Trumka Reflects on Pro-Worker Ministry of Pope Francis

South Orange, New Jersey
Trumka on Pope Francis

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at Seton Hall University commemorating the fifth anniversary of the papacy of Pope Francis: 

Good evening. I am deeply honored to be here at Seton Hall University. I want to first express my personal gratitude to President [Dr. Mary] Meehan for hosting this event and for her kind words, and to Cardinal [Joseph] Tobin for his invitation to join him on this stage to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Papacy of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. Finally, I want to thank the new governor of this great state, Phil Murphy, for joining us tonight. I look forward to hearing your thoughts in a moment.

This event is only possible because of the work and devotion of many, many people. I want to recognize in particular my dear friends and brothers Charlie Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO, Mario Cilento, president of the New York AFL-CIO and Vinny Alvarez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council. Thank you.

We are here tonight to reflect on the meaning of the Papacy of our Holy Father Pope Francis, and in particular the meaning of his ministry for regular working people. We have just heard from Cardinal Tobin some of the context for Pope Francis’ ministry in the long legacy of the Catholic Church’s support for the labor movement in the United States and around the world—a legacy that continues to be written every day in settings as far removed as the chambers of the Supreme Court and the grim cells of immigrant detention centers.

Five years ago, Pope Francis was elected to the Papacy. From his first moments as Pope, he ministered to a world deeply hurt by the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath—where it seemed at every turn working people paid the price for unmitigated greed on Wall Street. Pope Francis came to Rome from South America to preach to a world in which many millions had been fundamentally marginalized and forgotten—facing the loss of jobs, the foreclosure of homes, the burdens of sickness and old age without adequate security and the trauma of homelessness. The people of the global south suffered the most endemic and desperate situations...extreme poverty and total exclusion from the fabric of society. In his every act, Pope Francis extended an elegant and simple message: “You are not alone.”

The title of tonight’s event is “Solidarity is OUR word.” Those are the words of our Holy Father. I believe that statement is both traditional and revolutionary.

Frankly, I use the word “traditional,” because solidarity is the core message of Catholic social teaching and has been for generations. This is the Catholicism I learned as an altar boy in my hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania. This Catholicism was our shield as poor immigrant coal miners. That may sound like colorful language, but it is the literal truth. When my dad and granddad were organizing the United Mine Workers, the mining company owned the entire town we lived in. They forbade anyone to organize a union on their land. This edict was enforced by Pennsylvania’s dreaded Coal and Iron Police. One night those men on horseback came upon my dad and my grandad at a secret union meeting in the woods. They beat the coal miners with clubs, looking to crack skulls. My dad and granddad ran to the only building in Nemacolin that was not owned by the mine bosses, Our Lady of Consolation Catholic Church. The mounted police chased and caught them just as they reached the church. The iron shoes of the horses clattered onto the church steps, and the Coal and Iron police struck my grandfather across the eyes. He carried the scar for the rest of his life. The great wooden door of the church opened, and Father Simko ran out with a crucifix high above his head and said: “This is the Lord’s house! This is a sanctuary!”

Brothers and sisters, the Catholic Church has always ministered to working people, sheltered working people...inspired, soothed and lifted up working people...and from that deep tradition rises the ministry of Pope Francis.

Yet in the context of our cold and impersonal modern world, in which so many politicians and business leaders seem to worship the invisible hand of the market—the Pope’s message of solidarity is revolutionary, even destabilizing.

All around us people are appealing to our worst selves, baiting us to fear and hate anyone who seems on the surface to be different. Voices sowing division and distrust tell us to admire the thief, the con man, the bully and to look down on humble workers...nurses, teachers, ironworkers and sheriff’s deputies. When Pope Francis says solidarity is our word, his message contradicts the morality adopted by so many of the world’s wealthy and powerful. His message is an affront to selfishness. It breaks isolation. It welcomes the outcast. It exposes the illusion and reveals the truth, which is that we are bound together by love, and we must care for each other and our world.

