Tesla union labor battle shows need for church’s leadership and teaching voice

A worker is seen outside Tesla Inc. in Buffalo, N.Y., Aug. 8, 2018. In heavily Catholic Buffalo, dozens of Tesla employees allege the electric auto manufacturer fired them in retaliation for attempting to form a union — a right at the heart of the church’s social teaching. Tesla faces a complaint before the National Labor Relations Board over the firings, which came within two days of the workers’ Feb. 14, 2023, launch of their unionizing campaign. (OSV News Photo by Brendan McDermid)

By Kimberley Heatherington

In 1891, the same year Pope Leo XIII responded to revolutionary economic and industrial upheaval with the encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” the first car powered by electricity made its debut in America. More than 130 years later, dozens of Tesla employees in Buffalo, New York — a still heavily Catholic area — are alleging the electric auto manufacturer fired them in retaliation for attempting to form a union.

Tesla faces a complaint before the National Labor Relations Board over accusations the company fired more than 30 employees at its Buffalo facility within two days of workers launching their campaign Feb. 14 to unionize the Autopilot division at the Tesla plant. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has vocally opposed unions, but the company claimed the firings were unrelated to the union push.

OSV News’ request for comment went unanswered by Tesla, while Tesla Workers United representative Sara Costantino declined to indicate if solidarity was sought from the Diocese of Buffalo (which also had no statement). Additionally, the New York State Catholic Conference withheld comment, characterizing the dispute to OSV News as a federal issue.

But neither Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” — nor church teaching that followed — is silent on the subject of labor unions. While urging workers to organize “societies for mutual help,” the pontiff emphasized “the most important of all are workingmen’s unions.”

Pope Francis echoed the teaching in December, telling members of the Italian General Confederation of Labor, “There is no union without workers, and there are no free workers without a union.”

In 2022, Gallup found 71% of Americans approve of labor unions. Yet nationwide, only 10.1% of wage and salary workers — 14.3 million employees — are union members, almost half of what union membership was in the 1980s and the lowest rate on record, according to a January 2023 U.S. Department of Labor report. 

But the weakness of national labor unions may be changing, and with it comes renewed demands for the Catholic Church to provide both leadership and guidance from its social teaching. An analysis of survey data released October 2022 by the Center for American Progress found Millennials and Gen-Z — “the most pro-union generation” — are the ones behind successful drives to unionize. And according to the General Social Survey, Catholics make up 22% of America’s 336 million population.

“If you went back to the 1950s, if you were in your union meeting on Tuesday night, you would have seen a lot of the same people who you saw in Mass on Sunday,” Clayton Sinyai, executive director of the Catholic Labor Network, said. “That’s much less the case now.”

But Sinyai expressed concern about the state of the church’s catechesis on labor.

“I suspect most Catholics today don’t even know their church has a teaching about the dignity of work and the rights of workers,” he said.

For decades, “labor priests” — clergy who preached workers’ rights and accompanied their organizing efforts or resistance to corruption — were a numerous and frequent sight on picket lines, at union negotiations and gatherings, and even in entertainment. Karl Malden’s Father Barry, the mob-fighter and friend to longshoremen in the 1954 film “On the Waterfront,” had his real-life equivalent in Jesuit Father John Corridan, who battled exploitation of New York City Harbor workers.

“Catholic engagement with the labor movement now is going to look different than it did in the past,” explained Sinyai. “We have a shortage of priests, and their time to engage on these issues may be limited.”

The right to unionize and seek workplace equity is fundamental to Catholic social teaching, with St. John XXIII, St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis expounding on Pope Leo’s “Rerum Novarum” in various ways.

In his 1991 encyclical, “Centesimus Annus,” commemorating the 100th anniversary of “Rerum Novarum,” St. John Paul II taught that trade unions and other workers’ organizations “defend workers’ rights and protect their interests as persons, while fulfilling a vital cultural role, so as to enable workers to participate more fully and honorably in the life of their nation and to assist them along the path of development.”

Likewise, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy” (1986) succinctly states: “The church fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions.”

Some of the busiest union organizing sectors include hospitality, food service, airlines, health care and nonprofit staffing. Retail giant Amazon and coffee colossus Starbucks have both encountered unionization campaigns, to the bewilderment and reported hostility of management.

Starbucks interim CEO Howard Shultz told CNN Feb. 21, “I don’t think a union has a place in Starbucks,” and in a November 2022 letter to employees lamented, “I am saddened and concerned to hear anyone thinks that is needed now.”

Only 282 of 9,300 company stores have so far voted to unionize, but Starbucks’ progressive image has been dented by hundreds of unfair labor practice charges.

At the same time, the effect of Starbucks unionization extends beyond the company. Tesla Autopilot division employees in Buffalo have benefited from the support of the Starbucks Workers United, which started its organizing efforts in Buffalo.

However, the modern labor movement faces stiff headwinds in the face of corporate opposition, underscoring the need for the church to provide clear, consistent teaching on labor and unions.

“It’s almost next to impossible to successfully organize a union today in the United States, if an employer deliberately tries to oppose it,” Daniel Graff, director of the Higgins Labor Program at the University of Notre Dame Center for Social Concerns, said.

“The idea of what unions are and what they do has slipped out of public consciousness and public conversation,” he added.

The recent union organizing uptick is, Graff suggested, “really a sign of the American people waking up to the last 50 years of the erosion of jobs in terms of quality and pay, and increasing inequality.”

He said, “It will be interesting to see if this particular moment transforms the union movement both in reality, as well as in the popular imagination.”

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