Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Working Catholic: Workers’ Participation by Bill Droel

Catholicism opposes collectivist or state-controlled economic approaches. At the same time it opposes an unregulated market and rejects magical economics, as implied in metaphors like rising tide, invisible hand and trickle down. Throughout the industrial era and now in our post-industrial times, Catholicism draws upon its principles of participation and subsidiarity to advocate for an occupational order or solidarism. This concept is known in France as corporatism, in Belgium it is called delegates for personnel or in Germany it is co-determinism or works councils. In the United States Catholicism translated solidarism as industry council plan. (When I say Catholicism, I mean that Catholic doctrine includes economic principles. That doctrine is derived from Scripture, natural law and experience and it is available to all people of good will. However, I admit that few Catholics have ever heard about their social doctrine.)

Tom Geoghegan argues for an occupational order in his latest book, Only One Thing Can Save Us (The New Press, 2014). He draws upon the successful German economy and thus uses their terms: co-determined boards and works councils. In a previous book, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? (The New Press, 2010), Geoghegan mentions the Catholic influence on the German model; though in this latest book he leaves out that connection.

Members of a company’s works council are elected from among shareholders and employees. Shareholders always are in the majority and a shareholder is always the chair. In Europe the employee members belong to a union, but this union factor is not essential to the solidarism model. A works council is more than an employee suggestion committee; it has some authority. The council is not involved in setting wages, pensions, health benefits and the like. It concentrates on day-to-day operations like scheduling, departmental flow and improvements to the production process or to delivery of services. The result is a more motivated workforce with lower levels of discontent. Of course, not every works council is perfect. However, the standard model of company directors detached from the actual work space is, as the economic collapse of 2008 amply taught us, flawed in practice and, says Catholicism, flawed in theory.

Geoghegan is not observing our scene from a reclining chair. He can be seen every day in a Chicago courtroom, a neighborhood luncheonette, a train station, a union hall, a community theater or a church basement. Geoghegan is aligned with many causes and charities around our city. His book seeks something that relieves government of some regulatory impulses yet at the same time something that puts brake shoes on ragged laissez faire capitalism. It comes wrapped with several provocative ideas:

§  That under proper conditions unions might be better off not representing everyone in a workplace.
§  That a college degree may not be the ideal for most young adults if our economy remains as it is.
§  That nurses are uniquely poised to make our economy more inclusive.
§  That credit card consumption cannot possibly lift our economy absent a prevailing wage for all families.
§  That the Chicago Teachers Union is a positive influence (a topic of controversy around my city).
§  That clumps of fast food workers and others who walk off the job for a short time put meaningful pressure on the Democratic Party and, to a degree, the Republican Party to address family life issues.

Geoghegan loves our country and its legal, economic, political and educational systems. His ideas are the subject for a subsequent Working Catholic column.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014



   It was a long time ago but I remember as a kid listening to passionate discussions about politics and labor at the family Christmas celebration.  The men would retire to the kitchen to do their part and wash the dishes after a sumptuous meal prepared by my grandmother assisted by dutiful aunts.  The discussion in the kitchen was loud and contentious but my grandmother would not allow vulgar language or racial epithets while we kids were within range.  They were union men, class-conscious, and well aware that union activity made sumptuous meals possible for the family.  We were Roman Catholic and my Dad, for one, knew of the social encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI that supported unions. 

   Perhaps this is why it is so painful for me to realize that support for unions by the hierarchy and by liberal Church faithful is minimal.  How is it possible that liberal Roman Catholic publications such as Commonweal and NCR do not use Union printers?  Contemporary Catholics are more educated than the men in my grandmother’s kitchen so they probably feel above the struggle for just wages and an effective voice for labor.   But I do sense some guilt in laity, priests, bishops who have risen to a status above their immigrant fore-bearers and who ignore the crucial importance of labor unions.

   There is an excuse – not valid – but it’s there.  It goes back to the disputes between Paul and Jesus’ brother, James the Just.  Those Catholics that do not support unions could claim, but not legitimately, a ‘Pauline Privilege’ as a balm for the conscience.  

   When Christianity was a fringe sect of Judaism, Paul after a vigorous discussions with James and Peter, was able to get an agreement that gentiles could become part of the community without adhering to Jewish dietary laws and circumcision.  But another dispute, over faith and works was unresolved and appears in the letters of the self-designated Apostle Paul and James, Jesus brother, not an Apostle but a leader in the Christian community of Jerusalem.  