Last week, we saw the ugly forces of greed and division manifest themselves at the Supreme Court. The labor movement is profoundly grateful to the Conference of Catholic Bishops for filing an amicus brief in the Janus case on behalf of the freedom of public sector workers to form effective unions. At stake is whether public workers will have a fair and free vehicle to carry out Pope Francis’ message of solidarity. Will the federal courts in the age of Trump allow working people to have the precious freedom to form effective unions? Or will the Supreme Court, too, try to fragment us, to leave even more of us at the mercy of—as our Holy Father says—“an economy that kills?”

The core of Pope Francis’ ministry for working people is love. He tells us we matter. Our work and our lives count. Our sacrifices for our families, for our fellow workers, for our vision of a better world are worthwhile, and ennoble our lives. He shows us how the ties that bind us together do not make us foolish or weak, but rather connect us to the divine.

Pope Francis also challenges us. His ministry is not a pat on the head. He demands that those who uphold and follow the modern ideology of greed—rich and working people alike—stop and ask: Is this worthy of what God made us to be? The words of Pope Francis force us to ask ourselves: What is the nature of solidarity? He asks if our ethic of love is consistent. He asks: Can our devotion to human life allow the rollback of environmental regulations and worker protections that boost profit but literally kill the poor?

What is our relationship, our Holy Father asks, with other working people, with our poor neighbors both close to us and far away? What is our relationship to the Earth itself? Who do we exclude?

Now, I want to address in detail three themes of Pope Francis’ ministry. The first is how work connects with what it means to lead a good life. The second is his critique of neoliberalism from the perspective of solidarity. The third is what Pope Francis says to working people and to our labor movement about what we must be—and how to be true to the spirit of solidarity.

In this whole talk, my hope is to reinforce the words of Cardinal Tobin. This is not some high-minded philosophical discussion. Pope Francis offers practical answers to tough challenges faced by working people and our unions in the United States and around the world.

Last November, Pope Francis wrote a letter to a global conference of labor leaders at the Vatican about work. My friend Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a part of the UFCW, who is here tonight, attended and spoke at that conference. In his letter Pope Francis said: “According to Christian tradition, (work) is more than a mere doing; it is, above all, a mission....We collaborate with the creative work of God when, through our work, we cultivate and preserve creation; we participate, in the Spirit of Jesus, in his redemptive mission, when by our activity we give sustenance to our families and respond to the needs of our neighbor.” Pope Francis then quoted St. Ambrose who said: “Every worker is the hand of Christ who continues to create and to do good.”

This message rises from the ancient doctrines of the Catholic Church. It also speaks to the lived experience of every worker I have ever known. Coal miners. Strawberry pickers. Nursing assistants who clean bedpans. Graduate assistants who teach in universities. All express pride in the ability to “create and to do good.” Work gives our lives meaning. As we work alongside each other, our shared experiences and values bring us together in solidarity. Early in his papacy, Pope Francis said: "We do not get dignity from power or money or culture. We get dignity from work."

Pope Francis’ message about the value of work clashes with what we’re told by some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people, who say our society hurtles toward a future in which there will be no work at all. Pope Francis tells us not only is such a world a fantasy, it is a nightmare.

You see, no form of labor is shameful. I think of Rebecca Diamond, a second-grade teacher in West Virginia, who recently went on strike out of desperation. “I never dreamed 19 years ago when I started teaching that I would have to work a second job to provide for my kids,” she said. Our labor movement will fight and pray for Rebecca and her fellow educators. Work is never shameful. What is shameful is how we are treated by too many of those who employ us, and by so many politicians who claim to speak for us.

As we speak of the dignity of work, we must address the injustices that women face. Pope Francis has spoken of "chauvinism that always wants to control the woman,” calling unequal pay "a disgrace."

All work has inherent dignity, yet for far too many the workplace is a setting of dangerous vulnerability. Pope Francis challenges all of us to ask ourselves: What part do we play in the vulnerability of others?

