An Invitation to become “Labor Priests”

Essay by Father Bernard “Bob” Bonnot

Prepared for publication, Labor Day, September 5, 2016

A few years ago I attended a Labor Priest Initiative program offered to remind attendees of the tradition of priest supporters of ‘labor’ – working people, their right to unionize, and Catholic Social Teaching in that regard. Priests from all corners of the country were encouraged to do what we could to play a ‘labor priest’ kind of role in our communities. It was informative and motivating, but I confess to not really doing much to incarnate locally what I learned. All that changed the week before Labor Day this year.

Fr. Clete Kiley, a distinguished priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, started the effort. In the past he served as a seminary teacher, rector in Chicago, then as a staff person at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. From there he took up work as Director of Immigration Policy for UNITEHERE, a labor union.  He did so with the Support of Cardinal George of Chicago and now of Archbishop Cupich.  That experience inspired him to organize the Labor Priest Initiative in collaboration with the National Federation of Priests Councils (NFPC). Funding for the project came from various unions.

Early this August Kiley responded to a request for help from casino workers in the 3rd largest casino operation in Las Vegas. He invited the priests he had trained to help. Over 50,000 Las Vegas casino workers are represented by the Culinary Workers Union there, including the big ones on the famed Las Vegas strip. But the third largest casino operator in Las Vegas runs 10 neighborhood casinos surrounding the city. It has resisted unionization. In spite of promises to cooperate if enough signature cards were signed by employees, the company still refused.  

As a result the Culinary Workers Union selected one of the 10 sites where a clear majority of workers wanted to unionize. They asked the National Labor Relations Board in Las Vegas to conduct a formal election. It was scheduled for September 2-3. The Union’s Faith Rooted Organizer, Dave Love, had secured the support of many faith communities in Las Vegas, but not Catholic support. Fr. Kiley together with Fr. Gene Pocernich of Milwaukee and the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests (AUSCP) Church and Labor Caucus, went to work. Together with Dave Love, they secured a hearing with Deacon Mike O’Callahan to see why the Diocese seemed to be uninvolved. They identified the problem – lack of effective communication -- and it was quickly fixed. Bishop Joseph Pepe committed to make a pastoral visit to the workers on September 1.

Fr. Kiley put out a second call for support from his Labor Priests. Being retired, I was free to join him and 4 others the week of August 29. An effort was made to meet with the casino’s management. It failed. The task of the Labor Priests was not to urge the workers to vote for unionization but to guarantee their legal right to make a decision for themselves and to be free of corporate intimidation and fear of retribution. Priests were to be there to stand for the right to unionize and to help assure that the workers would not be intimidated. Priests from Seattle, San Jose, Milwaukee, Greensburg, myself from Youngstown and Fr. Kiley constituted the Labor Priest delegation. We came to understand the 6-year history of the workers’ effort, understood the union’s strategy and why it had to finally turn to the NLRB to institute the process, and what our role was. The Laborers felt that the owners had grown into the third largest casino operators in Las Vegas, and billionaires to boot, off their backs.

I was privileged to attend the pastoral visit of Bishop Pepe to the workers in the Culinary Workers Union Hall. More than 200 workers gathered. They shared their stories – their backgrounds, their work experiences, their labor with only two raises totaling 60 cents over six years, their lack of a contract, of benefits and of any pension after decades of work. Bishop Pepe listened. As he introduced Bishop Pepe, Deacon O’Callahan shared his own experience with labor and unions, starting with Cesar Chavez. Bishop Pepe then discarded his prepared text and spoke movingly from his heart. He shared his own immigrant story, concluding that “Catholic teaching affirms your dignity as persons and workers and supports your rights. The Church is with you and I am with you.” His words provoked tears and cheers from the workers, many if not most of whom are Catholic. It warmed my heart and made me pleased to be a Labor Priest, though my family background includes no identification with unions at all. Indeed, the opposite.

Happily the workers won their struggle to unionize with a 67% vote in favor. Happily the company responded positively with an immediate reduction in the health insurance cost to all Station Casino workers.       

The U.S. Catholic Bishops 2016 Labor Day Statement was about jobs and families. Without jobs that afford laborers a living wage, they cannot live with dignity. In this year’s presidential campaigns a great deal of rhetoric has lamented income inequality and the collapse of our nation’s middle class. Immigrant laborers have been scapegoated as the cause. Unspoken is the reality that the decline of unions and their ability to bargain effectively on behalf of laborers is a major factor in the fall of so many middle class workers into lower middle class status, even poverty. Accusations that aspects of our national operation are rigged have flown about. If anything is rigged, it is the power of corporations to deal with workers individually as they choose rather than corporately through contract negotiations with unions representing the workers.

My Las Vegas experience grounded me in the lives of workers in a city whose economy is controlled by several billionaires. It confirmed for me the importance of priests standing with labor and for the rights of working people. They must have a voice regarding those dimensions of employment that directly and powerfully impact their lives. That is true whether we are talking about Las Vegas or San Jose, Seattle or Milwaukee, our Diocese or Atlanta. Church teaching is that the dignity of workers, as of all persons, must be respected and that a part of that respect involves honoring workers’ right to form unions and to bargain collectively regarding the conditions under which they labor.  

Labor Day has always meant something to me, but never as much as it has this year. I invite my brother priests to consider becoming ‘labor priests’ themselves, and as well, ‘capital priests.’ We must help both workers and owners know Catholic Social Teaching. We must advance respect for the dignity of all – owners, investors and workers, and their rights and responsibilities in our complex and globalizing economy. Right now, as is widely proclaimed, the fruits of the labor of them all is going mostly to the top – owners and management – while workers struggle. Over the past 40-50 years, unions have nearly disappeared and laborers have increasingly gotten scraps from the table.    

As the U.S. Bishops Labor Day Statement simply put it “we must advocate for jobs and wages that truly provide a dignified life for individuals and their families, and for working conditions that are safe and allow for a full flourishing of life outside of the workplace.  Unions and worker associations, while imperfect, remain an essential part of the effort, and people of faith and goodwill can be powerful leaven to ensure that these groups, so important in society, continue to keep human dignity at the heart of their efforts.” [1258]

 Father Bernard “Bob” Bonnot is a retired priest of the Diocese of Youngstown and  chair of the AUSCP Leadership Team