Triangle Fire

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

The fire occurred in March 1911. Someone failed to fully extinguish a cigarette in New York City’s Asch Building (now known as Brown Building, owned by N.Y. University). “After just 18 minutes, 144 people were dead,” writes Christine Seifert in The Factory Girls (Zest Books, 2017). Two more died subsequently. The top three floors of the building were used by Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to assemble blouses. There were heroes during those frantic minutes. For example, NYU students spotted the fire and perilously rigged a ladder from their building to an upper floor of the Asch Building, saving lives. The fire department too risked health and safety during the short interval. Several workers also heroically tried to guide others down to the street.
Other historians have provided an account of this tragedy, including David Von Drehle in Triangle: the Fire that Changed America (Grove Press, 2003). Like those others, Seifert gives particulars in 175 pages. Her account though considers the historical, cultural and political factors that put young workers in a hazardous factory plus she describes today’s conditions in the apparel industry.
Seifert notes that before 1900 there was no such thing as fashion in our country; except among the elites in Virginia and elsewhere along the Atlantic coast who took cues from stylish Europe. There was no “off the rack” shopping for working women and men (only standard issue uniforms or homemade clothes). Only with mass production of apparel and other products in the 20th century could working-class people have an interest in and be able to afford fashion. The Triangle Company, like many other shops, cut and assembled the popular type of blouse known as the shirtwaist.
In order to make and widely distribute clothes for the working-class, economic factors had to align. The main ingredient in the early 1900s was cheap labor. An exploitative wage system was implicitly justified by a business philosophy called the Protestant Ethic. (It is derived from select Reformation themes, yet leaves aside key parts of Christianity. The same popular philosophy is today commonly called individualism or unregulated free market.) According to this philosophy, labor shows up in a company’s accounting as a cost like any other raw material. The wise business owner keeps costs low to become wealthy. In religious terms the owner’s success is a sign of divine favor. In secular terms success is about self-made virtue. On the other end, Seifert writes, “poverty was a moral failing.” The dominant philosophy denied that “poverty was a result of a system that was rigged to take advantage of people’s labor while lining the pockets of those who controlled production.”
Solidarity is the antidote to individualism. Seifert tells about the women from Triangle Shirtwaist and other factories who staged a November 1909 strike. Aided by Women’s Trade Union League and by International Ladies Garment Worker Union and for a time by a few wealthy women called Mink Coat Brigade, the Triangle workers held out for over two months. Their demands were modest: Managers must stop “yelling at them, threatening them or harassing them” plus a change in the pay system of set rate per day, no matter the number of hours. When they settled, the Triangle workers got a small raise and a 52-hour week. They did not get the sine qua non of every worker action: sole and exclusive bargaining rights. Nor was workplace safety found anywhere in the outcome.
Seifert devotes some paragraphs to Clara Lemlich Shavelson (1886-1982). She was 23-years old in those last weeks of 1909. At a crowded union meeting held in Cooper Union she pushed her way to the front and shouted: “I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. I move that we go on a general strike.” Her activism continued through her life. She pioneered the tactic of consumer boycott and started tenants’ groups in her neighborhood. In her 80s Lemlich Shavelson lived in a senior facility. Sure enough, she organized the nurses and aides. With these working conditions “you’d be crazy not to join a union,” she told the workers.
It is difficult to buy clean clothes today; that is, garments in our retail stores with no sweatshops in their chain of production and distribution. For example, women toiling in overseas sweatshops made the Ivanka Clothing Line, until the company’s July 2018 demise. Seifert names a handful of groups that can assist in cleaner shopping. She includes Clean Clothes Campaign (https://cleanclothes.org), based in the Netherlands with offices in several other countries. I recommend International Labor Rights Forum (1634 I St. NW #1000, Washington, DC 20006; www.laborrights.org). This is a sophisticated group that looks through the entire apparel pipeline. They are, to name one example, monitoring the compliance of those apparel lines that agreed to improve after the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh. Currently, the H & M Line needs a push to do better. To learn more about the economics and culture of off-the-rack clothes, I recommend Over-Dressed by Elizabeth Cline (Penguin, 2012).
Social justice is a relatively new virtue in that it once was not possible to do anything about wrongdoing that occurred in remote locations or in complex systems. Today social justice, though difficult, is possible. Action on behalf of justly-made clothes is possible.

Droel edits a printed newsletter on faith and work (NCL, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Long Lost Text

The Working Catholic: Economic Ideologies
by Bill Droel

The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin (www.kul.pl/21.html) just published The Catholic Social Ethic by St. John Paul II (1920-2005). This two-volume text of 500+ pages dates from the 1950s, when Fr. Karol Wojtyla was a young parish priest/teacher. Scholars have long known about the text. In fact, about 300 copies were circulated among students and others in the 1950s. Jonathan Luxmoore, an expert on Catholicism in Eastern Europe, reported on the text a dozen years ago. He recently summarized the new book for Catholic News Service (1/19/19) and for The Tablet of London (2/2/19).

