St. Francis

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

The modern age began, let’s say, in 1500. That date is precise enough to include two pioneers of modernity. Christopher Columbus made his trans-Atlantic journey and was discovered by Native-Americans in 1492. Martin Luther (1483-1546) took a 16 ounce hammer to the door of All Saints Church on the hollowed eve of that church’s feast, October 31, 1517. The modern age is characterized by global travel and commerce (Columbus) and by the primacy of the individual over authoritarian institutions (Luther).
Other features of what we call modern life were introduced over 300 years before 1517, explains Adolf Holl in one of the three or four best biographies of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), The Last Christian (Doubleday, 1980).
The book begins with reference to two clocks. Monasteries and large churches long maintained rope-pulled bells to mark the liturgical hours: Lauds at dawn, Vespers in the evening and Compline at bedtime. But the bell clock was solar-timed; which meant early Lauds in summer, later in winter. Tournai in Belgium obtained a degree of autonomy from feudal counts and lords in 1188. That year its merchants built the first belfry or bell tower designed for town business, standard time year round. It was subsequently elevated and still operates. A Tournai wall clock sells today for about $60. In 1309 Milan in Italy installed a fully-mechanical clock set to secular time. From then until now we use a machine to arrive at business on time. A replica Milan tabletop clock now sells for anywhere from $14 to $80.
“For one last time, before the forces of progress thundered off on their triumphant path, one man looked into the motivating thrust behind the whole thing and decisively rejected it,” writes Holl. When time took over the public square, St. Francis stopped time.
And what was that motivating thrust?
St. Francis’ confrontation with his apparel merchant father is well-known. In its dramatic moment, St. Francis took off all his clothes in a public setting and threw them along with his money pouch at his father. Until now Pietro Bernardone was my father, St. Francis yelled. From now on only Our Father who is in heaven is my father. There was never reconciliation. Thinking over what led to his shocking behavior, St. Francis keyed into one word that was common to each conflict with his father: money. St. Francis committed himself to ending all association with money. “It became the enemy he would fight inexorably for the rest of his days,” says Holl. St. Francis was keenly interested in climbing the social ladder…climbing its rungs downward. At every moment that he thought he had compromised, that he wasn’t radical enough, he took one more step down.
For you see, St. Francis’ place and time revealed another feature of what we call modern life. His setting was “the cradle of modern capitalism.” His rejection of money explains why he was not attracted to the medieval monasteries, of which there were many. It was within the monasteries, Holl continues, that the basic values of capitalism developed—“purposeful rationality, discipline, abnegation, enterprise and inventiveness.” The monasteries were the first factories. His rejection of money explains why his followers (the Franciscans) are not monks. They are iterant preachers, called friars.
Although he rejected all previews of modernity, St. Francis did not run away. He was not a hermit. He preached outdoors, mostly by gestures. “He needed spectators and he got them,” says Holl. A new movie will bring Jerry Rubin (1938-1994), the premier 1960s yippie, back to public attention. St. Francis and Rubin are different, but they share a fondness for small counter-capitalism gestures. On one of his romps, Rubin obtained a pass for the viewers’ gallery above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. He pulled hundreds of dollar bills out of his pocket and let them fly. Predictably, the floor traders, the foot soldiers of capitalism, scrambled to collect the money. The exchange was forced to briefly halt trading.

A few years ago one of my students asserted that “St. Francis was a failure.” He hardly reformed the church, she said. It is more corrupt than ever. His religious order has many buildings and has its share of scandal. Nor did St. Francis do anything to stop the evils of the modern age from gaining dominance.
I’m not sure she was correct. I’ve conversed with many young adults who find their high-powered career unsatisfying, who are discontent with the status quo. I regularly meet young adults who, at least in a portion of their life, engage in counter-capitalism. For example, they participate in the slow food movement, the slow fashion movement, the green movement and more. Whenever appropriate I suggest a good biography of St. Francis to these idealists.
Those young adults who know something about St. Francis–whose feast day is Sunday, October 4, 2020–universally relate to the stories about birds and other animals. These young adults also like his association with the environmental movement. However, his need for institutions is a prohibitive block that stops young adults from fully embracing St. Francis’ approach to a meaningful life. How could he retain affection for institutions while seeing so much corruption in the church and while enduring so much disappointment within his fledgling religious order? In caring about institutions, St. Francis was not like Jerry Rubin. To be continued…
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a print newsletter about faith and work.

