Lorri Walker laughs when a journalist suggests that work has changed quite a bit at the rubber-manufacturing plant where she began work 35 years ago. The plant, which opened in 1915 to produce tires for the Ford Model T, changed hands over the years and in 2007 became Henniges Automotive, which supplies weather-strips for the automotive industry.
Keeping up with technology is essential to “staying in the game,” says Walker, president of Steelworkers Local 444L in Keokuk. She represents union members at the Keokuk plant that employs around 400 workers. The company is experiencing increased demand for its automotive sealing products because of growth in electric vehicle (EV) production.
At the same time, the production of EVs requires fewer labor hours, which alarms union workers at automotive manufacturing plants nationwide. The United Auto Workers (UAW) union’s membership has authorized permission to strike next month if negotiators fail to reach a contract agreement they believe is fair and provides a just transition to EVs.
As Labor Day approaches (Sept. 4), paying tribute to the American worker ought to include dialogue about the transition underway to a renewable energy economy and how to ensure the wellbeing of American workers and their families. Their welfare is foundational in Catholic Social Teaching, dating back to 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, “Rerum Novarum” (“Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor”).
Ninety years later, St. John Paul II wrote the encyclical “Laborem Exercens” (on “Human Work”). He noted that on the “eve of new developments in technological, economic and political conditions,” these “new conditions and demands will require a reordering and adjustment of the structures of the modern economy and the distribution of work.”
“Laborem Exercens” highlights, among other important points, the Church’s “task always to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated, and to …ensure authentic progress by man and society.” Furthermore, “it must be remembered and affirmed that the family constitutes one of the most important terms of reference for shaping the social and ethical order of human work.”
Change is inevitable. The automatic weaving machines, cotton gins and pickers displaced thousands of workers in the textile industry. The automobile and trucks did the same for ranchers, harness and wagon makers and everyone else associated with horses as the main form of transportation. More recently, natural gas has displaced coal miners, while countless people have had to grapple with the intrusion of electronic technology from ATMs, robots on the factory floor, online sales systems and the automation of traditionally white-collar positions in the insurance industries, accounting and human relations. Most recently, artificial intelligence (AI) is so new that we are just beginning to assess its potential and consequences.
The Iowa BlueGreen Alliance says the “foundation for a just green energy economy already exists. Iowa’s state-of-the-art Registered Apprenticeship Programs provide training on the latest green energy technology for safe, high-quality construction with family-supporting careers. Unions are leading a new initiative connecting more women, people of color, youth, and veterans with Registered Apprenticeship training for a diverse skilled trades workforce that can build the infrastructure of the future.” Union workers, meanwhile, “are ready to scale up production” in producing parts for EVs and energy efficient products.
So, how can we as people of faith help build on that foundation to ensure all families and individuals thrive in our ever-evolving economy? Here are some ideas:
- For employers and business leaders: business ventures “must be aimed at the development of others and the elimination of poverty, especially through the creation of diversified job opportunities,” as Pope Francis said during the 109th International Labor Conference in 2021.
- Iowans ought to advocate our state legislature and Gov. Kim Reynolds to support a substantial increase in the $7.25 an hour minimum wage. “In 2019, an estimated 1 in 5 working Iowa families did not earn enough money to meet their most basic needs” (Iowa Policy Project, 2020).
- Iowa legislators and Gov. Reynolds ought to support workers and their employers equally. Workers must have access to adequate wages, union membership, affordable housing and childcare and health insurance so that they reap the successes their employers enjoy.
- All of us: initiate study groups in our congregations to discuss Catholic Social Teaching on economic justice. Host a presentation in our churches for workers to speak about their experiences. Support the Center for Worker Justice (https://cwjiowa.org/), a recipient of local and national Catholic Campaign for Human Development grant funds.
Lorri Walker notes, with irony, that workers producing parts for EVs don’t earn enough to buy the vehicles. If our economy is moving toward EVs, we need to make sure workers can be in the driver’s seat.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor