The Labor Movement

Pope Francis coined a phrase and set an ideal when he said that “shepherds should smell of the sheep,” referring to bishops and priests.

Actually, while such closeness between priests and people is an ideal certainly to revere, and it certainly requires focus and determination on the part of priests and bishops, it has definitely been seen in the United States.

As the country celebrates Labor Day on Sept. 1, 2014, as it observes Labor Day every year on the first Monday of the ninth month, the occasion presents itself for priests to recall in days past when others in Holy Orders, bishops and priests, very much smelt of the sheep because these priests and bishops were so close to their people and responded to their people’s needs.

Peter J. McGuire OSV file photo

Indeed, priests, bishops and lay Catholics were essential to the movement that came to be so influential and respected in America that, in 1894, Congress established Labor Day as a national holiday, an act approved by President Grover Cleveland.

Creation of the holiday did not come on the spur of the moment. The concept originally came from the son of a poor Irish Catholic family, Peter J. McGuire, who had been born in New York City in 1852. McGuire, along with so many other Americans of his ethnic and religious background, went to work without the benefit of much education.

At the time, the Industrial Revolution was well underway in this country, especially in the great cities of the East and, more and more, in the developing cities of the Midwest. Being a laborer in industry was no fun, almost as a universal rule.

Hours were long — such as 12-hour days, six days a week. Everything was at the pleasure of management. Nothing was provided for vacation, nothing for sick leave. Pensions were unknown. The level of compensation completely was at the discretion of the owners and managers.

Hazards Faced by Workers

No even casual perusal of newspapers of the period fails to put front and center the hazards faced by workers. If injured on the job, and many were injured, they were on the own. Too bad.

Monetary investment and capital were the only fonts of rights.

Broadly speaking, a new social system was coming to be. Always the United States had been the scene of the rich and the poor, but the great industries that were gaining strength every day were producing a stark, and what could have been a disastrous, contrast between the very rich and the desperately poor.

When this surge of industry still was in its infancy, a publisher in Philadelphia, Matthew Carey, began to insist publicly that workers had rights, just as owners and investors had rights. In 1845, he organized the Catholic Freeman’s Journal. The mere circulation of his periodical formed a network of workers and of other citizens interested in human dignity and the rights bestowed by this dignity.

Carey’s cry was for a just wage. He argued, and he would not abide compromise, that workers were due earnings that enabled them to provide for themselves, and their dependents, the necessities of life.

Today, it all seems so natural, a truism that workers deserve adequate pay. At the time, it was a revolutionary concept. It rejected the theory that supply-and-demand set the standard for wages, and it also belittled the absolute right of owners and managers to set wages at any level they preferred.

About the same time, the first of American Catholic episcopal voices to befriend workers was heard. It was a voice that in time became a mighty chorus. This pioneer voice belonged to Archbishop Francis Xavier Norbert Blanchet of Oregon City, Oregon, a see later moved to Portland.

Archbishop Blanchet

Archbishop Blanchet was French-Canadian, having been born in a small town in the Province of Quebec in 1795. Ordained a priest in 1819, he for a while served in parishes in Quebec and in Canada’s Maritime Provinces. In 1836, however, he first heard the call of Catholics who were hurrying to what is now the Pacific Northwest of the United States to make a fortune — or die in the attempt — in the fur-trapping industry and in timber.

Already fur-trapping was organized, part of the extensive efforts of the Hudson Bay Company. Consecrated bishop for the Oregon Territory in 1845, he eventually saw how this company was treating its workers. He demanded better conditions and just wages for them.

Cardinal Gibbons
Cardinal Gibbons OSV file photo

Back in the East, industry was growing, and so were efforts to attain rights for workers. As far as the Church was concerned, it was not a movement without problems. The country’s first union, if the term can be used, the Knights of Labor, was a secret group. More than a few Catholic priests thought that it actually was tied to Freemasonry. Others were suspicious of what they heard were secret religious rituals.

Into this picture came two American Catholics who had huge impact, not just in terms of the Church’s engagement with organized labor in this country, but on the entire structure, actually, of American and economic life.

One was Terence V. Powderly, of Irish and Catholic stock, born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, in 1849. He was hardly the only Irish-Catholic to take an interest in politics at the time, but he was rare indeed among Irish-Catholic politicians in that he was a Republican. He eventually was elected mayor of Scranton. He held national office under Republican presidents.

His interest was with the workers. In 1879, he was chosen as head of the Knights of Labor. His own Catholic identity allowed his access to, and the trust of, the United States’ unquestioned Catholic leader, Cardinal James Gibbons, the archbishop of Baltimore.

From this association, at least in part, grew the cardinal’s championing of the rights of workers. Gibbons arranged a meeting between Powderly and all the American archbishops, critical since it occurred not long after the Canadian hierarchy had condemned the Knights of Labor. Of the 12 U.S. archbishops, 10 approved the Knights. Among them was Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, who was to become as ardent a backer of workers’ rights as was Gibbons.

Cardinal Gibbons, however, was the kingpin. He lobbied in Rome, not just for the rights of workers to organize for collective bargaining, but for a full, broad expression of workers’ rights at the magisterial level.