God Takes Delight

The Working Catholic: God’s Pleasure
by Bill Droel

Ben Cross died last week. He was an actor best known for his portrayal of Harold Abrahams, an Olympic runner, in Chariots of Fire (Warner Brothers, 1924). Abrahams is a Jewish student at University of Cambridge. He has to deal with anti-Semitism on his way to the 1924 games in Paris. The film, based on a true story, won four Academy Awards including best picture.
The plot around Abrahams has a parallel story line. Ian Charleson, who died in 1990, plays Eric Liddell, another young runner. Liddell is supposed to go to China to engage in Christian missionary activity. His sister, touching a part of his conscience, says that training for the Olympics distracts him from God’s calling. Liddell is torn but makes peace with his plan. In the film’s famous line, he says: “I believe God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
The Lord takes delight in endeavors well done. Once upon a time a prominent church hereabout commissioned an artist to paint the figure of God the Father. The artist was so thrilled by the greatness of her subject that she vowed to do the painting on her knees. Well, this went on for a few days until God appeared to her and thundered: “You are not supposed to paint me on your knees. You are supposed to paint me well.”
The notion persists that for work to be holy it either must occur under church auspice or it must get an additional coating of piety or sacredness.

What is the proper definition of holy work? It is the thing one does to live and/or the thing one lives to do. Volunteering and homemaking can be good work presuming the worker receives sufficient financial resources from elsewhere. If the good work is the way one supports oneself and a family, the pay must be just. Without a family wage, the endeavor is objectively damaged. The paternalism of the employer and the desperation or generous heart of the employee is irrelevant in calculating a family wage.
Good work is how a person fulfills his or her human nature. Each of us has a God-given nature that came with a work impulse already installed. Good work is how a person participates in the on-going creation and redemption of society.
Good work is a primary way that a person exercises the virtue of solidarity by cooperating with fellow workers for improvements in the product, the service, the delivery or even the culture of the industry or sector. This impulse to associate for improvement is another built-in feature of human nature.
All types of jobs qualify as good work, excluding only those that violate God’s plan: a predatory lender, a trafficker of teenage girls, or a gang leader. Good work is any endeavor that upon a worker’s contemplation she or he sees God’s perfection reflected. This does not mean that the medical procedure has to always be a total success. The class on obtuse angles or the one on dangling participles can flop. The anticipated lauds for the play or the concert do not occur. The courtroom defense does not impress the jury. The day or the week or the month of child rearing can be total frustration. At a certain time, however, a worker can look back upon an endeavor and know that given the challenges of the job she or he did their best.

Unfortunately, Christians do not—for whatever reason—get the message that their work matters to God; that work in itself contributes to the spiritual life. Yet all Christians, as St. John Paul II (1920-2005) said, are called to a spirituality of work.
Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), playwright, essayist and creator of the fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey, says that Christians will have only a pro forma adherence to the faith as long as they do not hear or feel that Christianity has anything to do with the meaning of work—on the job, around the home and in the community. An intelligent carpenter, she says, hears that religion means “not to be drunk and disorderly in leisure hours and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him [or her] is this: The very first demand that religion makes…is that he [or she] should make good tables.”
To be clear: God wants catechists and preachers in the mission field and around the parish. God wants those teachers and preachers to be compassionate. But a tender heart and willingness to volunteer are not sufficient. God feels pleasure when preachers, catechists and all workers do it well. For example, God expects preachers and catechists to critically study Scripture. God expects them to stay current, using magazines like Commonweal, America or Christianity Today, just as God expects doctors to read medical journals carefully, engineers to keep up with safety manuals and to read about new materials or chemical compounds.

