Thursday, March 26, 2015

Working Catholic: Sentiment by Bill Droel

          The distinction between private life and public life is eroding to the detriment of both. Private life is spilling over into the public realm on so-called reality TV shows, all over social media and in displays of personal information in inappropriate places. From the other end, public life at work, in the voting booth and in government proceedings succumbs to private feelings of liking and not liking, rather than judgments of competence and respect. Film stars and other performers have always coyly and incrementally leaked pieces of their private life to their fans. But now there is the category of micro-celebrity that includes anyone who blogs, posts or stands in front of a pocket camera. We unthinkingly display ourselves without appreciating how trivial our personal relationships become when they are marketed so widely.

Jonathan Franzen, in a collection of essays titled Farther Away (Farrar, Straus, 2012), takes particular exception to the cell phone, as wielded on trains, in restaurants, along college hallways and in medical waiting rooms. Spare “me from the intrusion of other people’s personal lives,” he writes. Especially as they inflict “their banal bedroom lives” over a cell phone in a public space.

Each technology, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) taught us, creates a unique communication environment, irrespective of the content of any postal letter or any TV show or any single tweet. The essence of a cell phone “as a social phenomenon,” says Franzen, “is that it enables and encourages the inflicting of the personal and individual on the public and communal.” And there is nothing worse a cell phone user “can inflict on a communal public space,” he claims, than the utterance “I love you.”

Be patient with Franzen here because his point has bigger implications. He is not at all against expressions of love in a face-to-face private setting. But the “too-frequent habitual repetition” of I love you and similar phrases in public empties them of meaning. “Avowing sincerity is more or less diagnostic of insincerity,” even if cell phone users are unaware of the erosion.

Again, expressions of sentiment are fitting and proper in their place. Exuding sentiment all around the public square, however, quickly becomes hallow sentimentality. Rational propriety, communal agency and respectful negotiations give way to exhibition of sentimentality, which is a situation of all love but no power.

Maybe the cell phone example doesn’t convince you. What about smiley faces that adorn business communication? What about roadside shrines to honor a deceased individual or the tee shirts and posters shown on TV and in the newspaper after a fatal shooting? Or, what about our appetite for details about a public official’s sex life? The blurred line between public and private keeps what could be intimate relationships on a superficial level. It also corrodes public culture, allowing business and government leaders who understand power to deal in bread and circuses instead of accountability.

Droel is author of Monday Eucharist (National Center for the Laity [2015], PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $9 pre-paid includes postage).

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Working Catholic: Tips in Restaurants by Bill Droel

   The Wall St. Journal (3/1/15) reports that restaurant spending increased by 11.3% over the past year and that “food-service employment has surged.” The income of restaurant workers has not equaled the uptick in meals served; though employers are starting to pay more—3.1% more over the past year says the Department of Labor. Owners and managers want to adequately serve customer volume, and also want to lower their costly turnover rate (as high as 80% a year in some restaurants).

The restaurant business makes a distinction between front of the house workers (primarily the table servers and often bartenders) and back of the house workers (cooks, dishwashers, some hostesses and others). Technically, diners are not allowed to tip back of the house, though waiters and waitresses usually share a portion of the tip with others. Many diners think of the tip as a token of gratitude to their server. But that common notion is not correct. A 1966 amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act introduced a subminimum tip wage for certain occupations. The tip wage is currently $2.13 in Federal law and has been stuck at that amount since 1991. Laws in some states supersede the Federal tip minimum, putting the tip wage at $4 to $4.95. Tips are therefore, at least in a certain sense, a subsidy to restaurant owners and tips certainly are essential to workers, the majority of whom are women. Of course, restaurant pay is better in some states, in some restaurants and on some shifts than others.  

Here, however, are some numbers in the ballpark: The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median for front of the house workers at $8.94, which includes the tip. Considering back and front workers in the same category, the Labor Department says the average is currently $12.28. By the way, servers pay tax on the presumed tip plus the wage from the restaurant. If a diner doesn’t tip or tips less than the IRS presumes, the server still pays the tax.

There are overlapping strategies for improving the pay of tipped workers.

§  A few restaurants (mostly in the four-star category) have eliminated tips and raised wages, including in the kitchen. In management’s opinion this improves service. The menu prices go up about 8% to 15%, an amount which in Europe and elsewhere is considered the service charge.

§  The 1966 tipped minimum category could be eliminated, thereby putting all workers into the prevailing minimum wage category. Sylvia Allegretto and David Cooper of Economic Policy Institute ( have research in support of this approach.

§  The dollar amount of the 1966 tipped minimum could be increased. Rep. George Miller of California ( and others back HR Bill 1010 that gives an 85cent increase per year until the wage of servers reaches 70% of the regular minimum. Others believe that changes at the state level are more likely. Tompkins County Workers’ Center ( and other groups successfully lobbied the New York State Department of Labor to increase the tipped minimum. It will go to $7.50 on December 31, 2015.

