SOUTH ORANGE, New Jersey — Pope Francis has “catapulted” the concerns of working people and placed them at the center of the conversation for the Church, said an all-star panel assessing Francis’s influence on the labor movement.
Newly elected Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey joined with Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), at Seton Hall University on Tuesday evening to offer reflections on the significance of the first five years of the Francis papacy for working men and women.
The event, titled “Solidarity is Our Word,” served as a commemoration of the long history of the American Catholic Church’s support of the labor movement, an honest reckoning with its current challenges, and a celebration of a pope that has given it a megaphone in recent years.
A Gilded Age
Kicking off the event, Tobin spoke in personal terms of his long-held conviction of the importance of unions in the United States. While his father was a white-collar worker for General Motors and was not a member of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union, he said his father made it clear to the Tobin household that they benefited from organized workers.
“We ate well…we had clothes, and we had possibilities with our lives because of the UAW,” said Tobin.
Tobin offered a strong indictment of the modern market economy and the powerful interests of corporate lobbies that control resources without sharing them with workers, marking a sharp decline in America’s long-standing influence of unions.
“In some ways, we are living in a second gilded age. To gild something is to cover it in gold, to make it look attractive and more valuable than it really is. So we can see the stock market going up…but the new wealth is not being shared widely and it creates much more resentment than it does investment. We give billions in tax breaks to the über-rich, and throw a few scraps to the working class,” he lamented.
“Ours is a gilded age, but not a golden age,” he declared, while also noting that Francis has served as the antithesis to a culture defined by consumption and greed.
“In just 5 short years, he’s challenged the Catholic Church to remember the basics,” said Tobin. “He is exactly the opposite of gilded.”
Trumka, who is head of the largest federation of unions in the United States, concurred with that assessment and said that the core of Francis’s message for working people has been a message of love and a reminder that “our lives count.”
“Five years ago Pope Francis was elected to the papacy and in his first moments of pope he ministered to a world deeply hurt by the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, where it seemed at every turn, working people paid the price of unmitigated greed on Wall Street,” Trumka reflected.
“When Pope Francis says solidarity is our word, his message contradicts the morality adopted by so many of the world’s wealthy and powerful,” he continued. “His message is an affront to selfishness…it exposes the illusion and reveals the truth, which is that we are bound together by love and that we must care for each other and for our world.”
Murphy, who in his first three months as governor has already partnered with both the AFL-CIO and the Catholic Church on several initiatives, said that the past five years of the Francis papacy have been “faith restoring for so many.”
He praised Francis for offering “voice and hope to working men and women in every corner of the globe,” and said that his example as pope has reminded the world that “the root of leadership isn’t braggadocio, it is humility. The goal of leadership isn’t individual achievement, but the betterment of society.”
Murphy said that he believed that the message of solidarity that is preached by Francis should become not just “our word, but our default attitude.”
The Janus Case: The Church Stands with Unions in Court
Tuesday’s event comes just one week after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Janus v. AFSCME — in which the Court will decide as to whether unions can collect fees from public workers who are non-members to cover the costs of representing those workers and negotiating contracts.
Trumka maintained that case is of critical importance to the future of the union movement and bemoaned the fact that there are those that want to “benefit from all the work unions do without paying [a] fair share.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) filed an amicus brief for the case in support of the union in strong terms — comparing it to Roe v. Wade — and stating that the case is critical for the future of workers’ rights to organize.
He added that he was “profoundly grateful” to the USCCB for filing the brief and said “at stake is whether the workers’ movement will have a fair and free vehicle to carry out Pope Francis’s message of solidarity.”
Tobin added that it was his privilege to join with his fellow bishops in support of the unions and told the audience of mostly union members that “we are standing with you now as we await the Supreme Court’s decision.”
Challenges Ahead: The Environment, Women, and Immigrants
Despite widespread praise for Francis, all of the panelists agreed that the pope has done more than just offered a booster shot to the working movement, and that he’s also offered challenging demands.
Trumka said that while he knows the Holy Father has the back of unions, it doesn’t mean they’re off the hook.
“He’s said to us in the labor movement that we must embrace prophecy and innovation,” said Trumka.
Among those innovations, he said that the movement must do a better job of heeding Francis’s call in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ to respond to the ecological crisis at hand. While he said that the unions have made progress on this front, he said there was work ahead as they aim to “transition to a low carbon economy.”
He also said that Francis has reminded the labor movement that they cannot forget the injustices faced by women, particularly those in the workforce.
“Pope Francis has spoken of chauvinism that always wants to control the woman,” said Trumka. “For too many, the workplace is a setting of dangerous vulnerability. Our pope challenges all of us to ask ourselves, ‘what part do we play in the vulnerabilities of others?’”
He also cautioned that those involved in organized labor must not merely be self-referential, but that “the pope urges us to look externally, as well.”
He cited the thousands of men and women both inside and outside unions who live in anxiety over their undocumented immigration status — who are beneficiaries of DACA or TPS — and the fears they experience over the government potentially ending the very programs that protect them.
“These are our neighbors, these are our friends, this is us,” said Trumka, as he called on those present to embrace Francis’s call to “protect those who do not yet have rights.”
“Our solidarity, our unionism, must be the antithesis of social exclusion,” he said.