Pope Francis tells us Catholic social doctrine applies in the concrete situations within which we find ourselves living. In speeches to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, he has lifted up three major aspects of daily life where we can put this dimension of our faith into practice: in land, lodging and labor: “tierra,” “techo” and “trabajo.”
Nancy Carrasco is a hotel housekeeper originally from Ecuador. She understands when Pope Francis talks about “trabajo,” work or labor. Like Pope Francis, Nancy understands work, “trabajo,” is essential for each person’s dignity. It is essential for our integral human development. She agrees with Pope Francis’ statement: “There is no worse material poverty than the poverty which does not allow people to earn their bread, which deprives them of the dignity of work.”
Every day Nancy carries in her apron pocket English and Spanish copies of her collective bargaining agreement. One day at work she found a co-worker crying. A supervisor had criticized her for speaking Spanish while at work. Nancy pointed out to her co-worker the clause where their right to speak their native language at work was protected. These women reclaimed the dignity of their work.
Nancy knows work is all about dignity. She appreciates the words of Genesis 2:1-15 and other parts of our Catholic tradition that teach work is a participation in the creative action of God. Think about that for a minute: The value of our work is not determined in a board room but is given its value by God himself.
Nancy knows we all need work. It is how we are best able to honor our Creator, to provide for our families and to support the welfare of our communities. If there is no work, there is no dignity. When a workplace does not respect the safety or dignity of workers, Nancy knows we Catholics must confront it, as she did about their right to speak their native language at work.
The church calls us to solidarity to fix work problems. Solidarity means to think and act in terms of community. Pope Francis also has said: “The future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize.”
Solidarity and organizing are the key. The church says the best way for workers to show solidarity and organize is through a union. Unions are “indispensable,” states the encyclical “Laborem Exercens,” and are needed “today even more than in the past,” says the encyclical “Caritas in Veritate.”
Nancy Carrasco belongs to UNITE HERE International Union. Most of the union members are women, immigrants and people of color working in the hotel, food service and gaming industries. Many remain out of work even as these industries rapidly change. These UNITE HERE members practice solidarity and organizing.
When a staggering number of hotel housekeepers reported being sexually harassed on the job, UNITE HERE members organized and secured an ordinance in Chicago providing panic buttons for every hotel worker in the city. Solidarity and organizing restored dignity to their work.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, UNITE HERE members, like Nancy, ensured members and their families had food and access to health care. They organized to make sure laid-off workers would be the first to return to work. They helped neighbors from underserved communities secure access to vaccines.
Much of the hotel industry was once owned by trusted brand names. Today many hotels are owned by real estate investment trusts. Profit is the only reason real estate investment trusts exist. Today many are eliminating housekeeping and room service jobs. Food will soon be coming from ghost kitchens with appalling work conditions. Housekeeping and kitchen workers are standing in solidarity and organizing with UNITE HERE.
Key elements of Catholic social teaching are work, solidarity and organizing. Nancy Carrasco understands that.
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(Father J. Cletus Kiley is senior adviser for UNITE HERE International Union and chaplain for the Chicago Federation of Labor.)