§  Diners could consistently tip well, let’s say 20%, and for bad service complain to the manager, realizing a smaller tip changes nothing. At a full-service restaurant 17% of diners still tip at 10% or less, reports Kevin Pang in Chicago Tribune (9/4/14). At a casual restaurant with waiters and waitresses 16% of diners tip about 10% and a full 32% don’t tip at all. And, hardly anyone tips at a fast-food restaurant.

As with everything nowadays, technology is taking this topic into perhaps unexpected outcomes. A person who tips justly, again let’s say 20%, but uses their phone app to pay or uses a touch-screen at the restaurant counter will see a prompt: Add a tip? Then the possible answers: 25% or 50% and even 75%. And the latest are Bitcoin tips; again 25% up to 75%. Plus, there are even electronic tip jars on some counters. Wave a debit card into the jar and give a preset tip. All of this, says New York Times (2/1/15), is “tip creep.”

The exact technology of tip creep eludes your Working Catholic blogger. Although he frequents neighborhood restaurants, he uses a poor man’s type of money: Cash. But The Working Catholic suspects that struggling restaurant workers will not be the ones primarily benefiting from these e-tips.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free newsletter about faith and work printed on old-fashioned paper and mailed through the U.S. Post Office.    

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


          This, rather, is the fasting I wish: releasing those bound unjustly,    untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed … Isaiah - 58

   So much to be thankful for, yet in another sense, it is life in a dark apocalypticle storm.

   A wonderful family reunion in Mesquite, Nevada was sandwiched between two important events:  an acute awareness of racism resulting in police violence and the attack on labor unions by Scott Walker and Wisconsin Republicans.  All of this was prefaced by the death of my cousin- brother Mac McNabb.

               My cousin and brother, Mac McNabb (left) with President Ford.

F.V. McNabb, Jr.

   I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the memorial.   Mack loved tenderly, acted justly, and walked humbly with God.  The balm for the hurt of his loss and the joy to celebrate his life was provided by family hospitality and love as we congregated at a party hosted by his daughter Meghan.  It had been a while, and I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Mack’s kids and grandchildren.

Racism Ignored   

   A Mass celebrating Thanksgiving was held at St. Martin de Porres Parish, Milwaukee in the midst of the Ferguson killing controversy.  The Mass was coordinated by three sister parishes of the Capuchins Franciscan Fathers:   St. Martin de Porres- mostly African American, St. Benedict the Moor- mostly white, and St. Francis – mostly Latino.  Last summer In Milwaukee, we also had a young black man shot thirteen times by a white policeman.  Apparently the mentally ill young man was illegally sleeping on a park bench.  A confrontation with the policeman resulted in the young man’s death.   Milwaukee has a history of such killings; however, nothing was said at the Mass about racism and police armed violence.

   I suggested a conference for the three parishes on the movie Selma. The conference took place at the meeting hall at St. Martin de Porres.  Most of those attending were from the white parish of St. Benedict the Moor.  No summary or conclusion was presented, and no further discussions were scheduled.   “Bloody Sunday” liturgy at St. Benedict the Moor passed without a mention from the pulpit.  However, prayers of the faithful did bring the issue of racism to the forefront.   Our culture of racism needs to change- if we say nothing we are complicit in the violence that results.  Where do we go from here?


   It was a reunion of Langes in Mesquite, Nevada – my surprise 80th birthday party.  I helped in the planning.  We had a great time:  golf, beautiful scenery, and good food.  Our kids and grandchildren make us look to the future with hope.

   Eighty year olds are not allowed to vote for the Pope; I did have Bruce Colburn of the SEIU in mind for the job.  

Right to Work – Republican Financial Strategy

   A main goal of the Republican Party is to destroy unions.  Labor unions usually support democrat candidates with people power and advertising.  The efforts are financed by members’ dues.  Right to work laws ban labor contracts that require mandatory dues.  Under ‘right to work,’ a labor union negotiates and advocates for all workers in the unit yet subsists on voluntary dues.  Under this law unions are weakened if not destroyed. 

   Joanne and I went to Madison with a contingent from Voces de la Frontera Worker Center.  I agreed to do civil disobedience.  We sat in the gallery above the assembly floor.  Behind us sat a group recalling Father Jim Groppi – civil rights activist and labor leader.  I couldn’t help but think that he is in some way with us in the present struggle.  Time came for civil disobedience – I stood up and shouted down to the floor.  A state trooper gently escorted me out to the hall.  Joanne followed about ten minutes later.

