The Original Beef of Chicagoland
Starting to think Blase Cupich might not be one of the “good bishops”.
“In the midst of the accidental and ever-fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour-time socially necessary to produce them asserts itself as a regulative law of nature. In the same way, the law of gravity asserts itself when a person’s house collapses on top of him.”
-Marx, Capital (volume one)
Chicago, our nation’s most rabidly anti-ketchup city, is currently in the middle of a heated political debate. We’re always in the middle of a heated political debate, but this one is especially interesting to me for reasons that I’ll explain in a minute; the city council is currently debating a “Labor Peace Ordinance” that would affect every company and organization that gets contracts from the city. Many of those affected organizations are charitable or humanitarian nonprofits, generally part of the social safety net that steps in when public organizations don’t have the resources to do so.
Some of this is pretty complex, and there’s an excellent explanation by Chicago DSA’s Ramsin Canon over at Midwest Socialist of the proposed ordinance and its implications for both labor and management, and previous legal precedents for laws like this. Basically, the ordinance that the city council is considering right now would put in a new requirement for organizations that contract with the city of Chicago: your workforce either has to be formally unionized, or management has to agree not to interfere if their workers begin to organize (and to avoid retaliating against any workers who try to organize). Canon recapped the public comments to the city council:
“A number of nonprofit executives, including executive directors, chief operating officers, founders and board members showed up to testify against [the ordinance]. These nonprofits exist in a political climate (Chicago) that is at least nominally pro-union. But more importantly, as social service nonprofits, they also are situated in a precarious set of social relations, where outward progressive politics is important. Unlike for-profit companies, they can less afford to be nakedly anti-union, to make the kinds of arguments union-busters typically make, out loud. It would undercut their relationships with progressive politicians, relationships they depend on for city budget funding decisions, assistance with city bureaucracies, legitimacy and connections to funders and foundations. It would damage their reputation as an employer among progressive-minded workers, who take these jobs, often knowing they’ll be underpaid, out of a sense of wanting to do good and serve a “mission” of equity and justice. It would harm their internal board politics, since the board members of these nonprofits are often visible or high-profile people who consider themselves or hold themselves out to be progressive, and who do not want to be the target of organizing drives or become known as union-busters.
So on Tuesday, these people found themselves with a problem. Because while they all insisted they are pro-union and support union organizing, and likely genuinely do, they knew something they couldn’t admit. That their workers organizing a union — thus taking power to bargain for, and guarantee, better wages, conditions, and job protections — could irreparably harm their operations. Why? Because social service nonprofits are just privatized public services, and that privatization is justified on the basis that nonprofits can do it more cheaply, either by paying less, working people more, firing people whenever they need to, or a combination of all of these things.”
Ok, so, you have all of these nonprofit executive folks who run do-good organizations, who talk about how pro-union they are personally, but that being forced to allow workers to organize if they want, and to not retaliate against workers for “talkin’ union” (to use the Deadwood term), would just destroy them, so please please please, city council, don’t pass this ordinance.
The thing is, these nonprofit executives are absolutely right. It's easy to point out the ironic dissonance in what they're saying, but I’m not laughing, and they’re not joking: workers having more power to determine their working conditions and compensation would absolutely throw a wrench in all of these nonprofit organizations. And this isn’t necessarily because these organizations are hardcore union busters, it’s just how every organization in the private sector has to structure itself. If these nonprofits want to keep winning bids and contracts, then management has to have the power to cut costs and lay off workers and do unbelievably shitty things like lay a whole bunch of LGBTQ health care workers off right before Christmas. They have to crush as much out of their workers as possible. That’s what it takes to succeed as one of these organizations, even if you’re a nonprofit. It’s capital, it’s the private sector, and no matter how good a person you try to be, if you run an organization in that world, capital always wins. The solution, within the current structure of these organizations, would be to protect the workers’ power, their rights to unionize and collectively bargain and strike, so that those workers can agitate for better wages and working conditions, which, you would think, would help ensure that these organizations were attracting and retaining the kind of people that would do this important work to help the city’s most vulnerable. A more permanent structural solution, one that Canon highlights in his piece, would be to have publicly-funded democratically-controlled government organizations handle this work, but we’re a long way off from that given the decades-long gutting of the public institutions in Chicago (and other cities).