Just as there are Biblical fundamentalists who selectively invoke one or another Scripture verse to support their preconceived opinion, so too there are some papal fundamentalists among Catholics. For example, a small but influential number of Catholics in the U.S. and elsewhere pull a phrase from John Paul II or from Pope Benedict XVI to claim that Catholicism is in harmony with unrestricted capitalism (also called neoliberalism). Similarly, a few Catholics pull out one another phrase to say that Catholicism gives unqualified approval to Marxism. This new book by John Paul II got caught up in this pick-and-choose controversy, causing the long delay in publication.
The Catholic Social Ethic, along with John Paul II’s other writing and talks, shows that he never was a big fan of free market capitalism. He repeatedly rejected “individualistic liberalism.” Nor of course did John Paul II ever mount a defense of communism. Yet through study and experience of the communist regime in Poland, he was well-versed in Marxist themes.
John Paul II, Luxmoore says, recognized that Marxism appealed to young workers because of injustices in their situations. To connect with young adults, Catholicism must have a sophisticated alternative to Marxism. It cannot merely condemn a mistaken ideology. Catholicism must furnish an approach to social justice and peace that fits the daily comings-and-goings of young adults. John Paul II, along with several other Polish theologians including Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski (1901-1981), set about crafting an accessible theology of work.
In contrast to materialistic capitalism, John Paul II popularized the principle of the priority of labor over capital. That is, the worker is the subject of work; not the investment of money. Yes, investments are part of production and service delivery. But the purpose of the enterprise is the worker. According to John Paul II, the word worker is inclusive–managers, owners on the scene, shop hands, janitors, truck drivers, clerks, all those who in some way fashion and distribute the service or the product.
In contrast to materialistic communism, John Paul II outlined a spirituality of work which integrates business, family life, civic involvement and more with fidelity to Jesus’ gospel.

Young adults are familiar with today’s materialisms and other empty ideologies: careerism, cost-benefit analysis, consumerism, conspiracy theories, extreme individualism in economics and culture, relativism (or what the White House calls alternative facts), and more.
Some Catholic leaders say they are interested in young adults. Maybe so. But does a young adult ever come upon ideas and experiences within Catholicism that suggest an alternative to the harshness of work, to the arbitrariness in society or to our vacuous culture? Would a young adult ever hear themes about work expressed in spiritual terms? John Paul II’s theology of work project is suggestive, but not enough. Other theologians and particularly interested young Catholics have to take the matter a few steps further: More sources, more reflections, more conversations and for sure more focused action for justice and peace within the workaday world.

At the moment, The Catholic Social Ethic is available in Polish. Perhaps a condensed English version can be published soon. Perhaps it could include a few pastoral comments and top out at let’s say 200 pages.

Droel is editor of John Paul II’s Gospel of Work (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $7)

Quit Moralizing

The Working Catholic: Moralizing
Bill Droel

Name any social policy and there is sure to be a religious leader who has an opinion. The religious leader states his or her position in absolutes. For the religionist, the issue is a matter of high morality; no alternative position is acceptable. These religious leaders and the general public routinely fault the daily give-and-take in partisan politics for putting opportunism, gridlock, grandstanding, obstinacy and hypocrisy above moral principle.

The legislative process is a moral endeavor, says President John Kennedy (1917-1963) in Profiles in Courage (Harper Collins, 1956). An impatient public does not appreciate “the art of politics, the nature and necessity for compromise and balance,” he writes. The public is “too hasty in condemning all compromise as bad morals [when in fact] politics and legislation are not matters for inflexible principles or unattainable ideals.” Democracy is maintained by flawed people who are “engaged in the fine art of conciliating, balancing and interpreting the forces and factions of public opinion.”
Are principles then irrelevant to public life? Hardly. Though abiding principles do not come with specifics on each detailed proposal nor do they yield strategy or timing, principles give essential guidance. For an effective legislator, politics is a vocation about “compromises of issues, not of principles,” says Kennedy. A politician who “begins to compromise his [or her] principles on one issue after another,” he concludes, “has lost the very freedom of conscience which justifies his [or her] continuance in office.”
Profiles in Courage goes on to detail eight U.S. Senators who at a crucial moment put principles ahead of party loyalty and popularity. Yet even in those moments, Kennedy says, an assertion of high principle comes with calculation. Several examples in the book are about race relations, before and after the Civil War. An antebellum Southern senator decides that the principle of a United States is of higher value than the expectations of his constituents and his loyalty to his party. Introducing a pro-abolition bill, however, will be ineffective. Instead, he supports a mechanism that will delay war. He calculates that a decade’s worth of uneasy peace is worth the loss of his reputation. His principled stand, as it turns out, did not prevent the war but it bought time during which the North became stronger and the institution of slavery weaker. In other words a principled stand does not guarantee perfect outcomes; compromise is always in the mix.