When I hear Pope Francis speak of the dignity of work, I also think of my family’s history as coal miners in Pennsylvania. My grandfather entered the coal mines when the job was a sure ticket to an early grave—if the roof falls didn’t get you the Black Lung would. What you got for sacrificing your life to the mine was poverty. My granddad, my dad and my uncles fought to make those jobs better, just like they fought for our country in World War II. In the 1960s, when I first went underground, mining had become much safer, and it paid a middle class wage. What had changed? The coal was the same. Yes, the technology of mining had improved. Yet what really changed was the workers who dug the coal had come together and formed a union the bosses could not ignore. With our union, we leveled the playing field. That’s how we made our lives and communities better, as we made those mines more productive.

And so today, we are told, technology will do away with the work of millions of us. We are told that somehow, despite the world’s rapidly growing material wealth, our society will no longer be able to afford for us to work, to be dignified by our labor. It’s a ridiculous idea. People will always work. And technology should improve our working lives, not impoverish or degrade us. Pope Francis tells us that God values work, not robots. God values people who work, and God expects us to do the same.

Pope Francis’ love for work and workers is the heart of his challenge to neoliberalism, to the false and destructive idea that we should allow unregulated markets and greed to dictate what happens in our global society. He has received both positive attention and criticism over his critique of unfettered capitalism.

In his first major statement, Pope Francis exposed—and I quote—the “forms of neoliberalism that consider profit and the laws of the market as absolute parameters above the dignity of people or peoples.”

With these words, Pope Francis called out the all-too-common notion that our value can be reduced to a dollar figure. This actually happens. Here’s an example. A few years ago, managers at a profitable Mott’s apple juice plant in upstate New York tried to cut worker pay, saying they were—quote—“a commodity like soybeans or oil.” This was at the end of the Great Recession when millions of workers had lost their jobs. No. A surplus does not drive down our value. We are not commodities, traded by the bushel on some unregulated exchange. We are people. The Mott’s workers, members of RWDSU, rallied, went on strike...and with President Appelbaum by their side, won.

The quote I gave you just a moment ago from Pope Francis about neoliberalism was offered in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, where 1,134 garment workers died. As working people reckoned with the scale of easily preventable loss after that terrible day, we...in the global labor movement...asked the world’s largest brands and retailers to require their suppliers to, at the very least, meet minimal standards for worker safety and labor rights. The workers at Rana Plaza had been sounding the alarm about the building for years, with no result. In answer to our demands, hundreds of global brands signed a binding agreement to improve working conditions, but many major U.S. brands and retailers, led by Walmart, did not.

The example of Pope Francis teaches us that market fundamentalism cannot be reconciled either with the dignity of labor or with our fundamental dignity as people. Pope Francis teaches us it is simply immoral to harm other people in the name of the free market. When businesspeople hide behind complex and faulty economic arguments, it is wrong. A “market transaction” does not allow us to escape our moral responsibility. It doesn’t work. We are all children of God.

Recently, Pope Francis said: “The capitalism of our time does not understand the value of trade unions, because it has forgotten the social nature of economy, of business.”

This goes back to his message about the need for our economies to respect human dignity.

Yet the Holy Father does not let workers off the hook. He challenges us, and we MUST respond. He has said to us that we in the labor movement must embrace prophecy and innovation. In his address to Italian unions, Pope Francis said—and again I quote: “Unions are an expression of the prophetic profile of society. Unions are born and reborn each time that, like the biblical prophets, they give a voice to those who have none, denounce those who would ‘sell the needy for a pair of sandals’ (cf. Amos 2:6), unmask the powerful who trample the rights of the most vulnerable workers, defend the cause of foreigners, the least, the rejected.”

Let me talk about a situation today, in the United States, that calls on the labor movement to embrace our prophetic mission. Disturbingly, our government is seeking to rip from homes and communities hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled terrible injustice in decades past to find sanctuary here, who have lived and worked here, who have raised families and built careers right here under a program known as Temporary Protected Status. These are our neighbors, our friends...this is us. Tens of thousands of union members are part of the TPS program, which may soon end. And at the same time our government may soon uproot, detain and deport hundreds of thousands of young people known as DREAMers—aspiring Americans who came to this country as small children and know no other home.

