Los Angeles Herald Examiner (November 20, 1988)

From – Los Angeles Herald Examiner (November 20, 1988)

Title – “Archbishop Mahony’s bad example”

The nearly year-old fight between a labor union seeking to represent gravediggers and the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s resistance to it indicates that Archbishop Roger Mahony’s highly touted activism in the name of social justice has its limits. Indeed, the archbishop’s actions seemingly defy church doctrine.

The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union is representing the gravediggers at 10 Catholic cemeteries. The largely Latino workforce first demanded the fight to form a union after a colleague died and their life insurance policies were canceled. Allegedly, the cancellations were part of austerity measures to pay for the pope’s September 1987 visit.

Of the 140 gravediggers, 120 signed union authorization cards. The ACTWU then presented the cards to Archbishop Mahony, who refused to recognize the union as the gravediggers’ bargaining agent. The workers then turned to the National Labor Relations Board to certify an election. But archdiocese attorneys successfully argued that the gravediggers were not protected by labor laws because they were “religious workers.”

“The cemetery operations are integral to the Catholic church’s religious mission and rituals,” said Victoria E. Aguayo, the NLRB regional director. “Excessive entanglement by the board would violate First Amendment rights.”

The union subsequently appealed to the archbishop to permit elections under the supervision of a third party. At a Nov. 3 meeting, the archbishop finally agreed to allow state mediators to conduct an election on Jan. 13, 1989.

Throughout, the negotiations between the two sides have been less than cordial. Instead of creating a model for employers of poor Latinos to emulate, the archbishop, according to union sources, has responded to them with the same kind of cynicism he has repeatedly scorned in agribusinessmen. For example, when the ACTWU presented the authorization cards to the archbishop, he remarked that “I’ve been around unions long enough to know how you get people to sign cards. You have a big rally, serve a lot of food and drinks, and get people…to sign cards.” According to some gravediggers, the archbishop has even allowed his director of cemeteries to try to coerce them into joining an employees’ association, better known as a company union.

Catholic dicta, needless to say, do not justify such tactics. Pope John Paul II has vigorously defended the right of Polish workers to unionize. His 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens (“On Human Work”) reaffirmed that right.

Furthermore, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter, “Economic Justice For All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy,” not only supports but encourages workers to form unions. Thus, it is difficult to understand why Archbishop Mahony has veered from the church’s recent progressivism in dealing with the gravediggers.

Aguayo’s ruling is no less puzzling. The NLRB has frustrated previous efforts by cemetery workers to organize by denying it has jurisdiction over such cases. And the courts have ruled that employees of religious hospitals fall within the NLRB’s jurisdiction while parochial schoolteachers don’t. Just why gravediggers are more like teachers than nurses was left unexplained.

Archbishop Mahony certainly has every legal right to block the collective bargaining process by citing court precedents. But is morality on his side?

The fundamental moral principle raised in Pope Leo XIII’s May 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, the cornerstone of church policy toward labor, is relevant. In holding that “the employer’s principal obligation is to give a just wage,” the encyclical recognizes that workers need unions to demand “a just wage.” That’s because workers are often not free to accept or reject wages.

A “just wage” then, is not a simple matter of employer charity. It is a moral right. In his encyclical, Leo XIII asserts a link between the deterioration of society and poverty, leading to a loss of religion and the decline of morality.

The archdiocese’s cemetery workers earn from $5.75 an hour to $7.85 an hour. Most of them reportedly make closer to the lower figure. Jose Aranda, after 12 years of digging graves for the archdiocese, was earning $5.75 an hour last July. That would put Aranda and his co-workers near the poverty level of $10,000 a year.

Of course, Archbishop Mahony is no secular leader. But he cannot afford to abandon his commitment to social justice. Religious leaders, through example, must stress the dignity of the human person. If they deny their workers the product of their labor, what can society expect from those to whom Leo XIII referred as “avaricious and greedy men”?