  It wasn’t over, but it was.  We knew the Republican majority would prevail but we went back a couple of days later for the final vote.  Late in the afternoon we were with about 100 people crowded in the hall in front of the Governor’s office.  Bruce Colburn of the SEIU introduced Sister Maureen McDonald, O.P. who courageously outlined the basic tenets of Catholic Social Teaching that the Republicans oppose with ‘right to work.’  Next a construction worker spoke.  With a similar message but different rhetoric than Sister Maureen, he denounced the bourgeois values of the Republicans and advocated for all workers. 

   The vote went against the workers – but it’s not over.  For several days the Capitol resounded with the labor anthem:

In our hands is placed a power greater than their horded gold Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousandfold. We can bring to birth a new word from the ashes of the old. For the union makes us strong!

                                      SOLIDARITY FOREVER!

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Working Catholic: Manufacturing by Bill Droel

       It is hard to get a handle on globalization because it includes nearly instant communication, instant transfers of money, plus trade policies, including tariffs and NAFTA. It is also the IMF, currency rates, immigration policies, large-scale assembly and distribution of goods, speculative trading of complex financial instruments, outsourcing and an international drug market, plus sweatshops, changes in government regulation, changes in the protection of patents, changes in labor relations and fluxionary natural resource markets. It is the education gap and the income gap as well as a new corporate culture of mergers, bankruptcies, short-term bottom lines and so-called scientific management techniques. Yet Chad Broughton helps us understand it all with a compelling “tale of two cities”: Galesburg, Illinois which is off Interstate 74, about 200 miles west of Chicago and Reynosa, Mexico, just across the border from McAllen, Texas. His Boom, Bust, Exodus (Oxford University Press, 2015) weaves around a handful of workers in each place.

   The Galesburg part of the story centers on Maytag Corporation, founded in 1907 by Frederick Maytag. He was authoritarian, but overtime negotiated with a union. Maytag invested in the infrastructure of his Iowa town, the factory’s location. He rewarded loyal workers with monetary gifts and regularly conversed with those on the shop floor, those in sales and the retail dealers. This family ethos continued with modifications under his son and grandson. In the mid-1980s the appliance company opened a plant in Galesburg. In those years it also, Broughton explains, evolved away from its family credo as displayed in the plant’s lobby: “Our management must maintain a just balance among the interests of customers, employees, shareholders and the public… None can long benefit unless the needs of all are served.” Maytag adopted “a corporate governing structure,” beholden exclusively to stockholders.

   Maytag closed its Galesburg factory in 2004. CEO Ralph Hake serves as the villain. He is hardly responsible for all the downsides to globalization. Suffice it say though that his obsession with quarterly stocks, his lack of critical thinking and his compassion deficit ruin the company. Yet, consistent with his short-term vision, Hake did fine. He sold his home for $641,000, bought a Las Vegas mansion and then wrote a hate book. By the way, he got a $10million parachute plus millions more in stocks. 

   Maytag opens a plant in Reynosa, but there too it finds “a way to slough off…any sense of obligation to the place.” The Reynosa plant is one of many border factories for U.S.-based companies (maquiladoras) that beginning in 1987 set off enormous migration from rural areas of Mexico; a process during which the admittedly poor but family-rich and relatively safe life of villages gives way to danger and uncertainty in the manufacturing towns of both countries.

   Laura Flora is a Mexican drawn to Maytag in the hope of a better life. Yet “from the moment she started at Planta Maytag…her circumstances turned bleak,” Broughton details. She, like others, earns about 78 cents an hour; eventually about $1.35. Her daughters now live in a risky environment. By 2008 Maytag, then owned by Whirlpool, closes its Reynosa plant and Flora loses her home. She is one example, Broughton concludes, of “the low road industrialism of North America: low wages, low skill requirements and low retention.”

   Mike Allen is a pathetic character during this episode. He was ordained an Oblate priest in the mid-1960s. He resigned about ten years later and through contacts with business and agencies he became the “most diehard of capitalists.” He was, Broughton details, “the main actor in the explosive bi-national boom taking place in [the McAllen/Reynosa area].” Sadly, Allen continues to say the poor workers are his parishioners while measuring “his success exclusively in the language of business and economics,” avoiding “responsibility for what was happening in Reynosa.” But Allen kids himself. “During the day, the multinationals held sway over the formal economy. At night, El Cartel dominated the lucrative informal sectors,” particularly the drug market.

    A journalist is not obligated to solve the situations he or she describes. Broughton has no easy formula for reviving the working class in the United States or ending the exploitation in Mexico. He does, however, provide a few suggestive examples, including humane and honest worker centers in Mexico staffed by heroic church leaders and some renewal energy manufacturing in the United States. Broughton’s achievement is a superb profile of real workers in real places with just enough analysis, but not with premeditated moralizing.

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