In Wisconsin and some other states, public-sector unions have been glaringly under pressure recently, so much so that it’s easy to forget about their counterparts in the private sector — which are faring even worse, by numerical standards. More than a third of public employees in the United States are still unionized, but the figure in the private sector is now running, or limping, at barely 7 percent. That negligible share is roughly equal to the percentage of Americans who regard themselves as Hindus, or who believe that Elvis is still alive, according to unrelated polling. 

Priests: Apostles of Labor

In the mind of writer and labor advocate Kimball Baker, however, the 7-percent figure stands out for a different reason. It is identical to the percentage of private-sector workers who belonged to unions when a doughty group of men began their work in the early 1930s, and these were the so-called labor priests — Catholic leaders who gave hope to downtrodden workers during the Great Depression. 

“They played a big part in getting [the unionized segment] up to 35 percent in the 1950s and afterward,” he said — suggesting that it may be possible for pro-labor activists today to usher in another upsurge of unionism.

Workers’ witness 

This may be pure speculation on Baker’s part, but far more certain is the history he spotlights in “Go to the Worker: America’s Labor Apostles,” recently published by Marquette University Press. The title comes from the 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum, in which Pope Leo XIII instructed Church leaders: “Go to the worker, especially where workers are poor; and in general, go to the poor.” And so they went, at a time when being an industrial worker usually meant being poor. 

Priests with names like Hayes and Carey entered the work lives of a largely immigrant population. They walked with strikers on picket lines and opened “labor schools,” adult-education programs in parishes, high schools and colleges that taught the nuts and bolts of collective bargaining as well as the high points of Catholic social teaching. They opposed communist infiltration into labor’s ranks and even organized their own May Day celebrations, to counter the parades traditionally held by communists on that day. Pope Pius XII made such celebrations official in 1955, when he declared May 1 the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. 

Act of solidarity 

In the spiritual world, according to the labor priests, taking part in unions and collective bargaining was not simply an exercise of individual rights. It was an act of solidarity, a way for workers to deepen their Christian lives and give witness to the “mystical body of Christ,” a phrase that appears frequently in Baker’s profiles of leading labor “apostles” (including a few laymen from that era). 

Baker cheerfully admits that his subject is not the likeliest one for a book today. Like any other author, he’ll mention to people that he wrote a book and will be asked the usual question, “‘What about?’ And I say, ‘Well, it’s about a group of Catholic priests and laypeople who, in the United States of the 1930s and 1940s, helped labor organize as part of their spiritual calling.’ Then I sometimes see the questioner’s eyes glaze over or hear the person say, ‘That’s nice,’ and then edge away,” he related in a talk in March at Calumet College of St. Joseph, in Whiting, Ind., where he spent three days as a visiting lecturer. 

Most people can scarcely imagine the topic, he pointed out. But, noting the lively reception he received at Calumet as an example, Baker said in an interview that pockets of the Church in the United States appear to be getting more interested in the history of Catholic pro-labor action. That is at least in part because the forces opposed by the activists long ago — the abuses of wealth and economic power — have returned with a vengeance today, he told Our Sunday Visitor. 

As the book’s author, Baker is almost as unlikely as his subject — a Presbyterian who learned about Catholic labor priests while doing doctoral work in history at The Catholic University of America in the mid-1990s. At the time he was a newly retired federal employee, having served as a writer and editor for the U.S. Information Agency, where he lent his prose to the Voice of America, and for the U.S. Department of Labor. 

He decided to write his dissertation on this topic and interviewed eight of the 10 priests and laypeople who receive full-chapter treatments in the new book. 

‘A hardy band’ 

All of the eight died within a few years of each other around the turn of the millennium (two had died before he took on the task). 

“They were a hardy band,” Baker said, noting that the average age of the eight was 85 when they died. “And they all still had the passion and the fire.” 

He wound up choosing not to continue down the long road of a doctoral dissertation and shelved the project for a while, before deciding finally about five years ago that their voices needed to be heard again. He hauled out the boxes of interview transcripts and other research material, and began compiling the book. 

Three of the 10 “apostles” hailed from Chicago, well known as a breeding ground of Catholic social action — Father John Hayes, Msgr. George Higgins and the laymen Ed Marciniak. Another four conducted their missions in or near New York City, where they drew inspiration in part from Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement — the layman John Cort and Fathers Joseph Buckley, Thomas Darby and Philip Carey, a Jesuit. The remaining three came from the industrial centers of Detroit (Father Karl Hubble and layman Bert Donlin) and Pittsburgh (Father Charles Owen Rice). 

Father Carey ran one of the highest-profile operations, the Xavier Labor School in Manhattan, founded in 1936 (four years before he took over as director). During its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, Xavier enrolled several hundred workers each year and reached out to thousands of others — longshoreman especially. 

One of the Xavier priests, a colorful, streetwise Jesuit named John “Pete” Corridan, plied his ministry on the docks — rallying workers primarily against union corruption. He and his cause became nationally celebrated in 1954 with the release of the Academy Award-winning motion picture “On the Waterfront,” which starred Marlon Brando and in which the tough-talking Father Corridan was played by Karl Malden. 

Brotherhood of workers 

But it was the quieter Father Carey who steered the whole effort, and whose “seeming shyness masked immense tenacity,” Baker writes. 

Father Carey’s apostolate illustrated the broad scope of the Catholic labor agenda — the resistance to labor racketeering and communism as well as, naturally, to management greed. Always a man of the Church, he also let it be known that “our deep drive is to prevent the drift of workers from the Church, as happened in Europe.” He wrote this in a letter to a Jesuit friend in 1949. 

But what ran even more deeply was a sturdy moral and theological conviction — vividly expressed in another letter of his that same year: 

“I can’t ask men to die for collective bargaining, and you really can’t ask me to suffer for democracy, and it’s pretty meaningless to ask a fellow to love another man for man’s sake, especially when you don’t like him. So much of this is watered-down charity. So much of it is the pious mouthings of post-Christian pagans.  

“We’ve got to make men realize,” Father Carey continued, “that they really are brothers, that their brotherhood and solidarity with one another can only have meaning in their brotherhood in Christ, that the concept of solidarity of all workers is nothing but a weak version of the Communion of Saints and the participation of all of us in the Mystical Body of Christ. If these things aren’t known in the world, maybe it’s because we Catholics haven’t talked about them or lived them.” 

Timely message 

Father Carey died in 1989, as did (with him) the Xavier Labor School. Approximately 150 such schools once dotted the map of industrial America; today the lone institutional survivor, alive and kicking, is the Labor Guild of the Archdiocese of Boston. 

Baker finds that today, more Catholics than in the recent past are taking up labor activism, many of them college students linking up with Interfaith Worker Justice, a national organization headquartered in Chicago.  

He said they are opposing what the labor priests opposed: the “excesses of capitalism,” often displayed these days by Wall Street speculators and tax-dodging corporations. As Baker sees it, the message of these stalwart Catholics from a distant era is “becoming timelier by the day.” 

William Bole writes from Massachusetts.