Milwaukee Labor School

Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Bill Lange, Milwaukee

Let me follow up on Bill Droel’s very important article on Roman Catholic Labor Schools. I would like to recount Milwaukee’s experience with the Cardijn Center and Labor Schools and propose an expansion to a model, similar to Cardijn, which is already underway.

Milwaukee’s experience with Catholic Labor Schools is related to the Cardijn Center established in 1949 by John Russell Beix – a Milwaukee diocesan priest. The Center was more than a labor center; it promoted the Christian Family Movement (C.F.M.) and was a social and education center for young people from Wisconsin farms looking for work in industrial Milwaukee. An educational emphasis was on the new understanding of Catholic Social Teaching prompted by the encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. The Center was named after a priest, Canon Joseph Cardijn of Belgium who founded the Young Christian Workers Movement. Cardijn insisted that Catholics get involved in every day politics. His method was – observe, judge and act. Cardijn was inspired by Popes Pius X, and XI’s emphasis on Catholic action.

The Cardijn Center was sanctioned by Archbishop Moses Kiley but was under constant scrutiny and criticism by conservative priests in the diocese. Milwaukee has a history of ultra conservative clergy who considered the focus of the Center not spiritual enough and did not trust the strong input of the laity that the Cardijn Center fostered. In contrast Milwaukee seminary professors, some who later became bishops in other dioceses as Bishop Haas and Cardinal Muench, were strong advocates for workers. Under pressure from the Archdiocese the Cardijn Center ceased to be a social and education center in the early 60’s but continued as a book store on the Marquette University campus. The book store closed in 1995.

The difficulty in promoting labor rights with the ever prevailing conservative hierarchy in charge is exemplified by the experience of Milwaukee archdiocesan priest Francis Eschweiler. He was a student of then Monsignor Hass and an ally of Father Beix. Eschweiler is quoted in a book by Paul Wilkes, These Priests Stay and reprinted in Fire in the Heart Reflections on his ministry by Father Fran Eschweiler.

I conducted what was known in those days as ‘Labor Schools.’ I went to the blue collar workers and taught them what to expect when they were part of a bargaining committee and how to handle themselves. I’d work with guys who were organizing and developing Unions and just and just try to give them the Christian ammunition, the basis of good Catholic action as enunciated by the two encyclicals. (Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno).

In 1947 as a young priest, Eschweiler supported workers who were striking at Allis Chalmers. The Labor Priest Eschweiler was summarily exiled to Kewaskum, WI by Archbishop Kiley for his activities during the strike. A response by Father Eschweiler is found in Paul Wilkes’ book and Fire in the Heart.

What sunk in and really hurt was that the church obviously was standing on the side of management and didn’t want one of their boys mingling with labor types. The big money came from industry; it didn’t come from the working men.

It is the same today; consider the recent Palermo Pizza strike. I found it impossible to get a public statement from a Roman Catholic priest stating that the Palermo workers had the right to form a union and that this right is dutifully supported by the Church. The Nuns on the Bus did show up and Sister Simone Campbell spoke to the workers in Spanish. She was clear that the workers had the basic right to organize. Also M.I.C.A.H. leaders, Orthodox priest Tom Miller and Lutheran Pastor Joe Ellwanger, spoke at rallies for the Palermo workers.

On occasion a Roman Catholic priest or bishop might speak out for workers and their right to form a union, but this is rare. Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki did note, in commenting on the denial of state workers the right to bargain collectively, that Catholic Social Teaching affirms workers’ rights. The Archbishop-was severely criticized for his comments. The Roman Catholic Bishops of the U.S. are strong advocates of the voucher program which is simply an attack on Union teachers. The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) has supported immigrants and immigration reform, but, as far as I know, they have not supported immigrant workers’ rights to form or join labor unions.

A better approach to advocate for the faith dimension of justice could be based in immigrant workers’ centers such as Voces de la Frontera. At present Voces provides classes on safety (O.S.H.A. regulations), advocates for workers at the workplace, and suggests allied lawyers for recovery of lost wages and other work related issues. On the weekend before the May 1st march Voces’ New Sanctuary Movement offers speakers (Predicatores de Justicia) to the faith community to speak at services about social justice and immigrant rights.

The New Sanctuary program of ‘Voces’ is ripe for expansion. It should include a strong participation of all faith groups. Roman Catholic Social Teaching is a valuable source for education, but other Christian and non-Christian faith communities also have rich social justice traditions to share. For example, the fundamental source for the social justice theology of faith groups that call Abraham father is the Jewish Bible.

The New Sanctuary Movement of Voces is often asked to provide a clergy member to speak at a rally; we gladly accommodate when possible. But wouldn’t it be better to provide a speaker that is an active member of the New Sanctuary Movement, cleric or non cleric, to present the faith dimension of social justice? The speaker would be more than a ‘feel good’ organizing tool, but would provide a reminder or expand consciousness on the meaning of faith that includes justice. A wider context could be presented, such as explaining why there is massive migration across our borders linked to the continuing history of injustice perpetrated by wealthy nations on Latin America.

A New Sanctuary Movement speaker would tend to not spiritualize the message which removes faith from reality. Separation – spiritualization favors the authority of the hierarchy who are purported to know about the spiritual which they claim supersedes the material. Milwaukee Archbishop Meyer, the future Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago and influential Vatican II delegate, in commenting about the incipient ‘lay movement’ expressed concern about the overemphasis on ‘action,’ neglecting the priority of the spiritual life and the loss of hierarchical authority. He said in his Milwaukee installation address in 1951:

No matter how the organizational structure of cooperation (with the bishop) may vary or adapt itself to local circumstances – in one we must all and always be on the same footing ‘in sentire cum ecclesia’ (thinking with the Church), in dedicating ourselves to the Church’s cause, in obeying those whom the Holy Ghost has made the Bishop to rule the Church of God, in submitting to the Supreme Pastor to whose care, Christ has entrusted His Church. (Fr. Steve Avella, “Salesianum” Spring/Summer 1989).

In contrast to priestly hierarchical structure, ‘Voces Sanctuary’ would recognize the spiritual in the material and the material in the spiritual.

Awareness of the faith dimension of justice could be expanded within the worker center structures but also to the wider community. It is a time of Kairos – a special time of opportunity.

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