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What Francis would say to Obama: Let workers unionize

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On March 27, Pope Francis and President Barack Obama met to discuss, among other topics, their shared concern about the moral and economic crisis of growing income inequality. Pope Francis has deplored "unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities," and President Obama has called inequality "the defining issue of our time."

Our Catholic faith teaches that addressing inequality must include just wages and working conditions for those in the labor force. As long ago as 1891, Pope Leo XIII affirmed the right of workers to form associations or unions to seek justice and fair wages. In 1981, St. John Paul II asserted the fundamental "priority of labor over capital" and called for "new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers." And more recently, Pope Francis called on the faithful "to fight for social benefits, a dignified retirement, holidays, rest, and freedom for trade unions. All of these issues create social justice."

In keeping with our faith's social justice tradition, I strongly support a key element of President Obama's agenda, which is to raise the minimum wage. Ultimately, the minimum wage should be a living wage, providing low-wage workers with what they need to rise out of poverty and care for their families. That is justice.

Pope Francis understands and connects with the lives of real people, and my life has also been profoundly touched by their stories. People I have spent time with include a minimum-wage worker in Washington, D.C., who is homeless because she cannot afford an apartment and a working father in Milwaukee who must turn to church-run facilities to help feed his children. Workers deserve better than this!

The president used his 2014 State of the Union address to announce that he would "lead by example" on the issue of better wages. He then issued an executive order to raise the minimum wage for the federal contracting workforce to $10.10 an hour. His announcement spurred wage hikes throughout the country: states passed higher minimum wage laws, mayors issued executive orders boosting pay for city contractors, and even private companies like Gap Inc. announced a $10.10 starting rate for retail workers.

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I hope the president will now go further and allow these federal contract workers the freedom to form a union and bargain collectively with their employers.

Federal contract workers at a McDonald's in the Pentagon deserve the right to organize in order to move beyond their current $10.10 hourly wage. They deserve retirement plans, health care, paid holidays and sick days, and the freedom to form a union.

Marie Ferrier, who works at the Pentagon McDonald's, recently wrote a letter to President Obama, thanking him for the $10.10 pay increase while asking him to do more. "We're single moms and barely making it. We need more than the minimum wage -- we need a living wage and benefits like health care, paid sick days, and paid time-off so we can care for our families and give our kids a chance to succeed in the world."

Ferrier and other low-wage federal contracted workers are calling on the administration to allow them to unionize as part of the Good Jobs Nation campaign. They want to be able to sit at the table with federal contractors who share too little of their abundance with their own workers. I hope the president will use his executive powers to give these workers the freedom to form a union, allowing them to bargain for living wages and benefits to provide decent lives for themselves and their families without having to resort to strikes.

President Obama has stated that Catholic social teaching profoundly influenced his life and his work as a community organizer in Chicago. He now has an opportunity to apply these teachings on a national scale by giving low-wage federal contract workers the right to organize and collectively bargain for fair working conditions. By doing so, he can give workers the power to transform bad jobs into good jobs and decisively address "the defining challenge of our time" -- income inequality.

[Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell is executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, and author of A Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community.]

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