God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure, said Olympian Eric Liddell. The Lord takes delight in all endeavors well done.

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

Labor Apostle

The Working Catholic
by Bill Droel

There’s a new edition of Christian Socialism: An Informal History by John Cort (Orbis Books, 2020). Gary Dorrien of Union Theological Seminary provides its introduction. The book generally goes in chronological order from the New Testament onto the Church Fathers (East and West), then St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and St. Thomas More (1478-1535). Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) appears in a chapter about France and Most Rev. William Temple (1881-1944) in one about England. The chapter on Catholic socialism draws upon papal encyclicals, the thoughts of Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945) of St. Paul and on liberation theology.

John Cort (1913-2006), a 1935 Harvard University graduate, served our country as a Peace Corps volunteer in Philippines, as a local director in the Office of Economic Opportunity and as a director of a municipal program. He is best known as founder of Association of Catholic Trade Unionists in February 1937.
In the 1940s the Communist Party controlled 15 major labor unions in the U.S. and had influence within others. Many blue-collar workers at the time were immigrant Catholics. If Catholicism was indifferent to the world of work, Cort reasoned, the door is open to communists to use unions for their ideological purpose. Thus ACTU would encourage Catholic workers to join unions and be active members, Cort said. It assisted with CIO membership drives, battled racketeers and sponsored labor schools where workers learned leadership skills and discussed Catholic social principles. At ACTU’s peak there were 5,500 members in 14 cities. Many ACTU chapters published hard-hitting newspapers.
ACTU was controversial. Some Catholics accused it of cooperating with communism. The greater criticism came from the other end: ACTU was a voting-block within union locals, so fixated on anti-communism that it turned a progressive labor movement hopelessly rightward. Indeed, a few ACTU chapters got so obsessed with communism that they lost ACTU’s original purpose. Cort repeatedly said that the U in ACTU stood for unionists, not unions. He did not advocate Catholic trade unions or Catholic political parties, as sometimes occurred in Europe. Catholics display their faith in public life simply by being good unionists–or in other examples, good politicians, good civil servants, good nurses, good teachers. The workers in ACTU met outside their job site with fellow Catholics for mutual support, spiritual formation and instruction on social doctrine. Communists in the 1930s and 1940s were not socialists or progressive prophets who planted seeds of reform, said Cort. They were Stalinists who denied the spiritual life and who jeopardized national security. ACTU, Cort insisted, “was a progressive organization most of whose leaders and members were dedicated to honest democratic trade unionism.” Thus for Cort non-violence was a non-negotiable religious principle. No exceptions.
Only in the 1970s did Cort publicly call himself a socialist. But he was clear that socialism is not crazy radicalism, not totalitarianism and not communism. For Cort it came from a vision of society based on religious principles, not on Marxism. The vision is sketched in Catholic social encyclicals and develops through the efforts of ordinary Catholics, in cooperation with like-minded colleagues, to improve policies in their workplace and their community. By the way, these encyclicals—from 1891 to 2000—equally critique total systems like communism and unrestricted systems like neoliberal capitalism. Cort gave an example. A 1937 encyclical by Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) was, of course, published in Latin. It is often titled in English as On Atheistic Communism. “I analyzed this encyclical and found that one-quarter of it is devoted to the evils of communism and three-quarters are devoted to the evils of capitalism,” he said. “It might well have been entitled On Atheistic Capitalism.

For those not interested in the history lessons contained in Cort’s Christian Socialism, get a used copy of Cort’s autobiography, Dreadful Conversions (Fordham University Press, 2003). It is terrific spiritual reading.
St. Basil (329-379) gives “the best and shortest summary of Catholic social teaching,” Cort was fond of saying. “The coat that hangs in your closet belongs to the poor.”