So, to summarize: you have this big group of important organizational leaders, running organizations that do good things. Those leaders have to say the right things about worker power, because their job depends on keeping positive relationships with people who have pro-worker politics. But few of these leaders do any of the right things when it comes to worker power, because worker power is a direct material threat to their organizations, as those organizations are structured. So, take all of this, and see if you can guess where the archbishop of Chicago landed in the debate.
On February 6th, Cardinal Archbishop Blase “The Soup” Cupich, who still refuses to use the awesome nickname I invented for him, wrote a letter to the Chicago city council begging them to do everything they could to avoid giving workers any more rights or protections, including the employees at the Catholic Charities organization that he oversees and which provides many social services throughout the city:
“We cherish our employees at Catholic Charities as they work daily to improve the lives of those most in need. And the Church stands with organized labor and its goals of protecting worker dignity and ensuring workers earn a livable wage and receive good benefits. We share and respect the impulse driving this ordinance – the sector simply needs more funding to fulfill our mission and our commitments to our employees. Rushing this ordinance through risks making unwanted and unwise tradeoffs. I urge that more time be given to allow further study, consultation, analysis, and revision. The proposed Ordinance creates unnecessary discord for us and our peer human service providers and risks distracting us all from the core funding challenge. In its current form, given its specific requirements, the Ordinance will have significant unintended and damaging consequences for us all.”
Certainly, Cupich is correct that these organizations are underfunded, and if we can’t have the public sector fill these very real needs in the city, we have to make sure those organizations are funded properly so that their employees can be properly compensated and work in the right conditions. Another good way to help employees get proper compensation and good working conditions is to let them organize and collectively bargain over those exact issues with their organizations; while that process is not perfect, it’s far more effective at getting things done for workers compared to, say, a one-off letter from the archbishop. Another area where Cupich is incorrect is when he calls the ordinance “rushed”; the ordinance has been on the city council’s table since 2019 and in committee for the past two years, and as Alderman Sue Garza of the city’s labor-heavy Ward 10 also explained to Cupich, he should shut the hell up:
“Catholic Charities is exempt from this ordinance. We have repeatedly asked Catholic Charities for language to clarify what they think is necessary for them to be comfortable to be exempt but have gotten nothing. Your letter states that we are pushing this through, that is not at all true either. This ordinance has been in committee for over two years.”
Sorry, what was the first thing you said? Catholic Charities wasn’t even part of this ordinance to begin with? While I really don’t like that, I like the implications of it even less: that Cupich is actively opposing giving rights to workers that he has nothing to do with. Cupich isn’t even acting out of financial self-interest as the head of an organization that has very little money and has to find a way to fund Catholic Charities. That would also be a shitty thing to do, but it would be easier to understand. But that's not what's happening here. Cupich is acting in his personal capacity as an asshole, in open opposition to the teachings of the church. He’s a bishop out there trying to take rights away from other private-sector workers, even though it wouldn’t cost him a cent to see this ordinance pass!
What an embarrassment for the archdiocese. Hell, imagine if there was a bishop out there who was brave enough to say something like this during the debate:
“The church has never made a distinction between private and public sectors of the work. Work and unions are important not simply for what a worker ‘gets,’ but how they enable a worker to provide for a family and participate in the workplace and society. Unions are important not simply for helping workers get more, but helping workers be more, to have a voice, a place to make a contribution to the good of the enterprise, to fellow workers and the whole of society.”
