Reverend Richard Smith, an Episcopal priest, worked to improve the lot of workers in California long enough to protest for farmworkers alongside Cesar Chavez in the 1970s during the lettuce strike, when Smith was a seminarian Jesuit.
He’s still passionate enough about workers’ rights that last Holy Week he ritually washed the feet of striking janitors on a picket line.
Now retired from St. John the Evangelist, a congregation in San Francisco’s North Mission District, he is one of a small number of clergy serving as intermediaries between unions and employers whose workers, especially those in catering, consider unionizing.
In a process known as “card checking” or “majority registration”, employers forego an anti-union campaign and instead choose to recognize a union supported by the majority of their employees. In the card verification process – so called because workers sign a union authorization card – the employer and union engage a trusted third party to accurately count and verify the signatures on the cards.
That’s where clergy like Smith came in.
“I’ve been trying to figure out how to help the cause the best I can, especially during the pandemic. This kind of crisis,” Smith said.
But the paperwork of card checks has nothing to do with protesting alongside workers. To learn about his new role, Smith connected with the Catholic Labor Network, a nonprofit that promotes labor causes and Catholic social teaching in unions and parishes. Smith helped organize training sessions for priests interested in fulfilling this duty. The first training started in September 2021 and the CLN is planning another this spring or summer.
So far, four priests have enabled about 1,000 low-wage restaurant workers in Washington, D.C., California to gain membership in Unite Here, a union with about 300,000 active members, according to Clayton Sinyai, executive director of the Catholic Labor Network.
This is a busy time for unions and organizers. As the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic amid a nationwide labor shortage, American workers would have the greatest bargaining power they’ve had in decades . They used this lever in a multitude of union actions. Kellogg’s employees in Michigan recently ended a nearly three-month strike around the same time employees at a Buffalo, New York, Starbucks became the first to unionize one of the stores in the coffee chain.
But even as unions appeared to grow, membership actually fell in 2021 to 10.3%, bringing the rate back to pre-pandemic levels.
Chuck Hendricks, director of national contracts at Unite Here, who is also the financial secretary of the Catholic Labor Network, said that while it is not common to find clergy involved in the card verification process, some priests have a long history in the work, and the use of priests continues to grow.
“I think it’s an outgrowth of people’s ties to religious communities, and some employers have decided it’s also a credible and fair way to know that the people doing these counts are honest and trustworthy brokers. “said Hendricks, who grew up in the south of the country. Baptist and then converted to Catholicism.
The clergy also tend to be trusted by the workers. “[They] felt more comfortable knowing that a member of the clergy was reviewing the signatures rather than an arbitrator, a lawyer or someone from the government,” Sinyai said.
Catholic Church support for unionization goes back at least to Rerum Novarum, an encyclical published by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 which deals with the condition of the working classes. By the mid-20th century, many parishes provided training for union organizers (partly to prevent communists from dominating unions). The pro-union Catholic priest played by Karl Malden in the classic film “On the Waterfront,” about labor disputes on the New York docks, was based on a real-life Manhattan priest.
“Catholic Social Teaching has a vision of a more collaborative relationship between workers and their unions and their employers,” Sinyai said. “The privileged relationship is a harmonious relationship, and this method of forming a union and collective bargaining is much less confrontational.”
Clergy attracted to card-checking work tend to be long-time supporters of unions, having picketed with workers or as members themselves. But they emphasize that in this case they fulfill an impartial role.
The job requires clergy to analyze and compare workers’ signatures from a list of eligible employees provided by their bosses and signed clearance cards in support of the union. The clergy disqualified unidentifiable signatures that did not completely match and returned to the union to let them know that there were not enough verified signatures.
“If card checks aren’t done with 8 million percent integrity … we all lose, and the hardest hit will be the workers,” Smith said.
In Texas, Fr. Sinclair Oubre was called in to check maps when employees of one of Google’s cafeterias sought to join Unite Here. Oubre, a member of the Seafarers’ International Union, said participating in this process was “encouraging”.
“We can actually put our Catholic social teaching about work into practice in a real, concrete way,” he said. “There is this idea of cooperation, of dialogue, of collective bargaining to work for the common good.”
In Washington, Fr. Martin Burnham of the Catholic University of America volunteered to certify the cards of the workers who occupy the Senate cafeteria at the United States Capitol.
Even in such august surroundings, Burnham said he was most impressed with the implications of the task at hand. “It was certainly very humbling to know that people’s lives and futures were taken into account in that decision-making process, that I was the one doing that checking and matching the signatures,” Burnham said.
“It was a big responsibility.”