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Michael O’BrienSeptember 22, 2023
An individual rides a scooter while holding a United Auto Workers on Strike sign outside a Mopar Parts Distribution Center, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023, in Plymouth, Minn. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

While summertime may be over, the spirit of this “Hot Labor Summer” continued into autumn, when the United Auto Workers declared a strike on Sept.15 against America’s “Big Three” automakers, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (a multinational corporation that includes Chrysler Motors), the first time all three major U.S. automakers were targeted in U.A.W. history.

This strike continues a recent trend of other unions—like the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild of America, Unite Here Local 11 (composed of hotel employees in California and the U.S. Southwest) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (who represented UPS workers) resorting to strikes for higher wages and better working conditions.

The U.A.W. is one of the largest unions in the country, with nearly 400,000 active workers and roughly 145,000 members working at the Big Three. While originally just under 13,000 of the total employees at the Big Three went on strike, after the automakers and U.A.W. were unable to reach a new deal by noon on Sept. 22, the union has announced that it will expand its strike to more GM and Stellantis plants, including all 38 distribution centers.

While the nation will watch to see both the economic and political effects of the strike, the presence of the Catholic Church has played a hand in the mission of the United Auto Workers long before this most recent strike.

The presence of the Catholic Church has played a hand in the mission of the United Auto Workers long before this most recent strike.

Connections between the church and U.A.W. activism go all the way back to the fight to save Poletown, Mich., a neighborhood of Detroit (the U.A.W.’s birthplace) named for the presence of the predominantly Polish immigrants who first came to the community seeking jobs in the auto industry.

When the city of Detroit invoked eminent domain on much of Poletown’s residential sector to create space for more automotive plants, leading labor activists like Ralph Nader, who joined forces with Poletown’s Immaculate Conception Church, drew national attention to Poletown’s cause.

“Historically, the United Auto Workers has been among the unions most informed by Catholic social teaching,” Joseph McCartin, the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, told America. “I think this is because so many auto workers were Catholic when the union was being formed in the ’30s and ’40s in cities like Detroit and Flint, and also because a number of the activists who were involved in the early U.A.W. were influenced by their Catholicism.”

The U.A.W. has not just historically fought for its own goals, either. “The demands of the United Auto Workers over the years have not just been confined to the issues of wages and hours, but they fought for things like civil rights, as in the 1960s, when they were prominent in the March on Washington along with religious leaders,” Mr. McCartin said. “And so there’s been a long tradition of this social unionism of the U.A.W., which I think is an important thing to call attention to.”

In a contemporary political context, the strike also creates an opportunity for President Joseph Biden, a Catholic himself, who has expressed his support for the U.A.W.’s goals.

In a contemporary political context, the strike also creates an opportunity for President Joseph Biden, a Catholic himself, who has expressed his support for the U.A.W.’s goals.

“President Biden has already made clear that he thinks the auto workers’ demands are just and that he hopes for a settlement,” Mr. McCartin said. “I think he’s in a position of being able to bring about that settlement by speaking out, which he’s already done.

“Clearly Biden is influenced by his own knowledge of Catholic social teaching, and that has helped to shape his outlook on things like workers’ rights. And so it’s an interesting moment for this president to be able to put more substance on his very strong rhetorical stand for workers’ rights by helping to bring the sides together in a way that moves the auto workers toward a just transition.”

But President Biden’s support for the U.A.W. is in tension with another goal: pushing the economy toward the production of more electric vehicles. One of the main goals of the current U.A.W. strike is to ensure that their jobs will still be intact in a world of E.V. manufacturing.

“One of the reasons why the auto workers haven’t endorsed President Biden at this point is because they want him to ensure that the federal investments that are going to be helping the automakers’ transition to the electrical vehicle model come with an important stipulation; that is, if the taxpayer is going to help fund this transition,” Mr. McCartin said.

“If we’re honest with ourselves, both the church and the labor movement were institutions that were stronger in the 20th century than they are in our modern society.”

“In the long run,” he said, “automakers are going to make tons of profit from the shift, and they need to recognize the union in these new plants—and make sure that the jobs that emerge in those new plants play the same role that the 20th century auto industry played, mainly being able to lift people up into a middle-class and stable economic future.”

While President Biden juggles his Catholic support for the worker with his environmental goals, Clayton Sinyai, the executive director of the Catholic Labor Movement, told America that he felt there could be a stronger Catholic presence in the current U.A.W. strike, much in the same way that Msgr. George Higgins, known nationally as “The Labor Priest,” served as the chairman of the U.A.W.’s public review board.

Mr. Sinyai noted that despite the church’s historic connection to labor, there was not much evidence of a strong Catholic presence during “Hot Labor Summer.” That contrasts with past experiences of strong union action when Catholic leaders were side-by-side with labor officials. Mr. Sinyai told America, “I think there are still a few [prominent Catholic] figures, but not on the level that Msgr. Higgins was at.” He noted that he would “love to see somone [at the U.S. bishops’ conference] doing that work.”

Mr. Sinyai also pointed out the correlation between the lower union membership and the dwindling number of churchgoers in the 21st century: “If we’re honest with ourselves, both the church and the labor movement were institutions that were stronger in the 20th century than they are in our modern society,” he said.

“The shrinking size also explains a lot about the alienation of the church and the labor movement that were very close in the mid-20th century. In the ’50s and ’60s, probably every pastor had union members on their parish council. They understood what the labor movement did, and that’s a lot less true today.”

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