For as long as working people have come together for better lives and working conditions, they have relied on clergy and religious leaders to bring a spiritual dimension and moral leadership to the movement—in mines, mills, fields and factories.
Now an effort is under way to reinvigorate the ranks of “labor priests” in the Catholic Church. This new network of labor priests aims to build a contemporary home for a century-old tradition of speaking out for workers’ rights and fighting against injustice alongside workers.
The Rev. Evelio Menjivar was among some 30 priests who attended a conference for labor priests in Chicago last May. He serves as parochial vicar at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C.
Since the conference, Menjivar has been active with the HEI Workers Rising! campaign at the Sheraton hotel in Crystal City, Va.
“Just to be present and walk with these workers was important,” Menjivar says. “It shows that the Catholic Church cares for them and supports them. That is what we are all about.”
The National Federation of Priests’ Councils (NFPC) organized the conference with support from unions, the AFL-CIO and other organizations, including Interfaith Worker Justice and the Catholic-Labor Network.
“Labor priests are all over the country but we have had no vehicle to find and talk to each other,” says the Rev. Clete Kiley, director of immigration policy at UNITE HERE and a conference architect. “We needed training and a way to communicate. We needed a visible body.
“We needed to organize!” Kiley chuckles.
Priests at the conference heard from Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, and from Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who spoke of her immigrant family and of the impact priests have during labor actions.
During daily meals Hyatt hotel workers, who had just begun negotiations with the hotel chain, spoke of injuries due to crushing workloads and of having their poverty level wages withheld by their temp-agency employers.
Exploitation is particularly rampant among undocumented workers and those with H2B visas, Kiley says.
“It amounts to indentured servitude, and many of our priests see it among their parishioners,” he says. “It is hard to believe this is America in 2012.”
Especially disturbing are the similarities between current injustices and those that inspired the benchmark 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, “On the Conditions of Labor.”
“So many of our parishioners are immigrants—it is a nexus issue for the Catholic Church,” Kiley says.
Immigrants are helping to sustain the priesthood itself, whose numbers declined from nearly 59,000 in 1975 to fewer than 39,000 today. Nearly one-third of priests ordained in the United States in 2011 were born in another country, according to Catholic World News.
It may be challenging to build a labor priest network in view of this shortage but the plight of the worker remains a powerful motivator, as it was for Msgr. George Higgins, one of the most influential labor priests of the 20th century. In his 1993 book, Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a “Labor Priest,” Higgins recounted a conversation with a housekeeper at a Disneyland hotel:
“I asked [the woman who cleaned my room] how long she had worked there. ‘Twenty years,’ she said. I asked if she would mind telling me how much she earned. ‘Minimum wage,’ was her reply. I am often asked: Why are unions needed in this day and age? People should not ask me. They should ask the maid at Disneyland and other low-wage workers.”
Conference participants already have provided support to workers and unions in Atlantic City, Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles and San Jose, and the new network aims to establish labor priests in every state, Kiley says.
NFPC will sponsor a second gathering in 2013, and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development is set to launch a website to connect labor priests.