That would be incredible, wouldn’t it? Maybe it sounds like something from a nineteenth-century papal encyclical, something from the rich social teaching of the church that Cupich never bothered to read. But it’s not! You probably already guessed who said this! It was Blase Cupich, in 2015, while addressing the Chicago Federation of Labor! Apparently, Cupich has a gift for saying all of the right words and doing none of the right things, and not just on this issue. He takes very strong stances against clerical sexual abuse, but seems to keep misplacing his records on which priests have actually been accused. He has advocated for a holistic approach to sanctity-of-life issues that went beyond legislative abortion bans, but has recently made clear that his priority is passing a legislative abortion ban in Illinois. And he can say all the right things about unions and human dignity when he has a keynote speaking gig, but the second we get to "changing literally anything", and especially changing anything that would lead to him losing some power over things like “his workforce” or “his political spotlight” or “his ability to keep church records confidential”, he'll run away from it. It’s got nothing to do with whether he’s a good person, it’s what the job of being a bishop is. Just like the job of being a nonprofit CEO requires you to hold on to your power and make sure your workers don’t get any of it.
The sad thing is that Cupich is the kind of guy that progressive-minded Catholics talk about as "one of the good bishops". When Pope Francis named him to Chicago in 2014, Catholic media went wild, especially when they looked at all of his statements and writing in his previous dioceses. Religion News Service said that the appointment “could upend decades of conservative dominance of the American hierarchy”. Michael Sean Winters of NCR wrote that “revolution came to Chicago this morning…The cardinals and bishops whom Pope Francis consulted before making this choice clearly advised him to not only send a bishop to Chicago, but to send a message, +Cupich's comments at the press conference notwithstanding. This is not an incrementalist choice. This is not a balancing choice.” Whispers In The Loggia compared the appointment to literal thunder and wrote that Cupich’s appointment had the potential to be one of Pope Francis’ top two “most consequential appointments of his entire pontificate in the English-speaking church.” Vinnie Rotondaro wrote that “The 65-year-old pastor's ascent to the Chicago archdiocese -has captivated the Catholic world in the United States and represents a potentially important shift in the direction for the U.S. bishops' conference, observers say. One privately called it an "ecclesial earthquake."” Tom Gallagher wrote that “It's also time for other bishops around the country with personal qualities and pastoral sensibilities similar to Cupich to raise their voices at U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings and in the public square. Together, these bishops will begin to communicate collectively the fullness and joy of the Gospel to the world and will engage all people, especially those existing out on the periphery of society, with kindness, gentleness and understanding, not denunciations, declarations and litigation.” This was going to be the guy that was going to usher in a newer, more compassionate era of the American episcopate, the guy who didn’t hammer over and over on abortion bans and voting Republican, the guy who walked with people where they were, Francis’ main guy in the states, and a guy who was, dare I say it, possibly even progressive or liberal on some key issues. He has had almost a full decade to do this, and he hits the standard bishop retirement age of 75 later this year.
Look, I didn’t know what sort of seismic shift in Catholicism I was supposed to expect when Cupich came to Chicago - and to be fair, he's put some good policies in place in the arch, like implementing a 12-week paid maternity leave policy - but I at least expected him to do the bare minimum on supporting unions, an area on which Catholic teaching is not very ambiguous. Cupich doesn’t want his workers to have an unobstructed right to organize; that sucks, and that makes him a bad bishop. But even if I let that slide for some reason, I definitely would expect Cupich to sit out a political debate from which his organization is already explicitly carved out, and I definitely wouldn’t expect him to go around the city pointing at other groups of workers to say “I don’t think these people should have unions either”. I suppose I’d rather have the guy as my archbishop than several other bishops working in the States right now, but that feels like saying I’d rather get hit in the teeth with a wooden baseball bat instead of an aluminum one. Cupich is not one of the “good bishops”, because there are no “good bishops”. A bishop who gives a good speech is still not a “good bishop”, just like a nonprofit CEO who seems friendly is still not a “good CEO”. The structure is the problem, not the guy himself, and the solution is not finding a guy who can say the right things, it is, as always, organizing and fighting with other workers.
Canon puts it much better in his piece: “The hearing laid bare the truth that Marxists understand, that the nonprofit industry is, indeed, an industry, and so subject to the same capitalist pressures as other industries: to reduce the cost of variable capital — labor power. That the machine of capitalist labor relations is blind to best intentions, even of the bosses.” Marx puts it even better in volume one of Capital, but Canon’s article takes much less time to read.
This isn’t entirely surprising, I’m sure there’s some sort of exemption that religious organizations usually get in situations like this. It still sucks.