There are many issues deserving attention from faith-inspired citizens: abortion, ecology, immigration, national defense, labor relations and more. With rare exception, religious leaders are advised not to take the shortcut of moralizing on these and other issues. Instead, here are alternative strategies:
1.) Support conscientious legislators. Host a support group or forum in one’s parish where politicians can explore the meaning of their work. Send along compliments when matters are resolved in an acceptable way.
2.) Be a strong, persistent voice in the public square. Over and over explain one’s religious position, using as much natural law or common good language as possible. Never stop asserting the whys and hows of pro-life or pro-planet or pro-civil rights. No matter how basic the explanation may be, there are many, many citizens and politicians who simply do not know why a religious person might oppose abortion or support unions or oppose pollution.
3.) Organize votes. Moralizing (like throwing around the threat of excommunication) likely hardens the position of politicians. Putting voting-blocks together gets attention. Bishops and other Church employees should not endorse candidates nor wade too deeply into the specifics of a piece of legislation. But lay members of any denomination can do retail organizing. Supporting an alternative Democrat in a blue district is better than hollow preaching. Supporting an alternative Republican in a red district will shake things up.
There are grifters in politics for sure. Here in Illinois some go to jail. But there are thousands of moral politicians in municipal, state and federal bodies that approach their work as a vocation. Do they ever hear their job framed in spiritual terms in their congregation, their synagogue, their mosque? There are hundreds of politicians who are capable of putting a moral principle ahead of a special interest, ahead of a party leader’s expectation, ahead of expediency. Not at every hour, on every issue. Not in big moralizing, grandstanding circumstances. But within the deliberative process of democracy, many politicians know how to frame a principle in reasonable terms and at times come away with a moral victory.

Droel edits a newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

M.L. King Day

The Working Catholic
Bill Droel

This month’s celebration of Rev. Martin L. King (1929-1968) is of course about more than King. The civil rights era is about more than the Montgomery boycott that began in December 1955. It certainly includes Rosa Parks (1913-2005), who courageously refused to give up her seat on a bus. And, Parks’ disobedience was not a momentary reaction, but was the outcome of much preparation.
In recent times several scholars have drawn attention to “the longer civil rights movement.” Karen Johnson of Wheaton College is one of those scholars. Her book, One in Christ: Chicago Catholics and the Quest for Interracial Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018), details significant civil rights activity as early as 1930—not in the South but in Chicago. Her examples, perhaps surprisingly, are Catholic organizations.
Johnson’s thorough account in eight more-or-less chronological chapters plus 49 pages of valuable footnotes is “primarily a story about laypeople” who in addition to highlighting aspects of Catholic doctrine also challenged the notion that priests are above laypeople, that urban Catholicism is synonymous with intra-parish ministries and that Catholics acting as Catholics should keep their efforts separate from Protestants and Jews.
Arthur Falls (1901-2000), a pioneering black physician involved with Federated Colored Catholics and then with Catholic Worker movement, is prominent in the first four chapters and appears throughout the book. The fifth and sixth chapters feature Friendship House with Catherine de Hueck Doherty (1896-1985), Ellen Tarry (1906-2008) and Ann Harrigan Makletzoff (1910-1984); the seventh and eighth feature the Catholic Interracial Council with John McDermott (1926-1996) among others. Msgr. Dan Cantwell (1915-1996) and Ed Marciniak (1917-2004) appear in nearly all the chapters.
These Chicago Catholics were successful to a degree. They “helped enlarge America’s moral imagination,” Johnson explains. They showed that racial justice is more than a political matter. Due to these Chicago activists and also to many religious leaders in the South and around the nation, civil rights became a significant aspect of faith, both for blacks and for whites. Further, the Chicago Catholics—years before Vatican II (1962-1965)—taught others that individual salvation and personal transformation are not enough. They communicated, in words and more so by way of example, that full-time Christians must seek “the common good by reforming the institutions shaping the public sphere.”
A contagious esprit surrounded these dedicated Catholics. They nourished one another in several institutional spaces, Johnson emphasizes. They all knew that liturgical grace was essential to their efforts. They believed that the liturgy of the word continued out the church door as each of them did their part in the Mystical Body of Christ to live a liturgy of the world.
Johnson includes enough detail to dispel any suggestion of hyper-romanticism about these civil rights pioneers. These people were street savvy. They knew how to agitate and at the right moment what to compromise. They avoided getting personally bent out of shape as they necessarily engaged in sharp disagreements with one another over strategy: How to include Chicago’s bishop—if at all. Whether or not to include anti-poverty measures in efforts against racism. Whether or not to maneuver inside the Democratic Party, which in Chicago was the Daley Machine. Are discussion groups a waste of time? Can Catholics be militant?
Remarkably, most of these Catholic civil rights leaders remained Catholic their entire lives. It is remarkable because, as Johnson details in parts of two chapters, more than one bishop, some influential pastors and the Catholic system itself reinforced racial distinctions. For example, Falls once told me that the segregation that hurt him the most was on Saturday afternoons when he went to confession. Blacks had to stand in one line and wait until each person in the white line had received absolution.
Johnson writes a comprehensible story. This is an achievement because all her subjects died before she began. She thus scoured multiple libraries for newspapers, magazine articles, minutes of meetings and more. Johnson, by the way, is not Catholic. Yet the book flawlessly covers Chancery politics and points of theology.