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

St. Joseph

The Working Catholic: St. Joseph Day
by Bill Droel

Some years ago I was part of a lobby group to change the feast of St. Joseph the Worker from May 1st to the first Monday in September. The change would apply only to dioceses in the United States; the country that has Labor Day in September. The proposal got a respectable hearing from some bishops but the liturgy police (smile) at the bishops’ conference said no.

In 1889 communist and other pro-worker groups in Europe designated May 1st as International Workers’ Day. It is today celebrated as such by many people in Europe, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. To counter the communists, the Vatican designated May 1st as St. Joseph the Worker Day. Ironically, the May 1st designation is not directly related to a communist event from Europe. It commemorates an event in the U.S., specifically here in Chicago. The issue was an eight-hour workday.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) was interested in an eight hour day. When he wrote about it in 1867 he referred to the situation in the U.S. A stateside group, National Labor Union, championed the cause. Move ahead to 1886. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions obtained a City of Chicago permit dated May 1st for a rally in support of the enforcement of eight-hour-per-day laws. This event, writes William Adelman in Haymarket Revisited (Illinois Historical Society, 1986), has uniquely “influenced the history of labor in the U.S. and even the world.” What happened?
Late in the evening of the rally someone threw dynamite. Police fired their guns wildly. Soon seven officers and four workers were dead. Eight labor activists were rounded up and arrested. Those apprehended included a lay minister, a printer and others. Within about three months seven of the activists were found guilty. One was sentenced to 15 years; two others got life sentences; one was killed in jail. The remaining four were hanged in November.
The issue didn’t totally disappear. Beginning in the last months of the 19th century various unions were able to include an eight-hour provision in contracts: the United Mine Workers, a Building Trades Council in California, the Typographical Union and more. Only in 1937 with the Fair Labor Standards Act did the restriction on working hours become a national standard. Even then, however, its application was only gradually extended to various sectors.
In recent times the Illinois Labor History Society (www.illinoislaborhistory.org) has refurbished the graves of the Haymarket workers who are buried in Forest Home Cemetery, located in Forest Park, Ill. The Society has several resources related to the Haymarket event and to the meaning of May 1st.
Haymarket Square itself, located just west of Chicago’s Loop, is today home to several trendy restaurants and relatively new condos. Tourists who go there would have to know some history to understand Adelman’s contention that an event occurred there that “influenced the history of labor in the U.S. and even the world.”

Parishes in the U.S. routinely include symbols and prayers about the dignity of work during the September Labor Day weekend. It would be an enhancement, in my opinion, to also have a feast day that weekend honoring that long ago tradesman, St. Joseph.
“O God, Creator of all things… by the example of St. Joseph and under his patronage may we complete the works you set us to do and attain the rewards you promise.” – Collect from Mass of May 1st