In 1891, surely in part because of Baltimore’s cardinal, came Rerum Novarum from the pen of Pope Leo XIII. Profound and profoundly bold, this encyclical literally set the Church directly ahead on a deliberate new course — pursuing, and insisting upon, rights of workers.

Before long, the same impulse to assure the rights of workers led Catholics in rural areas to seek the same in agriculture.

Pope Pius XI, in 1931, underscored the Church’s view about workers’ rights and human rights in Quadragesimo Anno.

Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno were the preludes to the masterful social encyclicals of Popes St. John XXIII, soon to be Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.

Always — from McGuire to Blanchet to Powderly to Gibbons, to cite the prominent — the Catholic place in the overall American Labor Movement has been a matter of fact. The names of bishops and priests are sprinkled across every page of the movement’s history.

For example, Father John Curran (1859-1936), of the Diocese of Scranton, was recognized so widely as an authority on matters of labor and economics, as so clear in his grasp of moral principles as they related to labor and economics, and so straightforward in his integrity and judgment that he often was asked to mediate disputes between managers and workers. President Theodore Roosevelt, a patrician Episcopalian from New York, even asked Father Curran’s help in resolving the 1902 strike of coal miners in New York.

Father Peter Dietz (1878-1947), of the Cleveland diocese, worked with the American Federation of Labor to bond its Catholic members together.

Msgr. John A. Ryan OSV file photo

Msgr. John A. Ryan (1865-1945), of the St. Paul archdiocese, became a national authority in questions of labor and managements. His stress always was on the rights of workers. His renown was so well established that, in 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, another Episcopalian aristocrat, asked Msgr. Ryan to give the invocation at the president’s fourth inauguration.

The list of priests goes on and on: Jesuit Fathers Benjamin L. Masse and William Smith, Father Philip Carey, Sulpician Father John F. Cronin, and the most recent, and legendary, Msgr. George G. Higgins. For most of the decades of the 20th century, unusual would have been the informed Catholic, involved in the labor movement or not, who would not have been familiar with these names.

Few informed Catholics also would have not been aware of the cavalcade of American bishops who not just supported, but vigorously advocated for, the rights of workers to organize and to bargain collectively.

It might be argued that this heritage of energetic connection with the labor movement on the part of bishops and priests inspired, and indeed enabled, the strong association of Catholics, clergy and lay, and the institutional Church itself, with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Certainly no history of Catholics and the American Labor Movement is complete without strong mention of the numerous Catholic laypersons who befriended the workers of the country. Among them, after Powderly, of course, were leaders such as Martin Durkin and James Mitchell, Philip Murray, George Meaney, Heyward Broun, J. A. Beirne, John Brophy, George Delaney, Joseph Curran, Cesar Chavez and James Carey, to name only a few prominent in the Golden Age of American labor.

Not to forget Catholic men and women Religious, the great array of facilities owned and operated by Religious, at times fearlessly, put these notions about rights into their employment policies.

All these American Catholics helped to change American life.

The Changes

Think about how things have changed. No employer would dream of, or be allowed to require, work of 12 hours a day, six days a week, without generous overtime and at the employee’s consent. Vacations are a part of life. So are safe working conditions — at the employer’s expense. Pensions are a way of life. So is workman’s compensation. So is the minimum wage. Not that uncommon is profit-sharing.

Talk about a social revolution, and it all sprang from a full and dedicated attention to Catholic doctrine regarding the dignity of each person. Fundamentally, this teaching proceeded from the Scriptures.

A series of Roman pontiffs gave magnificent testimony to this dignity, and precisely it, in landmark encyclicals.

Priests and bishops, however, certainly in this country played an indisputably vital role in bringing theory about human dignity to reality through their entry into the effort to attain a full measure of rights for workers.

It was about principle, and it was about concepts, and much of it came from theology textbooks, magisterial teachings, biblical commentaries and such academic sources.

For American Catholics, and for American Catholic bishops and priests, the glory of the Church’s link with labor is that it all reveals in strong, powerful colors the picture of the Church’s ordained ministers being with, beside and behind those people who were the workers.

Smell of the Sheep

The shepherds, as Pope Francis would wish, were so near the sheep that their very beings caught the scent of the sheep, and their hearts beat with those of the sheep, yearning for peace and for life.

The labor movement in a sense today is a victim of its own success. American society is not perfect. But, as enumerated above, rights once demanded are now presumed. The quality of life, at least for millions, has improved.

Yesterday’s Catholics would not believe their eyes if they saw life in this country, in many instances, today. Catholics can take pride in concluding that not only now does the society in general experience a higher standard of living, but that social unrest, and indeed communism, were thwarted in the process.

New issues have created new movements. New alliances have formed. New attitudes have developed.

Still, the story is stunningly beautiful, and the cause very definitely remains: To speak and to act for, never to relent, that the Church’s teaching be part of life and law, that each person is created in God’s image and likeness, entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

MSGR. CAMPION, a priest of the Diocese of Nashville, is associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., and editor of The Priest magazine.