A powerful 2% of young Catholics are once again interested in the social question–in race relations, in living wage campaigns, in the dignity of all life, in socially responsible business, in green technology, in mental health delivery, in criminal justice reform and immigration topics. One In Christ is an inspiring account of visionary Catholics who navigated the push-and-pull of public life, and had some fun along the way. As we rightly celebrate King Day, we can continue to learn from all the efforts in our country toward “liberty and justice for all.”

Droel of Chicago is a board member of National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

In Praise of Cash

The Working Catholic:
Bill Droel

It says “legal tender for all debts private and public.” But cash is out. Indeed, some businesses now refuse cash, including a hair salon in Los Angeles, a few pretentious chain restaurants and several small shops. Visa has declared “a war on cash,” reports New York Times (12/6/18). Other credit companies are implicit allies in that war. Only 30% of transactions by one survey currently involve cash, says Wall St. Journal (12/30/18). Most cash transactions are in small amounts; 55% of them are for less than $10. The popular alternative to cash is called a credit card. However, cards are also out. Nowadays a purchaser obtains ready credit through an app on a mobile device. It is not swiped; it is tapped.
We crusty old-timers prefer cash. This is not only because a cashless economy further impoverishes those without access to credit. There are other troubling consequences of going cashless, ones that threaten middle-class families.
Number One. Cash is or was a nearly universal societal benefit. The trend these days is to allow private companies to own public life. The outcome of this trend is generally no good. Prime evidence here in Chicago is the expensive parking facilities in the Loop and elsewhere. Citizens do not benefit from the revenue; a private entity does. Likewise, the ubiquitous cameras that catch any and all minor traffic miscues would be annoying enough if the tickets’ revenue went to our city. But a private company has the contract. Prohibiting cash in favor of private currency is another destruction of the public realm.
Number Two. A cashless private economy is premised on automation. Working-class jobs at what were once called cash registers are disappearing. It is entirely possible to stock one’s grocery cart and put the produce, meat and bread in one’s car without dealing with a grocery clerk. The same impersonal approach is taking over in restaurants. Banks don’t have tellers.
Number Three. Another result of cyber-automation is increased violation of privacy. The private company that extends credit and the retailer join forces to develop one’s consumer profile. This is used by the retailer to pitch more products or it is sold to other private companies. Also, cyber-banking and cyber-transactions expose one’s cyber-wallet to thieves. The best robbers these days eschew cash; they prefer hacking.
Number Four. It is true that credit, wisely obtained and carefully managed, can be a form of wealth. A home mortgage obtained from a neighborhood bank or credit union is an investment. Credit perhaps leads to wealth in sophisticated margin trading in 90-day stock options. Right? Most credit obtained by working families, however, is basically usury. There is no credit app (formerly called a credit card) that comes without a line of credit and interest fees. The singular factor that hampers the financial standing of working class families is credit app/card debt.

Is it possible to manage a household without credit? It is possible, but it requires resistance to the new capitalism—a capital economy in which products are not that important but in which investment rules. How to manage without credit? Get a checking account from a neighborhood bank or credit union. Don’t deal with Wells Fargo or other national entities. Do not accept any line of credit on the account. Don’t cyber-shop too much. Use the currency that comes with a picture of President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), President Ulysses Grant (1822-1885) or other notables. If you already have a credit card/app and you made only a partial payment last month, see a reputable, neighborhood-based finance advisor immediately.

