worker rights; it’s workers have rights because they want to put food on the table for the family.”

Of course, discord persists, as with most human endeavors, and some Catholic institutions don’t show that Church teachings, doctrines or even Papal attitudes have influenced management. Nurses at Chicago’s Resurrection Health Care hospital system, teachers at St. Louis’ Catholic schools, and laborers at New York’s parochial schools all struggle with that disconnect.

New York Laborers Local Business Manager Henry Kielkucki said, “When you bring up Catholic social thought at the bargaining table, they just shut you down. They don’t practice what they preach.”

That may change, with pressure from the pulpits as well as the pews.

For instance, back in San Jose at his working-class parish, Father Pedigo said he knows what it’s like to have the “smell of the people” that Pope Francis senses.

“There is a smell of oil, soil, the smell of cars all over, the gasoline smell, the smell of working in restaurants,” he told National Catholic Reporter. “And if you are repulsed by that, then you don’t get why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

[PICTURED: Father Ty Hullinger pictured at a December 2012 rally for Hyatt Regency workers in Baltimore, from a UNITED HERE Local 7 video produced by R. Concepcion.]

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