How Priests Are Helping Workers Unionize | Sojourners

How Priests Are Helping Workers Unionize

A priest’s collar. Image via Godong/Alamy.
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When employees want to form a union, there is often a grueling, lengthy battle for recognition from their bosses, culminating in a vote run by the National Labor Relations Board. But some employers are willing to forgo this process, opting to recognize a union that receives authorization from a majority of employees, often with a third party that counts the authorization cards. This year, some employers have been turning to priests.

Last September, the Catholic Labor Network, a nonprofit dedicated to workers’ rights, trained six priests to perform “card checks” for workers looking to unionize. Since then, the priests have performed card checks for six local union efforts through UNITE HERE, a labor union that represents over 300,000 U.S. and Canadian workers in the hotel, food service, transportation, and other industries.

“The Catholic church teaches that all people have dignity and all workers deserve just working conditions,” said Clayton Sinyai, CLN’s executive director. “Union membership is a primary way of achieving this.” Sinyai said that unlike some secular approaches that assume unions and employers would have an antagonistic relationship, the church thinks their disputes can be resolved peacefully and fairly.

Having a priest serve in the arbitration role, rather than someone hired by an employer, is conducive to a more trusting environment, labor advocates told Sojourners.

Chuck Hendricks,  a national director at UNITE HERE with more than 20 years of labor organizing experience, was himself drawn to Catholicism because of its teachings that promote dignity for workers. Raised Southern Baptist, he began attending St. Ignatius Church in Chicago and was struck by the congregation’s weekly prayers for the faithful, which included workers — from housekeepers to fishermen. He later converted to Catholicism, where he said he found a “home,” and learned about the deep ties between Catholic social teaching and workers’ rights.

“The economic system in our country is not ordained by God, it’s a system created by humanity,” Hendricks said. “But what is ordained by God is that every person should have fundamental respect and a right to humanity. Their humanity extends beyond the 16 hours a day that they’re at home — it extends to the eight hours that they’re at work.”

Now Hendricks has been working with the Catholic Labor Network to help connect priests and employees looking to unionize.

For the priests who have gotten involved with CLN’s initiative, they say card checking is one way to put faith into action.

Growing up, Rev. Martin Burnham’s father was a “union guy,” who worked as a machinist outside of Baltimore. He remembers his father’s union membership as a “gift,” one that supported his family financially and helped provide for his mother after his father’s death. When he learned about CLN’s card check training, he jumped at the opportunity. Soon after, Burnham was able to connect with workers from the U.S. Senate’s cafeteria who were looking to unionize.

“The amount of trust that’s placed in you in the process is pretty humbling; to know that you’re going to impact these folks’ lives in pretty significant ways,” Burnham said. “Knowing the stories of the workers that I’ve been involved with … people’s struggles financially … the statistics around the change in wealth and the shift in wealth and how that's come along with the degradation of the unions … It’s pretty important to be involved with [unionization efforts].”

During one card check, Burnham actually had to reject some of the signatures on the authorization cards because they were not a match for the ones provided to him on official paperwork. However, within 60 days of an initial card check, workers are able to appeal for a recount in a “reconciliation period.” If a majority vote in favor of unionizing is not reached because some signatures were rejected, workers are able to resubmit their cards. The second try was a success.

Rev. Ty Hullinger has worked with Hendricks and UNITE HERE, several times since the training in September. He’s no stranger to the process, in the past having helped perform card checks in Baltimore. But he said in the last couple of months since CLN’s training, he’s performed card checks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Boston, each time feeling “humbled” and “honored” by the experience.

“I really feel, as a priest, it's very important to be walking with people in the fullness of their lives,” Hullinger said.

“It’s really been good to just be able to hear and share in the workers’ journeys. … There’s been a lot to really be anxious and worried about the last couple years. I’m just really glad that — in a number of workplaces — some of that anxiety and fear is lifted when workers can have a collective voice and their employers respect that voice.”