Droel edits a free printed newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Advent Habit

The Working Catholic: Advice on the Eucharist
by Bill Droel

Advice columns are exercises in deconstruction. Dear Abby and Ask Amy must intuit or impose a context for the short query. The newspaper reader, in turn, puts the question and answer into their own context—often comparing the situation to that of their dysfunctional relatives. Smile.
Advice columnists in Catholic newspapers or on Catholic websites (usually priests) must likewise deconstruct the question and the reader must imagine some applicable situation. A fair number of the questions are personal (Should I forgive my spouse for…?). A generic answer in a pastoral circumstance is not, in my opinion, a good idea. Some questions though can prompt a general lesson about the faith.
For example, a writer tells a Catholic News Service columnist that she or he, as a Eucharistic minister, is “bother[ed]” by the pause or separation between “body of Christ” and “blood of Christ” during the reception of communion. The writer believes that Christ is entirety present in each of the Eucharistic elements. The writer implies that each minister (of the host and of the cup) should say: “The body and blood of Christ.”
The priest/columnist affirms the writer’s belief but tempers any change in rubrics. He reminds the writer, in so many words, that Jesus paused or separated body and blood at what is called the Last Supper.

I’ve heard several Eucharistic ministers vary the correct phrase. Several say, “Receive the body of Christ.” Some say, “Take the blood of Christ.” One recently told me to “become transformed through this Eucharist.” At one church, while on vacation, I got a sermonette: “This is the real body of our Lord who died and rose that you…” That communion line moved slowly.
The correct phrase for the Eucharistic minister is intentionally vague or, better yet, inclusive by implication. No modifiers, no verbs. Even the article “the” is unnecessary. Just three words. Then the corresponding minister uses three words. The correct phrase applies to the consecrated bread and wine. Christ is fully, entirely and really present.
The seeming imprecision of the three words actually means that in addition to the elements Christ is really present in the communicant (John 6: 55-56). Plus, Christ is present in the collective worshipers, the congregation. And, Christ is really present in the church scattered after Mass, in the Mystical Body of Christ. Any additional words used by the Eucharistic minister only decrease the power of our dogma on Christ’s real presence.
Put it this way. If worshipers do not believe that Jesus is really present in their fellow humans, how can they really taste and see Jesus in the consecrated bread and wine? Street-level society is the Mystical Body of Christ, just as the ordinary elements and gestures at Mass are the real body and blood of Jesus Christ. Yes, it takes religious imagination to believe in the real presence within one’s hapless boss, one’s grouchy neighbor, one’s sullen teenager. But it is no different from the energy and creativity and persistence it takes to believe that the Owner of the Entire Universe is really present in a small piece of flat bread and a small amount of wine.

Here’s an Advent habit. Look at each worker you encounter this month and say to yourself: “Body of Christ; Blood of Christ.” The clerk at Walgreen’s, the student who arrives late to class, the orderly who complains about the patients, the snowplow driver, the postal worker, even the most clueless waitress who doesn’t know the difference between a stout and a porter. Smile.

Droel’s book Monday Eucharist is available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $7)

Ten Strikes

The Working Catholic: Strikes
by Bill Droel

Not so long ago strikes were deemed counterproductive, says Commonweal magazine (3/26/18). That was until this past February when 20,000 teachers in West Virginia walked off the job. This job action, Commonweal notes, initially occurred “without collective bargaining powers or the legal right to go on strike.” Yet it was “well-executed [and] wide-scale… Its size and scope proved critical.” With visible public sympathy and sufficient solidarity, the West Virginia teachers were successful. Credit goes to “a decentralized rank-and-file made up mostly of women,” Commonweal concludes.

The West Virginia example does not mean that the strike tactic is back. Nor that it is a sure-fire remedy to income inequality. Strikes are still rare in our country–maybe a dozen notable ones per year. Further, strikes are often broken with no immediate improvement for our country’s workers.
The full positive results of a strike and of the union movement itself might only materialize some years after the event. That’s a conclusion to draw from A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis (The New Press, 2018).
The book’s first chapter centers on the “mill girls” of the early 19th century. A New England economy based entirely on farms and craft shops gave way in 1793 when Samuel Slater (1768-1835) opened a textile mill in Pawtucket, RI. Francis Cabot Lowell (1775-1817) thereafter opened another mill along the Charles River in Boston. His company expanded after his death, including a mill along the Merrimack River in a town renamed for Lowell. That town was nicknamed Spindle City because by the mid-1800s its 40 textile mills and 10,000 looms, operating six days a week, produced about 100million yards of cloth per year.
Instead of using child labor these mills recruited young women from area farms and elsewhere. The young workers, who were capable of operating somewhat complicated machines, lived in boarding houses and were encouraged to read and to attend cultural events. For some young women at the time, it was considered a great adventure to assert independence from their families. However, workdays were routinely 13 hours. The definition of young woman was really teenager. The workers paid for their company housing and their employer increased rent when the company wanted more discipline.
In 1834 and again in 1836 the town’s mills cut wages. In both cases a strike spread to several mills, but was crushed within a week. In 1845 the young women added a strategy: Documenting health and safety concerns and then testifying in favor of a state-mandated 10-hour workday. Only nearby New Hampshire legislated 10 hours, but its mills ignored the law with impunity.
Think about the struggle of these young workers come February 2019 when your donut shop hands you some change. You might see a quarter honoring Lowell National Historical Park (www.nps.gov/lowe). On the quarter is a woman toiling at a cotton loom and a clock tower in the background. Modernity requires increased public awareness of hours and minutes. Thus one town after another installed mechanical clock towers. The Boott Mill clock tower of 1835, as depicted on the new coin, symbolizes New England’s transition from a village economy to an industrial economy—for better and for worse.

