Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich waded into Springfield’s political morass Thursday, standing firmly with organized labor as he blasted a linchpin of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s pro-business agenda.

Speaking at a union hall on the West Side — addressing a crowd that included Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, former Gov. Pat Quinn and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez — Cupich criticized right-to work laws, which the governor is a key proponent of, without mentioning Rauner by name.

“Others may see it differently, but history has shown that a society with a healthy, effective and responsible labor movement is a better place than one where other powerful economic interests have their way and the voices and rights of workers are diminished,” Cupich said during a speech at Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local 130.

Cupich’s remarks, coming on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. next week, drew a prolonged standing ovation.

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Cupich, in a wide-ranging pro-union speech that also dealt with immigrant rights, said the Catholic Church can’t weigh in on every issue but must do so when it sees “fundamental values being threatened or undermined.”

“The church is duty-bound to challenge such efforts, by raising questions based on long-standing principles,” Cupich said. “We have to ask, do these measures undermine the capacity of unions to organize . . . ? Do such laws protect the weak and the vulnerable? Do they promote the dignity of work and the rights of workers? Do they promote a more just society and a more fair economy?”

In an almost 40-minute speech, Cupich made frequent reference to the dignity and rights of workers, and spoke of the “proud tradition of collaboration and common commitment between labor and the church.”

“I come here today to offer my friendship and my support as Chicago’s new archbishop and to renew an essential relationship between the Catholic Church and the labor movement,” Cupich said.

Cupich has previously met with Rauner and even gave the invocation at the governor’s inauguration. While he’s raised questions before about the effect of Rauner’s policies, Cupich’s remarks on Thursday marked his strongest comments yet on a political battleground issue that’s key to both Rauner and the Democrats.

He joked that he’d received plenty of advice since arriving in the city.

“One piece of advice I got early on was, ‘Archbishop, you’ve got to learn the Chicago Way,’ ” Cupich said. “Something told me they weren’t talking about deep dish pizza.”

Cupich said he took the advice to mean the importance of partnering with business, government and labor.

“I want the church to become an even more committed partner in this civic solidarity . . . ” he said.

Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said the supportive remarks were uplifting to members.
To have the new archbishop come in and say very definitively, very strongly, we stand with you for the rights of workers, and we need to have solidarity and build up our communities . . . It was a real shot in the arm,” said Montgomery, who was among those in the crowd. “Workers feel under attack . . . your workers don’t have to fail for you to do well. I think this is one of the lessons that I would like the governor to take away.”
When Cupich told workers that the church, the pope and the archbishop himself were behind organized labor, “there was a palpable sense of ‘yes,’ ” finally someone outside of labor expressed support, he said.
SEIU members asked Cupich to bless rosaries they made and are taking to Philadelphia for the pope’s visit.

Cupich touched on a host of other issues, including the need for immigration reform in America.

“We need to stand together — religion, labor, business, government — in rejecting rhetoric or tactics which demonize and demean immigrants or blame them for problems they did not cause. This kind of angry posturing hurts our nation and diminishes all of us,” Cupich said.

He praised Mayor Rahm Emanuel for “helping to keep Chicago a welcoming place for immigrants and refugees seeking a better life.”

Cupich’s remarks come at a time of highly charged political debate involving unions in Illinois. The state has been without a budget since July 1, and Democrats have accused Rauner of holding the state hostage over his demands that unions make concessions before he will sign off on a budget. Rauner has said repeatedly he cannot support a budget that exacerbates past mistakes, leading to a $6 billion-plus budget hole.

Rauner’s office did not respond to Cupich’s speech. But Rauner has made it clear from his first day in office that he was waging war against organized labor. Early this year, Rauner toured the state advocating for local governments to adopt right-to-work laws, knowing that the Democratic-controlled Legislature would not support it. His efforts failed to gain traction, however, even among members of his own party. The so-called right-to-work laws, which Scott Walker championed in Wisconsin, say that a worker does not have to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Unions say the compelled dues are only fair since workers who opt not to join the union still benefit from collective bargaining and union legal protections.

In a series of bills that Rauner said represented his turnaround agenda, put forward just before the end of the Spring session, the Republican had abandoned right-to-work as part of his platform. Rauner pushed the issue as he could through the courts, an effort that is still underway. Rauner’s turnaround agenda, which has not advanced in Springfield, includes tenets that weaken organized labor, including giving local governments the ability to opt out of collective bargaining. Rauner has held that the state must make underlying changes if it wants to create a more competitive business climate. He is also calling for property tax freeze, term limits and changes to workers’ compensation and lawsuit laws.

The link between Catholics and unions is nothing new — going back to papal documents in 1891 — but some believe Cupich’s timing in his pro-union sentiments may mean a little more in light of the budget stalemate.

“I think Pope Francis and Archbishop Cupich have sort of been encouraging others to say, ‘It’s OK to be a little more vocal and be a little more public in expressing things that we think are important,’ ” said Michael Budde, a Catholic Studies professor at DePaul University.

Budde said it’s likely Chicago Catholics will pay close attention to Cupich’s speech Thursday to try to gain a better understanding of their new leader.

“He seems committed to sort of bringing a renewed kind of energy to things that the church has been involved with, reminding both the faithful and reminding the larger society that if you take Jesus seriously, it’s going to involve you in a lot of issues and not just a handful,” Budde said. “He’s quite intentionally trying to tie that to people’s everyday lives and things that hit close to them.”

Cupich’s pointed words on Thursday likely come from Francis’ agenda for the bishops he’s appointed, said Ralph Keen, a history professor and chair of UIC’s Catholic Studies department.

“There’s a common thread in the work of almost all of the recently appointed bishops. This is an agenda that is coming from the pope,” Keen said. “This is a very pastoral pontiff to the extent that the bishops he appoints are likely going to be carrying forward the pastoral agenda. I think Archbishop Cupich is on the same page with the pontiff on the need to protect the dignity of working people.”
Keen said Cupich was appointed to spread the agenda, not to be an administrator, which is perhaps why the pope plucked him from such a small diocese in Washington.

“All of us who were betting on the announcement for archbishop of Chicago were not betting for the Bishop of Spokane. But that was the pope’s way of saying, ‘This is not an administrator. This is a pastor.’ “