Trumka Hopes Pope Reiterates "'Thou Shalt Not' To An Economy That Kills"

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Trumka Hopes Pope Reiterates

When Pope Francis I visits the U.S. -- and the Nation's Capital on Sept. 23-24 -- "he must say 'Thou shalt not' to an economy that kills," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says.

Speaking Sept. 9 at a forum sponsored by Jesuit-run Georgetown University in D.C., Trumka, a practicing Catholic, praised Francis' outspoken criticism of the excesses and inequities of capitalism. The forum previewed the Pope’s visit.

"That's what he's been saying" ever since ascending the Papal throne, Trumka said of Francis. "And that's why people are so enthusiastic" about his reign.

The university invited Trumka and three other speakers -- a scholar from the right wing American Enterprise Institute, a Catholic University professor who grew up poor in Buffalo, and an African-American Catholic Unite Here organizer who helped unionize Georgetown's cafeteria workers -- to address connections between family and the economy and to discuss what they want the Pope to say.

Francis has sounded that family-and-economy theme in his speeches and official documents (encyclicals). He constantly declares the economy, notably its financial sector, must serve people and families, and not the other way around.

Francis is also an outspoken supporter of unions, in line with 125-year-old Catholic social teaching. The organizer, Tarshea Smith, wants the Pope to advocate that, too.

"I hope he addresses the right to organize," said Smith, a single mother and former cashier at Georgetown's cafeteria. "In this community, workers should have the right to organize without being threatened in any way."

Trumka, Smith and the international relations professor, Mary Ann Cusimano, all emphasized that empowering workers would empower families as well as raising their living standards. Cusimano said doing so would particularly help women, in the U.S. and worldwide.

She noted that, including developing nations, women perform more than half of the world's work, but own only 1 percent of its property and earn only 10 percent of its income. "And in the U.S., the 10 lowest-paid occupations" -- such as fast food work and home health care -- "are majority-female," she added.

Cusimano hoped Francis "would bring that focus of realism on how poverty hurts families" as well as women.

"Work should lift people out of poverty, not keep them in it," Trumka added, referring to the millions of U.S. workers who toil full-time for the minimum wage. Many of them, to escape poverty, must take second and third jobs, he pointed out. "They can't be home with their kids because they can't afford it. It's all connected.”

Citing the droves of children she saw migrating northwards from Latin America through the border city of Brownsville, Texas, Cusimano said poverty in the U.S. and abroad "is not a recipe for strong family formation or social cohesion." Indeed, she said, Latin American parents send their kids to the U.S. as "an act of love," hoping the children will find opportunities here.

Michael Strain, American Enterprise Institute's deputy director of economics, was the odd man out on the panel. He defended unbridled capitalism and even opposed raising the minimum wage, saying doing so would make more people jobless and would hurt families.

He also claimed that in the last few decades, capitalism raised more people worldwide away from the abject poverty of earning less than a dollar a day than at any other time in history -- something Strain said Francis doesn't recognize. He said the Pope should do so.

That brought retorts from the other panelists. "If you don't like the minimum wage, why not join with me and advocate (strengthening) collective bargaining?" Trumka challenged. Strain had no reply. Stronger unions and collective bargaining, Trumka reiterated, helped create the U.S. middle class, from 1947-1973. It’s declined since then, he pointed out.

"We have to have good jobs, we have to have economic security and we have to look out for each other," he declared. That's a message Francis should restate, Trumka added.

"There's little question that capitalist forms" of the economy "out-perform state-controlled forms and kleptocracies. But how well are they working and for whom?" Cusimano asked. Francis poses that question. GDP data doesn’t cover income distribution, she noted.

"When you look at the real picture, 'free markets' means 'free to exploit me,' because of the rules" laid down by the powerful, Cusimano declared.

The Pope will address a joint meeting of Congress during his visit and whether the lawmakers will heed Francis is another matter. "I hope the Pope is able to bring Congress together, but if I was forced to bet on it, I wouldn't," Strain said. "I hope I'm wrong."

And while the Pope is pro-worker, U.S. bosses -- including bosses at Catholic-run institutions -- deny workers' rights, even flagrantly breaking U.S. labor law. That prevents workers from improving their and their families' lives, Trumka and Smith said.

The Chicago-based Resurrection Health Care hospital system broke labor law when AFSCME tried to organize its workers, for example. On an individual scale, before the cafeteria workers unionized at Georgetown, Smith missed a day of work because of an epileptic seizure. When she called her supervisor, from the hospital, to inform her she could not come in, the super said Smith would be written up.

"When I left her office the next day, I was crying. I have two kids to raise and I don't want to lose my job," Smith said. But a student organizer for the Georgetown workers told her that "If you stand up, I'll stand with you" as would other workers and students.

"We won because the professors, the students and the community stood with us. Workers should not have to be living in fear," Smith concluded. 


Photo from Catholic Church England and Wales.