Loomis anchors another chapter of Ten Strikes with autoworkers in Flint during December 1936-January 1937. As with the West Virginia teachers, these autoworkers were two steps ahead of their union leaders. Most strikes, of course, occur outdoors. They include picket lines, protest signs, maybe lawn chairs and maybe a huge inflatable rat. But the strike in Flint was different. The workers sat to conquer. That is, they stayed inside; commandeering in a sense all of General Motors’ expensive equipment. Again as in West Virginia, the women from town played the crucial role. With coordination they brought food and newspapers into the plant; they rallied citizen support, not only in Flint but in other locales.
The AFL at this time, Loomis explains, was focused on craft workers across lines of employers. The door was thus open for the United Mine Workers, the United Auto Workers and the CIO to organize all the workers of a single employer and then all the workers in a specified industry. The champion of this type of organizing was John L. Lewis (1880-1969), and he was a major factor in the Flint job action.
Loomis drives home one of his main themes in this chapter. There are three major players in the national economy: big business, organized families/workers and government. Workers cannot make headway, Loomis argues, without some support from government. In the Flint example, the workers’ ally was Governor Frank Murphy (1890-1949), who was later appointed to the Supreme Court. At a tense moment, Murphy sent the National Guard to the General Motors plant. But not—as was expected—to evict the workers. Murphy had the National Guard protect the workers. General Motors was soon ushered to the bargaining table where they gave recognition to Lewis and the United Auto Workers.

Ten Strikes is a good introduction to U.S. labor history. Loomis, however, trips on his rhetoric once or twice. Workers today must take back “our dignity from our employer,” he wrongly writes.
No employer can give a worker dignity. A job promotion does not confer dignity. An employee of the month award is not about dignity. Paternalism is incapable of adding to dignity. Likewise, no employer can take away an employee’s dignity. Harassment, for example, is a sin, but it does not diminish the essence of a person. No one loses an ounce of dignity if his or her hours are cut. Dignity is innate; it is God-given. This is important to believe. This is a truth about power. Each person—middle manager, owner, janitor, skilled engineer, clerk, receptionist and more—possesses as a gift from birth the power of one’s own dignity. It can’t be given away; it can’t be taken away. Don’t ever think that it can.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a print newsletter on faith and work.

Bad Words

The Working Catholic: Bad Words
by William Droel

Violent language keeps company with violent behavior. The former does not usually cause the latter directly, but in due time violence can follow. To be clear by way of an example, the rhetoric of Sarah Palin did not incite the January 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others, six of whom died. Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008, had an advertisement that put some Congressional districts (not individual candidates) in a mock crosshairs during the 2010 midterm campaign, including Giffords’ Arizona district. But those who said the shooting was a direct consequence of Palin’s violence-tinged electioneering (using slogans like “Don’t Retreat, Reload” and “Take Up Arms”) were jumping to a simplistic conclusion or, in her odd phrase, engaging in “blood libel.” Not to say that no relationship exists between violent metaphors or hateful rhetoric and physical attacks.
Violent language originates in and plays upon resentment. Though the hateful speaker appears tough and rugged, she or he is insecure. For example, Palin (now like President Donald Trump) has no public identity apart from the reaction of those who believe she is over the top. Her insecurity (like Trump’s) requires so-called enemies to fill her inner void by reacting to outrageous statements.