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

Workers in New York

The Working Catholic: Exhibit about Workers
by Bill Droel

Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth St., New York, NY 10029) just ended an exhibit about the history of workers in its city. It’s not too late, however, to enjoy the exhibit. It is the basis for City of Workers, City of Struggle edited by Joshua Freeman (Museum of City of NY, 2019; $40). Our Chicago Public Library has a copy, as do other libraries.
The book’s introduction notes that working people help define politics, culture and the public sphere. In struggles between employees and employers, in struggles among groups of workers and in struggles within unions, people determine “what makes a good and livable city.” The book is about labor movements (plural), the introduction explains. That’s because the marketplace is fluid with new labor sectors replacing the old, with new immigrant groups arriving with new skills, with new wage arrangements and more. The book’s contributors devote chapters to colonial New York, slave labor, housework, sailors and dockhands, garment workers, labor relations and race, Puerto Rican contributions, civil servants and others. The book is richly illustrated with old pictures, news articles, posters and the like. A recurring theme is the rise, fall and renewal of several unions. There are more union workers in New York City, by the way, than anywhere else in our country.
Any story about New York City, particularly a story about workers, must treat the fire of March 1911 in the Asch Building (now known as Brown Building, owned by N.Y. University). Within 18 minutes, 144 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were dead and two more died subsequently. It happened that Frances Perkins (1880-1965) was in a nearby café. She witnessed the horror. If you have ever drawn overtime pay, ever collected an unemployment check, ever benefited from Social Security, ever been thankful for safety features at your job site, it is because of the tireless efforts of Perkins—first with the Consumers League, then as a New York State official and finally as the first woman cabinet member, serving as Secretary of Labor through all of President Franklin Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) terms. She often said that the imprint of the Triangle Company tragedy compelled her to improve conditions for working families.
City of Workers, City of Struggle details how the CIO grew during the late 1930s in New York City, borrowing the sit down tactic from John L Lewis (1880-1969). The tactic was effective at a public transportation powerhouse, at Woolworths and other dry goods stores and more. Although the CIO is associated with steel in Pittsburgh and automobiles in Detroit, many CIO unions had their national headquarters in New York City.
The book’s chapter on health care features Local 1199, a union for which I briefly worked in the early 1970s. Led by Leon Davis (1905-1992), this union began among pharmacists and other drugstore workers. Davis hired Elliott Godoff (1905-1975) to organize hospital workers. For 40 years after the National Labor Relations Act (aka the Wagner Act) voluntary hospitals remained outside of labor relations jurisdiction. Also many nurses felt that as professionals they did not need a union. And, concerns about public safety limit a union’s tactics in a hospital setting. Nonetheless in December 1958 a Bronx hospital recognized Local 1199 as “sole and exclusive bargaining agent” for its workers. There were lots of ups and downs for Local 1199 and other health care unions for several years. At critical moments, Cardinal John O’Connor (1920-2000) assisted the union with dramatic testimony and action. In 1995 an on-again-off-again merger between Local 1199 and Service Employees International was ratified.
Near its conclusion, City of Workers, City of Struggle considers the new worker centers. These centers do not engage in collective bargaining. They are a combination of social service and successful advocacy for workers.
Domestic workers have since 1938 been excluded from federal labor standards, though recently some federal policies have been extended to “direct care workers.” The remarkable Ai-Jen Poo is U.S. born of Taiwanese heritage. As a college student, Poo volunteered with an Asian-American service agency. Still in her 20s, she began systematic visits to many New York City playgrounds where she built relationships with nannies and other care workers who frequented the parks. She organized small meetings and by 2002 her groups were pressuring city entities for improved oversight of their occupation. In 2007 she launched National Domestic Workers Alliance (www.domesticworkers.org). NDWA successfully lobbied for labor standards that exceed federal minimums in nine states and in Seattle. NDWA is now pushing for a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to include paid overtime, safe working conditions, meal and rest breaks, earned sick time and fair scheduling.
Bhairavi Desal is another remarkable woman who has spent years visiting garages and airport lots talking with taxi drivers. Her Taxi Workers Alliance (www.nytwa.org) lobbies for precarious workers. Fekkak Mamdouh, a leader with Restaurant Opportunities Center (www.rocunited.org), does the same with food service workers. In particular, ROC campaigns to end harassment, to improve scheduling and to establish a fair wage structure. These centers must rely on public attention gained through rallies, education materials, and individual meetings with decision makers.
City of Workers, City of Struggle is a history book. But it is inspiring. It reminds the reader that although there are setbacks, social improvement is possible. The essential ingredients are always dedicated people and focused action over many years.

