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Laboring for a better future

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Labor Day is approaching Sept. 2. The church and labor unions have collaborated on issues for years. Look back as far as 1891 to Rerum Novarum, “On the Condition of Labor,” by Pope Leo XIII — “The most important of all (workplace associations and organizations) are workingmen's unions … Such unions should be suited to the requirements of this our age — an age of wider education, of different habits, and of far more numerous requirements in daily life. It is gratifying to know that there are actually in existence not a few associations of this nature, consisting either of workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together, but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient (no. 49).”

The Catholic Church in the United States continues to work through organizations such as the Catholic Labor Network, a non-profit organization in Washington that promotes the cause of workers and Catholic social teaching in labor unions, parishes and other organizations. 

Clayton Sinyai, a parishioner of St. Philip Church in Falls Church, is a visiting fellow at Georgetown University in the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor in Washington. He also is executive director of the Catholic Labor Network. 

Sinyai said the church and the labor movement have been consistent defenders of justice for immigrants in this country, and with intense focus on defending immigrants, the collaboration between church and labor movements has increased. 

“The Catholic Labor Network proposed to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) establishing a church labor partnership project, which will sponsor collaboration between labor organizations and church organizations around the country in order to promote justice to the working poor and justice for immigrants,” he said.  

The Catholic Labor Network was awarded a CCHD national strategic grant in February. Sinyai said the project has received the funding and is just getting the program off the ground. 

“It was a dream come true when this grant was offered,” he said. “It feels like this project is what I’ve been preparing my whole life for, both in my academic training and career activity.”

Sinyai is no stranger to labor unions. He is a member of (Construction) Laborers’ Union Local 11 in Washington and has spent years in a variety of roles, including as a machine operator at a factory in Chicago that made rubber protective equipment for workers who install power lines, railroad clerk and letter carrier. He is a member of the Knights of Columbus Council 17056 at St. Philip. 

“Today, most of my brothers and sisters in the labor union are Salvadoran immigrants,” he said. “Labor unions early on became strong supporters of immigration reform.”

clayton for web

Clayton Sinyai, executive director of the Catholic Labor Network, holds a sign the AFL-CIO printed so workers could welcome Pope Francis on his 2015 visit. COURTESY CATHOLIC LABOR NETWORK

The Catholic Labor Network works to foster cooperation between church and labor unions on three different levels — policy issues, organizing solidarity from Catholics and church institutions for workers who are trying to organize or bargain for a living wage, and job training and placement.

Sinyai said Catholic Conferences, such as the Virginia Catholic Conference, and the AFL-CIO have parallel jobs and work on the same side of issues, including raising minimum wage, protecting workers from punitive laws and working on securing paid family leave. 

“One of the things we’re hoping to do is trying to foster more collaboration on these issues because even though they were working on these same issues on the same side they frequently weren’t working together, there was no communication,” he said. “The state legislative sessions generally start in January, so we are fostering communications now between the two groups to identify the common issues and work together.”

 One group of people the Catholic Labor Network is working with is kitchen workers for airlines. “We have negotiations trying get them a living wage and family health care coverage because of the low wage,” said Sinyai. “Many of them are going without family coverage.” 

In late July, airline catering workers on the East Coast gathered at Reagan National Airport in Washington to call attention to their struggle to be able to work one job to obtain a living wage. 

The Catholic Labor Network is working with Catholic Charities USA and the Roundtable of Catholic Diocesan Social Action Directors to help them connect their clients seeking job placement with unionized employers that pay living wages. 

Sinyai said the biggest place you’ll see this is in apprenticeship programs and the construction industry. “The National Association of Trade Unions formed a partnership with CCUSA to offer free apprenticeship training, a short two-week introduction that people looking into a career in the construction sector can find out what it’s about and get placed in an apprenticeship program.” Sinyai said his organization is trying to introduce this around the country and make sure local Catholic Charities agencies are aware of it, and coach them on how to refer their clients and what their clients need to succeed.

Sinyai said his faith gives him a way of understanding labor and work and the dignity of every human being. 

“I think our society teaches that people are only worth what you can get from them, that’s what the market teaches you,” he said. “It’s something that undermines the dignity of the worker. People are only assigned as much value as the market has for them. Everyone is entitled to a living wage to support the family because that is the design that God has laid out for creation.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019