Catholic Social Teaching and the United Auto Workers’ Picket Line
Catholic social teaching has long supported the existence of labor unions and the worker’s right to a just wage, rest breaks, humane working conditions and retirement and medical insurance. It also recognizes strikes as a legitimate means of resolving disputes.
TOLEDO, Ohio — Ben Gustafson has worked at the Jeep assembly plant here for nearly seven years, but he hasn’t had a raise in three years, nor does he know if he ever will be offered a full-time permanent position.
“All I can do to make more money is work more hours,” he said. At age 61, he puts in 60 to 70 hours a week as one of the plant’s 1,160 supplemental employees.
Gustafson is in the lower tier of a pay system that is among the top issues he and other striking United Auto Workers (UAW) want addressed in negotiations with Big Three automakers Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (formerly Fiat/Chrysler), Gustafson’s employer. The strike began Sept. 15, with 12,700 UAW members at three auto plants, including Toledo Jeep, and since has expanded to include 25,000 workers at more than 40 locations in 20-plus states.
Catholic social teaching has long supported the existence of labor unions and the worker’s right to a just wage, rest breaks, humane working conditions and retirement and medical insurance. It also recognizes strikes as a legitimate means of resolving disputes, provided they are applied “in the proper conditions and within just limits.”
As yet, there has been no statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the UAW strike, but the Catholic Labor Network, which promotes the cause of workers and Catholic social teaching in labor unions, parishes and other organizations, is fully supporting it. “Our sympathies are with the workers who sacrificed so much to keep these companies alive during the great recession and now that the companies are profitable again deserve to be made whole,” Clayton Sinyai, executive director of the network, told the Register.
Polling shows that U.S. voters also are standing behind the strikers. In a Data for Progress poll conducted Sept. 20-21, 62% of those surveyed supported the striking workers, an increase from 55% the previous week.
The union claims it is time to recover concessions made to help the companies survive the 2008 financial crisis. Those included the addition of a second tier of workers who would earn lower wages and benefits, and the elimination of regular cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) and defined benefit pensions. The Big Three, the UAW claims, took in $21 billion in total profits in the first six months of 2023, yet refused to meet what it called “members’ reasonable demands.”
To make up for worker losses since then, the UAW is demanding a general wage increase of about 40% over the four-year contract, restoration of COLA, an end to the two-tier system, a return to defined-benefit pensions and protections for workers affected by the shift to electric-vehicle production. The union also is asking for a four-day work week at five-day-a-week pay, though this is not generally considered as high a priority as the other demands.
Many of the strikers interviewed on picket lines outside the Toledo Jeep plant cited the tier system as their top concern. This was true even of workers in the top tier like Jason Trumbull, a tool and die maker who has worked at the Jeep plant for 23 years. He said, for him, the strike is not solely about money.
“The way they treat new hires is the main issue,” he said. “This has always been a place to come to and make a career of. There’s nothing now to keep the new hires here.” A fourth-generation Jeep worker, Trumbull said his 13-year-old son wants to carry on the family tradition by working at Jeep, but he has advised him to set his sights elsewhere.
James Jefferson, a millwright and 30-year employee, concurred. “I’ve been full-time forever, but there is a discrepancy for pay and profit-sharing if you’re not. A lot of these workers have worked here four, five, six years, and they’re still making $19.28 an hour. It’s supposed to be an eight-year progression [to full time], but we’ve lost a lot of really good people because of it.” The top hourly production wage for union workers at Jeep is about $32.
Wayne Gerber, an electrician and 23-year employee, said he is concerned about the plight of newer hires as well, adding he also has seen good workers in the lower tier quit to take other jobs because they cannot count on regular work schedules from week to week. However, he said the loss of the COLA also has been a key issue for him, as has not having had an increase in base salary since the union agreed to concessions. “We gave up a lot to help this company,” he said.
Although the workers clearly see their demands as justifying the strike, their action could be costly to the automotive industry, which contributes 3% to 3.5% of the U.S. gross domestic product. If the strike were to last a month, it could reduce vehicle supply by 500,000 units. The UAW walkout also could affect wholesale used-car prices.
An estimate by the Anderson Economic Group suggested a 10-day strike at all three auto companies could cost manufacturers, workers, suppliers and dealers more than $5 billion, including $859 million in lost wages for striking workers, who receive $500 a week in strike pay.
Common Good Standard
Whether the UAW strike is justifiable according to the principles of Catholic social teaching is open to question.
V. Bradley Lewis, an expert on Catholic social teaching at The Catholic University of America, said the Church’s support for labor unions and the right to strike is not absolute.
“The activities of labor unions, like those of business and of government, must be seen in the context and judged in light of the common good,” he said. “Social justice is directed to the common good, and so the rights of workers are part of this.”
Lewis said that in the 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, St. John Paul II held that a strike was “an extreme means” that should not be abused for political purposes. He added, “The Catechism of the Catholic Church holds that a strike is legitimate only if it cannot be avoided and when it is the only way to obtain a proportionate benefit. Otherwise, the strike itself damages the common good” (2435).
Considering that, he said, several questions must be seriously asked about the UAW strike: “Are auto workers presently denied a just wage? Are working conditions such as to justify a strike?”
Furthermore, Lewis asked whether the proposed four-day work week is reasonable and justifies a strike. He also questioned the demand for a defined benefit pension plan, which he said is a thing of the past no longer enjoyed by most employees across the economy, who now participate in defined contribution plans.
“Does this demand justify the economic and social side effects caused by a strike? Is the UAW — under the leadership of a very aggressive new president — simply striking because the low unemployment rate puts management in a relatively weaker position? How much of this is really connected to politics?”
Muted Catholic Response
The Catholic response to such questions and to the current strike has been minimal, unlike a time decades ago, when priests might have visited and ministered to striking workers on the picket lines.
The Catholic Labor Network’s Sinyai said, in his experience, many Catholics are unfamiliar with the Church’s social teaching about labor. “It’s something we have struggled with here at the network,” he said, “because we encounter many believing Catholics who are unaware of this tradition.”
Sinyai said reactions from those who learn of it range from some who want to know more about what the Church teaches on this issue to those who, because their political party doesn’t support labor unions, don’t understand why the Church does.
In the Diocese of Toledo, where 5,800 Jeep workers are walking picket lines 4 miles from the diocesan offices, spokesman Kelly Donaghy did not respond to questions about whether Bishop Daniel Thomas or any priests had reached out to the striking union members.
In the Archdiocese of Detroit, Father Sean Bonner, the pastor of St. Mary’s parish, located near the striking Ford Motor Co. Wayne Assembly Plant, reportedly took a middle ground, asking parishioners to pray for a quick and equitable end to the walkout.
Meanwhile, UAW President Shawn Fain is giving the strike his own brand of religious flavor and fervor by using what one report called “strikingly Christian rhetoric” in his leadership of the walkout. He has been shown publicly carrying his grandmother’s Bible.
Citing biblical figures like Moses, he has referred to the UAW’s cause as “righteous.” Additionally, he recently told members how his daily devotional reading on “fear and faith” spoke to their fight and quoted Matthew 17:20, which speaks to the power of having faith the size of a mustard seed.
For Fain, according to another report, “[The Bible] boasts a sharp economic justice edge, leaving no doubt that God takes sides in the perennial struggle between the haves and have-nots.”