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

Formation through Action

The Working Catholic: Action Is Necessary
by Bill Droel

“Consuming and participating in politics by obsessive news-following [and] by arguing and debating” is not politics, says Eitan Hersh in Politics Is for Power (Simon & Schuster [2020]; $27). To binge on MSNBC, devour Fox News or constantly share one’s opinions with friends and family on social media or in phone calls, is “to satisfy our own emotional needs and intellectual curiosities” but in itself serves no “serious purpose.”
Hersh calls the trap political hobbyism: Instead of electoral engagement (canvassing, participating in meetings, etc.), citizens pay lots of attention to political comings-and-goings. By one survey, 83% of those who spend an hour or more daily on news consumption (TV, mobile devices, reading) spend no time on political activity. Nor does the majority ever act on a community problem. Hersh does not suggest that citizens abandon the news. Genuine activists are well-informed. However, it does not work in the opposite direction: News junkies are not active.
Genuine politics is when people volunteer in order to acquire power. They build relationships, win supporters and broker their power for some social improvement. Hersh, a young professor at Tufts University, is sympathetic toward students and other young adults who support causes. However, he supplies several cautions. Genuine politics might entail spirited protest, but protest in itself is not enough. Though one-off events appeal to young adults, genuine politics means a longer-term commitment to others.
Hersh’s term for shallow participation is slacktivism. This is any symbolic on-line activity or token action that conveys support but only fulfills an altruistic need. These shallow gestures put off the necessity to learn how to vote, how to canvass, how to build relationships. He furnishes fascinating studies about how wearing a button or T-shirt subjectively removes the obligation to do something.
Political hobbyism is not neutral; it “hinders the pursuit of political power.” It puts attention on entertainment and melodrama. Similarly, it favors “short-term emotional highs,” pushing away the often boring process of real social change. It also favors ideological struggles in which all manner of policies become moral convictions over which there can be no compromise. Both citizens and electoral officials buy into this made-for-TV culture.
Hersh profiles several competent organizers. They are people of empathy who know that whining and yelling only narrow the base. They have no set script but are open to dialogue with anyone. They do not campaign around policy issues so much as they are disciplined about winning and holding power. They have “generous hearts” and exhibit patience.
Hersh’s examples come from electoral politics. He does though apply his theory to the withering of religious organizations, labor unions and civic groups. The phrase spiritual but not religious can typify a hobbyist. Whereas the word religion means to bind together, the hobbyist occasionally tries out spiritual practices like yoga or solitary meditation.

Specialized Catholic Action (capital A) was a worldwide movement in 1940s and 1950s. Its key insight was that faith formation must include action. Discussion groups, theology on tap speakers in the parish hall and Scripture reflections in the bulletin are fine. But adults do not grow in wisdom without action. The Catholic Action method was summarized in the slogan: observe, judge act. In particular Catholic Action said that young adults will be disposed toward Christianity through disciplined action around their concerns about work and relationships. It trained young adults to steadily organize like-to-like, student-to-student, worker-to-worker. Specialized Catholic Action used no gimmicks and promised no quick fix. It is difficult. Several formation programs (Renew, Christ Renews His Church, etc.) have solid content but nearly all stumble on the necessity for action.

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

Christmas Shopping II

The Working Catholic: Christmas Shopping Part II
by Bill Droel

Clothes were once made in the U.S.  Yes, labor abuses occurred in our domestic production–in cotton plantations, mills and factories. Conditions greatly improved, however, with the labor laws and reforms introduced by President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) and his Labor Secretary Frances Perkins (1880-1965).
Through the post-World War II years, New York City’s Garment District “had more apparel factories than anywhere else in the world,” Dana Thomas, a fashion expert based in Paris, writes in Fashionapolis (Penguin, 2019). From there production expanded to Bronx, Brooklyn, Rochester and Chicago; and in the 1970s to NYC’s Chinatown and to Los Angeles.
Starting in about 1980 two trends converged to create the apparel industry as we have it today. First, President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) encouraged free trade deals. It soon became more profitable for clothing companies to import from countries where wages are low and building standards are nearly nonexistent. Second, fast fashion became the new concept. U.S. consumers, even those with money, crave cheap clothes—everything from socks to formal wear. Consumers shop “off-the-rack” or expect “next day delivery” from retail outlets where wages are relatively low.