   Paul and James had different backgrounds.  Paul was from the Roman city of Tarsus and was well educated.  He spoke Hebrew and Greek and has been categorized as a ‘Hellenistic Jew.”  James the Just, Jesus’ brother, was from impoverished Galilee, was probably illiterate and probably spoke only Aramaic. Paul was more of an idealist and James a pragmatist.  Their differing views provide a tension that lasts to this day in the Christian community.  Both are considered Christian martyrs.  Paul was killed in Rome and James in Jerusalem.

   Justification by faith was key to Paul’s theology.  He wrote in his Epistle to the Romans, ‘Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Romans, 5:1)  Balm for the conscience, don’t worry about labor unions. 

   In response James the Just wrote,

          If a brother of sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the    day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works is dead.’ (James, 2:15-17)

    Joanne and I host the family Christmas celebration this year.  I will make a point of saying that the just wages our parents fought for through the union movement made our ‘sumptuous’ dinner possible.  However, the ever growing income gap and the well financed anti union movement make it seem that history is in reverse.  But low income and immigrant workers are on the march.  Those of us who have benefited from the union movement need to join the battle once again.  Prayers to James the Just wouldn’t hurt.    

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Working Catholic: Service Projects by Bill Droel

Milwaukee's St. Ben's Community Meal, guest and volunteer.

This is a sign of the times: Thousands of Catholic young adults now participate in service projects and even in a year-long volunteer corps. These volunteer opportunities are not only offered through Catholic schools, religious orders and agencies. Other denominations and secular institutions also have service projects in which Catholics serve along with others. Volunteerism is hardly new in our country, though service requirements in school, mission trips in college and post-grad volunteer corps are recent developments—at least in their current scope. In the old days young adults more or less sought out volunteer opportunities on their own, for mixed motives: to change society, to learn from a charismatic leader, or (in my case anyway) to meet women. Today’s young adults, their program leaders and the service agencies are all to be applauded.

Michael Laskey of Camden, writing in U.S. Catholic (11/14), wonders though if “the default approach [to young adult volunteering] is out of whack.” He is all for service but, he asks, how many young adults really form a relationship with those they serve? Like most North Americans, Laskey admits to a “preference for the quick fix.” Volunteering often becomes a one-way effort to get the job done, Laskey finds. Do young adult volunteers, he concludes, ever “confront any suffering or ask difficult questions about the world” or about themselves? 

Celebrating 20 years of service
                             CapCorps Midwest Volunteers celebrating 20 tears of volunteerism

At one time Laskey’s own forays into volunteerism were premised on tackling “solutions to injustices.” He came to think that maybe it is better to “start with relationships.” His acquired approach, he says, seems more in harmony with Pope Francis’ themes of going to the peripheries to build “a culture of encounter.”

“Going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity does not mean rushing out aimlessly into the world,” writes Pope Francis. “Often it is better simply to slow down, put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others.”

Francis intends to encourage people and so admits that some might feel “offended by my words.” Yet, he continues, the dominant culture likes “the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional.” Christian service, by contrast, should first be about encounter—not “simply an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of charity a la carte.” And second, it should “make an impact on society” by “working to eliminate structural causes of poverty.”

Marquette University's Service Learning Program
It is hard to create bridging relationships, says Paul Lichterman in Elusive Togetherness (Princeton University Press, 2005), his case study of nine volunteer and advocacy projects that explores the tension between lending-a-hand service and partnering.  The less fortunate can seem inscrutable, Lichterman admits. So the best-intentioned volunteers often proceed with partial understanding, unconcerned with the larger map of the culture and civic world around the needy. The volunteers complete the task, yet have loose connections to the less fortunate and even to one another—not only in direct service projects but in policy campaigns, like for example those concerned with a living wage or with eliminating trafficking.

Service Learning
Service learning project at Mount Mary University, Milwaukee

Young adult volunteering is a marvelous development. Its graduates are included in the powerful 2%. But their project leaders and the young adults might reflect on their experience with an eye toward the public arts of encounter: How will this experience carry over into my career and family life? Does this experience, perhaps in synergy with Catholic tradition, suggest any principles that can be used on my job or in my own culture? And did I develop an appropriate public friendship with my fellow volunteers and those we tried to serve?

Droel is editor of INITIATIVES, a newsletter about faith and work. Get INITIATIVES and Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis’ fuller thoughts on a culture of encounter, from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $10 pre-paid).