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Labor Movement Hopes to Get a Bump From Pope Francis Visit

6 minute read

Cardinal Donald Wuerl spoke in front of a sparkling mosaic on Monday morning, and he was not in a church. The backdrop was not even Biblical, at least not technically. Instead the mosaic was a wall-sized portrait honoring workers at the AFL-CIO headquarters, where Wuerl, Catholic archbishop of Washington, was speaking alongside the labor organization’s president, Richard Trumka. Together, the two men championed care for workers.

Wuerl and Trumka are less odd couple than one might think. Both are Catholic, both are in “exile from western Pennsylvania,” as Trumka put it, and both make it a priority to advocate for workers who are poor and immigrants. Both are also hoping that Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the U.S. in September will be an opportunity to build momentum toward around supporting workers and immigrants. “Just the fact that he is coming here, not even that he has arrived yet, has brought renewed hope to the people all through the labor movement,” Trumka said later at a small press conference about the event. “He is coming here in a moment of renewal,” Wuerl added. “His focus will be to energize the faithful and through that, give new hope to the whole community.”

Catholic support for labor is far from new—it goes back decades—but Monday’s event marked a new moment for both the labor movement and the Catholic Church in the U.S. The event was sponsored by both the Catholic University of America, the national university of the Catholic Church in the U.S., and the AFL-CIO, which represents more than 50 unions and 12.5 million workers. The conference, titled, “Erroneous Autonomy: A Conversation on Solidarity and Faith,” was the first time in recent years that a lineup of high-profile Catholic leaders, featuring a Cardinal, spoke at the AFL-CIO. Intentional conversation between the two groups picked up last year when the CUA hosted a similar event on the Catholic case against libertarianism and Trumka introduced Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, another of Pope Francis’ top advisors.

This year the theme was the Catholic concept of “solidarity,” the idea that humanity is called to stand together across divisions and to advance social justice. Pope Francis, Wuerl noted, often speaks of solidarity as a way to counter what he calls the “globalization of indifference” and a “throwaway culture.” Heavy hitters from both the Catholic and labor fields filled the room, including Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, Reverend Clete Kiley of CUA, and a dozen other bishops and priests. Former AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, the son of Irish Catholic immigrants and a longtime Catholic labor champion, sat in the front row. It was hard to tell whose standing ovation came faster, Trumka’s or Wuerl’s.

Monday’s event stressed a shared theological and moral foundation for protecting and supporting laborers, and Wuerl’s and Trumka’s language was at times interchangeable. “That phrase—raising wages—expresses a moral vision, because when we fight for a living wage, for earned sick days and paid family leave, we are not just seeking economic gains,” Trumka said. “We are seeking the material foundations of a good life that makes it possible for us to care for each other, for families to raise children and care for the elderly and for us to be part of the faith life of our community.”

“We are not bystanders,” Wuerl said, referring twice to Trumka as “our president.” “We are supposed to be active agents in the transformation of this society.”

It is another sign that the labor movement sees Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. as an opportunity to advance its message. Last week, the grassroots faith organization PICO and the Service Employees International Union visited the Vatican to lobby the Holy See to address income inequality, race relations, and immigration reform when he visits in September. Some Catholic groups, including the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the NETWORK Lobby, also pushed for Congress earlier this year to oppose fast-track trade promotion authority, citing concerns that it would promote corporate power instead at the expense of protecting individuals.

Specific political steps going forward remain open-ended—neither Wuerl nor Trumka elaborated on details of a specific partnership or programming. Instead, their message is to create a new tone that can guide new political realities. “We have to see how the issue of human solidarity impacts immigration, labor—how it impacts other moral issues in terms of how we look at the death penalty, the defense of human life for the unborn, or the elderly,” Cupich told TIME during a session break. “So this is just one other way in which in fits in to our whole understanding of what human solidarity is about, which the Holy Father is doing.”

That baseline conversation is also important as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops revises key documents about citizenship formation. “We’re going to be considering all of these issues as we issue a new version of our ‘Faithful Citizenship’ document on political responsibility,” Cupich says. “So my hope would be that I would be able—and the other bishops who are here—to take from what we learned here today and give consideration to how the importance of organized labor and what it tries to achieve.”

Labor and faith groups are working together before Pope Francis’ trip to raise awareness of issues such as the environment, civil rights, immigration reform and inequality, says AFL-CIO press secretary Gonzalo Salvador. “There are plans of doing polls on attitudes toward economic and moral issues, as well as possible summits and roundtable discussions on these issues,” he says.

The AFL-CIO is awaiting that moment with open arms. “The American labor movement is at the disposal of the Pope,” Trumka said. “We will do anything that he needs to be done to make his visit a total success.”

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