We love and value these people, and our sympathy extends, also, to the parents of these DREAMers, the mothers and fathers who sought a better life, a place to care for themselves and their families, a refuge from disaster and persecution. We must not expel those who trusted our offer of help, and we must replace our broken immigration system built of capricious and punitive laws with one that offers all who work in America a path to citizenship.

We care about ALL these good people. We must. Our solidarity MUST extend to each and every one of our brothers and sisters. Pope Francis reminds us that our fate as a labor movement, our strength and our solidarity grows from our choice to be reborn in the defense of our neediest brothers and sisters.

Pope Francis makes a larger point, too. He says: “Unions do not carry out their essential function of social innovation if they watch over only those who are inside, if they protect the rights of only those who already work or who are retired. This must be done, but it is half of your work. Your vocation is also to protect those who do not yet have rights, those who are excluded from work and who are also excluded from rights and from democracy.”

Today only one in ten of America’s workers has the ability to bargain collectively with our employers through a union. Yet our labor movement defends the other nine workers every day. We defend Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Workers Compensation. We defend the freedom to vote against those who would take this nation back to the days of Jim Crow. We fight every day for a tax system where corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share so we can invest in the programs working people need.

It is not enough. Pope Francis urges us on. His message could not be clearer—a prophetic and innovative labor movement must seek to give voice to all workers, and not just voice. Listen to the words of our Holy Father. He speaks of “denouncing those who would sell the needy for a pair of sandals.” He speaks of unmasking the powerful. This is the language of power, not of power for its own sake but power in the service of others, especially the poor, the marginalized and the excluded. Our solidarity...our unionism...must and will be the antithesis of social exclusion.

I believe America’s workers and our unions are prepared to respond to this challenge from Pope Francis to be both prophetic and innovative. And we take strength from the Church’s solidarity with us. I think of Puerto Rico—where hundreds of union members from New Jersey and New York risked their own lives to help the poor and the devastated in Puerto Rico this past fall. When our relief flight arrived in San Juan, our people were met by the Archbishop of San Juan, Roberto Gonzalez, who came late at night to our barracks and walked the halls handing out bottles of water and blessing and praying with construction workers and nurses.

The labor movement is resolved to fight for and win collective bargaining for all of America’s workers, because, like Pope Francis, we believe the poor must be the agents of their own development. The future of humanity does not belong to the elites and the powerful, but to all of us and our ability to organize for a fair piece of the pie. We will defend our democracy against those who urge us to hate and fear, and who say greed will answer our need. It will not and cannot. And we will see to it that the gains of technology are shared among all.

I will close with Pope Francis’ greatest challenge to America’s labor movement. In his Papal Encyclical Laudato Si, he spoke of the urgent need for humanity to care for the Earth, our common home. He demands that we look at the connection between the climate crisis and other environmental crises and global neoliberalism. He said: “Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked. [As a result] whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

Laudato Si asks working people to consider how our fate is linked to the fate of humanity, and the planet on which we live. Laudato Si says we cannot make solidarity the servant of consumerism. Instead, we must bring the fight against climate change into the larger struggle for solidarity and a new global economic system that respects the dignity of work. Our labor movement has not done enough to answer this call. Yet we must, so we can protect our common home and each other. A just transition to a low carbon economy—a transition that creates good jobs where workers have rights—can truly tear down the deified market and establish new economic rules for broad prosperity.

As I close, I will return to the title of this evening’s event. Solidarity is OUR word.

Five years into his Papacy, Pope Francis has catapulted the concept of solidarity to the center of the global conversation. He has both embraced and lifted up working people, and he has challenged us to be our best selves—our prophetic and innovative selves. But most of all, in his words and actions, he has been the embodiment of kindness and love—of the idea that we are bound together, that we must indeed look after each other and that as we do so, our own lives will be better.

The labor movement is incredibly grateful to Pope Francis for his ministry. I hope these remarks can serve as a token of our gratitude. Thank you, and God bless you.