“The resentment felt today is the product of widespread feelings of powerlessness, writes Jeremy Engels in his important The Politics of Resentment: A Genealogy (Penn State Press, 2015). Those anger feelings are legitimate but become problematic when expressed with no context and directed at mistaken adversaries. Resentment is ineffective. Its expression soon enough turns back to the frustrated person, whose self-image becomes an inadequate victim. Resentment is all around these days because some of our “politicians and our sensationalized media seem intent on training citizens to be frightened, frustrated, apathetic, acquiescent and ultimately [more] resentful,” says Engels, who details the Palin-Giffords example. The politics of resentment is nefarious because it plays upon an honest desire for powerful reform but employs life-destroying strategies. Of course, some local, national and international figures play on resentment. Listen to them carefully: Their alternative to the status quo is always vague. They usually offer no lasting reform policy or improved organization and thus their promises only result in more alienation.
Resentment is like an addiction, which is why it seems like fun for awhile. However, it only pulls down. A resentful person, truth be told, has made herself or himself dependent on a larger force without being able to do anything about it.

The opposite of resentment is gratitude. Anyone who desires effective social reform must believe that the world and its environs is a gift. Maybe that belief is not explicitly stated upon awakening each morning. Maybe the word thanks is not used. But a person who is capable of improving his or her business or church or neighborhood or political party is a grateful person. Such a person knows that she or he is not self-made. He or she realizes that one’s interests have to be negotiated among the rights and wishes of others and that the beautiful gift of freedom implies care for one’s family, for society and to a degree for the world.
Let’s not get soft here. Politics is hardball. Business can be quite competitive. Civic groups can strike fierce poses. Specific interests must often be strongly asserted. Issues get sharply framed. Meetings get contentious. In democratic public life there are adversaries, opponents and perennial rivals. In a democracy, however, there are no enemies. Social change advocates and politicians who use that word betray the gift of our country. At a minimum they exhibit self-righteousness. Worse, they open a door to violence. In war there are enemies. In regular public life the word enemy, and other violent phrases, are not to be used.

Droel’s booklet, Public Friendship, is available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)

Misdirected Idealism

The Working Catholic: Misdirected Idealism
Bill Droel

John McKnight directs Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He objects to the standard approach toward a neighborhood by urban planners, government officials, and bank executives, building inspectors, social workers, some police officers and even some teachers. Instead of projecting joy and enthusiasm, they give exclusive attention to a neighborhood’s defects (old buildings, broken curbs, high number of transients, roaming delinquents, dim street lights and more). The well-meaning prophets of doom sometimes propose cosmetic interventions (new basketball hoops and additional street sweeping) to buoy drooping spirits of families.
McKnight, contrary to standard understanding, thinks many seemingly good interventions are in fact disabling help. A forceful ideology, he details, assumes some people are not competent neighbors; they are instead clients with deficient parts. This ideology is apolitical. There is no need to radically address the economic or cultural environment. Service, sincerely delivered, is an unquestioned good. There is no compelling need to explain why our country has terrific medical discoveries and many improved medical instruments and yet poor health. Or why our country has lots of knowledge about food and great interest in culinary arts and yet poor nutrition. Or lots of new classroom technology and yet declining reading scores.

Anand Giridharadas applies this analysis to those who sincerely believe that by doing well they can do good. Idealistic students, enterprising tech engineers and many innovators in finance “declare themselves partisans of change,” he writes in Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World (Knopf, 2018). Yet they selectively take on problems with projects they design, jumping over most of the people affected by the problem and quite often blocking government agencies from access to the problem. The goodwill of these educated and highly positioned do-gooders is insufficient, Giridharadas argues. In many cases it is harmful.
The tech entrepreneurs and the enterprising finance wizards, Giridharadas says, believe that “to change the world you must rely on the techniques, resources and personnel of capitalism.” The approach of these economic and cultural leaders is taught to students at big-name colleges. “The private push into world betterment,” he continues, sidelines “the older language of power, justice and rights.” Instead, the elite-style of social change uses phrases like leveraged data, social impact, and incubation of ideas, start-up venture, empowering endeavor, social enterprise club, impact investment and more.
The internet began in the mid-1960s, first among select engineers. It soon grew in scope and now is, of course, nearly universally used constantly by way of many types of devices. A philosophy came along with the hardware and the programs. The big tech players and their fans, says Giridharadas, believe in the leveling ability of technology. Everyone is entitled to access, they say, and extensive use of cyberspace, in and of itself, increases equality. (See for example The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman, Picador, 2007.)
Perhaps the tech giants are sincere. But their notion of change always includes a payoff for the tech entity and never addresses the basics of our economic system or our dominant culture. Keep in mind: Today’s tech industry is more concentrated than any other sector. A small number of people own the entire infrastructure. Their companies greatly add to wealth inequality.
Is it better then for tech leaders and for young adults who aspire to do good and do well to stifle their philanthropy and cease their forays into social problems? Might they simply put their excess wealth and lingering idealism back into their portfolio?

