On Tuesday morning, as they have been doing on occasion for years now, low-wage workers from federal facilities in Washington — and scores of blue-shirted supporters — gathered with loud, stenciled signs to protest how little they’re paid to toil in the gilded halls of government.
This time, however, they protested in new surroundings: a church. One after another, religious leaders of all faiths sermonized next to a home-made altar with Pope Francis’s image on the front, along with people carrying beatified images of Cesar Chavez, Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
“Remind all low-wage workers who are janitors and cooks at the U.S. Capitol and other federal buildings that they are not suffering alone as they seek to attain dignity and living wages!” prayed one robed speaker, from his pulpit a block from the Capitol. “Bless their struggle for justice and work so that they may provide for their families.”
The occasion for those entreaties, of course, was Pope Francis’s visit to Washington. It’s just one of several events planned by labor groups who are making an unprecedented show of unity with the Catholic church at a time when its leader is more focused on issues of inequality and economic justice than any other pope in recent memory.
“We are making efforts to amplify Pope Francis’s message because we think he speaks for a higher set of values that animate the labor movement,” says Damon Silvers, policy director of the AFL-CIO. “Worldwide, he’s the single most powerful voice for those values, and our goal is to have as many people listen to him as possible.”
Union-backed plans included a lecture last week where AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka spoke about the value of the pope’s message, a special Mass to which labor groups were invited on Wednesday morning, the presence of union leaders and low-wage workers at the White House ceremony welcoming Pope Francis, a pilgrimage of immigrant women walking 100 miles to Washington, and a banner wrapping the AFL-CIO’s downtown D.C. headquarters. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, recorded a video describing the importance of Francis’s teachings.
Of course, the relationship between the Catholic church and worker issues is deep and longstanding. Many of the issues Francis talks about were first articulated in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, who issued an encyclical on the right of workers to join associations. In America, advocates for the poor and working classes through the 20th century were often Catholic — many of the Irish, Italian, and later Mexican, immigrants — and both institutions share the concept of “solidarity.”
In recent years, however, the relationship has faded. As U.S. Catholics grew wealthier, they felt less of a need to make common cause with the labor movement. Through the 1990s and 2000s, many dioceses became distracted by sexual abuse scandals, and unions had their own problems with corruption and loss of membership. Meanwhile, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II deemphasized the Church’s economic message in favor of social issues like abortion and gay marriage, where common ground with the labor movement is harder to find.
“One of the challenges, frankly, is labor has to decide who its allies are,” says John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. “If the labor movement is simply another faction in a movement that begins with culture issues and eventually gets to gets to workers, that’s going to be a hard bridge to build. If the labor movement looks to the Catholic community as an ally in standing up for workers, that’s a bridge you can build.”
From the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis started sending a clear message to labor groups that the church would be an ally. His speeches often dwell on the rise of income inequality and the dignity of work, and he’s spoken of the need for safe workplaces where people are paid fair wages — not just alms for the poor, as predecessors often emphasized.
“It’s not anything new in terms of what he’s saying,” says Rudy Lopez, director of Interfaith Worker Justice, which helped organize the protest and march on Tuesday morning. “What’s new is the position he’s giving it. The church for the first time is really looking at it in a different way.”
That shift is also translating onto the local level. In June, the AFL-CIO held a day-long conference focused on rebuilding the historic linkages between unions and the church. Along with longtime Catholic and avowed Francis fan Richard Trumka, several high-profile clerics spoke, including Father Clete Kiley, who in 2012 founded the Priest-Labor Initiative that is coordinating their efforts.
Also in attendance: Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who is considered to be one of Pope Francis’s closest U.S. confidantes.
Wuerl said that both institutions faced a society that suffered from a “solidarity deficit,” in which the individual takes precedence over the collective — and which both Francis and the AFL-CIO are trying to push back against. “Labor unions are a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice,” Wuerl said, noting that they shared respect for the “new picket lines” over immigrants rights and wage theft.
Francis has also made other key appointments across the country who are starting to reach out to organized labor, as well. Most notable is Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, who last week gave a speech to that city’s Federation of Labor that explicitly criticized right-to-work laws in a state with a new governor who has been among organized labor’s greatest opponents, among other commitments to union causes.
“What I can say is, this is Francis’s bishop outlining the kind of solidarity that should exist between labor and the church,” Carr says.
Another trend has affected both unions and the church in recent years: a greater emphasis on members themselves, after a period of dislocation that made the institutions seem out of touch. Rudy Lopez, of Interfaith Worker Justice, thinks that empowering lay workers through alternative forms of organization — especially in low-income areas — will strengthen the bonds between them.
“Workers themselves who are heading up these movements, because they are churchgoers themselves, will continue to be translators, linkages,” Lopez said. “I also think what it means you’ll see more laity who are workers getting the institutions that they belong to more involved.”