Catholic social doctrine has pertinent principles. According to subsidiarity, decisions should be made as close as possible to those affected by the decision. Maternalism or paternalism is a step or two removed from the scene. For example, says Catholicism, workers make the decision for or against a union without interference from management, even if management seemingly knows better. According to the principle of participation, a society increases in justice as more families have an increasing stake in the economy and the direction of culture. Catholicism favors private property and never requires exact material equality of income or wealth. It does insist, however, that all families have agency—usually by way of intermediate associations.
Context is a crucial difference between tech/finance philosophy and Catholicism. Individuals login and travel around the tech world as they please. In Catholicism, there is no such thing as a person without an environment; without family, friends, clubs, and more. A large portion of the social environment, Catholicism appreciates, is a gift.

Winners Take All is an important critique; one made by only a small number of other commentators like John McKnight in The Careless Society (Basic Books, 1995) and more recently by Thomas Frank in Listen Liberal (Henry Holt, 2016).

Droel is the author of Public Friendship (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)

Tech Companies, Part II

The Working Catholic: Media/Tech Companies, Part II
by Bill Droel

The Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 is among the most significant chapters in U.S. labor relations history. Homestead, Pennsylvania is just south of Pittsburgh, on the west bank of the Monongahela River. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) owned the prosperous steel mill there. Some of its workers were highly skilled and belonged to a craft union, Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. Carnegie was determined to break this union. He cut wages. Knowing there would be trouble, he enlisted the Pinkerton Detective Agency to assist him. At that time Pinkerton employed more agents than the U.S. Army had soldiers. The 1892 event resembled a naval siege; the union was eventually broken.
Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in The New Yorker (8/27/18), reminds us that several months before the Homestead Strike Carnegie wrote a pamphlet about disposing of one’s fortune. Titled The Gospel of Wealth (www.carnegie.org), it argues against a big inheritance for one’s children. It also argues against handing out money to the poor. Instead, Carnegie said the wealthy have an obligation to endow institutions that benefit the public—universities, libraries, cultural centers and more.
The juxtaposition of Carnegie’s pamphlet and his management of Homestead Steel “made explicit” to critics “the inconsistency of Carnegie’s position,” Kolbert writes. “How could a person ruthlessly exploit his employees and, at the same time, claim to be a benefactor of the toiling masses?” Why, for example, didn’t Carnegie endow a pension fund for his employees?

Carnegie was not alone. When it comes to charity, most companies and foundations in our country are guided by the so-called Protestant business ethic. Deserving individuals or the public at large are assisted by targeted programs or enrichment venues. However, the programs never challenge the system and the benefactors never question “too deeply how it is they came to do so well,” Kolbert concludes.
The attitude of 19th and 20th century industrial titans parallels that of our 21st century tech titans and their admirers. The big tech players today—the founders, the original investors and the elite engineers—are technology determinists. As Evgeny Morozov puts it in To Save Everything Click Here (Perseus Books, 2013), each and every application of technology is “inherently good in itself, regardless of its social or political consequences.” In fact, if someone happens to notice a social problem, then its solution is more technology. Homelessness, to give an extreme example, is tolerable with an app that makes streets feel like home. Or as a Google executive said: If you want to solve economic problems, create more entrepreneurs.
Central to the philosophy of the tech leaders is their belief that they are doing something for the greater good, both in their business ventures and in their philanthropic enterprises. Some of them are sincere. Their frame of reference all the way from high school to their current position never included concepts like structural evil or the priority of labor or even an obligation to the common good (which is not the same as calculation of a common denominator).
When it comes to their big charity ventures, explains Anand Giridharadas in Winners Take All (Alfred Knopf, 2018), the high-tech players plus their financial and political admirers assume a noble posture. They cannot imagine that their good intentions might actually be making things worse. There is no need to consider any systematic change, they presume. Inequality cannot be causing more suffering because doesn’t the economy allow for universal opportunity?
The big stage for tech philanthropy is the conference circuit. Events are held on Cape Cod, in Silicon Valley, in Colorado, often in Manhattan, maybe in Switzerland or France. Headliners often include Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and movie starlets. They are joined by guests who have a startup project in Los Angeles or Africa. These events are low on content, high on puff, says Giridharadas. Key phrases heard at the conference include incredible, amazing, awe-inspiring, empowering and the like.

The leaders of big tech companies want to do good, they say. But they never challenge power arrangements in our society. All of this, I suppose, is too much of a moral burden to place on someone who simply hails an Uber ride or gets a referral from Task Rabbit or orders a keurig through Amazon. But today’s tech industry is far from morally neutral. It warrants moral consideration. To be continued…

Droel edits a printed newsletter about faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).