How many clothing items per U.S. shopper? Jessica Iredale writes about blue jeans for Wall St. Journal (12/1/19). “Staying on trend can be an exhausting, not to mention expensive exercise in denim acrobatics,” she says. She has 18 pairs in her closet and a few more in storage bins under her bed. Of these, Iredale has three “in regular rotation.” The others are mostly out of fashion. By one estimate, the average number per U.S. adult (women plus men) is seven pairs in the closet. That adult regularly goes to the alley or resale shop because that adult buys four new pairs per year. Each shopper (including those shopping for their children) buys 68 garments per year.

There are varying degrees of exploitation involved in the overseas production of each garment. The most harrowing production is in Bangladesh, Thomas details. There are thousands of apparel factories there, employing 40million workers. The doors are locked at many of those plants in order to keep workers from leaving during the day. The world learned of this inhumane practice in April 2013 when the Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 1,134 workers and injuring another 2,500. The Rana Plaza tragedy “is the impetus” for every subsequent improvement in Bangladesh manufacturing, says Thomas.
Thomas summarizes the reforms that occurred and didn’t occur after the Rana Plaza collapse. IndustriAll Global (54 bio Route des Acacias, Geneva, Switzerland; www.industriall-union.org) developed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety (www.bangladeshaccord.org). About 200 fashion lines and retail outlets signed up. Teams of engineers, including leaders from Canada, made the rounds of Bangladesh factories. The Accord participants were mostly European firms. The U.S. firms, spearheaded by Walmart, started the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, similar to the Accord. However, the U.S. Alliance is voluntary and uses in-house inspectors. Human rights activists believe it is deficient.

President Donald Trump is interested in the U.S. trade deficit. The apparel industry which thrives on free trade and on consumers’ desire for fast fashion annually accounts for $77billion of the trade deficit, according to Thomas. Might Trump find ways to bring clothing manufacturing back to the U.S.?
His original MAGA hat was “assembled in the U.S.A.” (The hats could not say “made in the U.S.A.”) The MAGA hat is now a knockoff, selling for $6.99 from 16 importers. All the other items in Trump’s failed clothing line were foreign made, including in some sweatshops. White House advisor Ivanka Kushner’s apparel items, a line which went under in July 2018, were imported from China, Indonesia and Bangladesh. The Kushner subcontractors employed women toiling in sweatshops. Thomas begins her book with details about Melania Trump’s cynical jacket, worn on a 2018 visit to a detention center. It cost $39 from a Spanish manufacturer (unless our government overpaid for the item).

On short notice it will be difficult to buy completely clean clothes during this holy season. A donation to a human rights group is appropriate. I recommend International Labor Rights Forum (1634 I St. NW #1000, Washington, DC 20006; www.laborrights.org) and Worker Rights Consortium (5 Thomas Cr. NW #500, Washington, DC 20005; www.workersrights.org).

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 and, thanks to conscientious students, many consumers and a few sophisticated groups, there is momentum behind justice in the clothing industry.

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

CHRISTMAS SHOPPING

The Working Catholic: Christmas Shopping
by Bill Droel

Will your shopping for gifts this holy season include buying apparel? Be warned: It will be difficult to find clean clothes. Some are hopelessly stained with child labor, even slavery. Most have flaws like sweatshop wages, dangerous working conditions, wage theft, harassment and more.

In recent years some consumers have shown interest in healthier food. The slow food movement has even reached the menus within the biggest fast food chains. Now a slow fashion movement is budding. For example, you can purchase clean jeans from Blue Delta in Oxford, Mississippi. There is an Ivy League educated woman in Tennessee who is doing well growing and selling indigo domestically. About 700 cotton farms in South Carolina practice re-shoring; that is, growing stateside and supplying manufacturers here. Even a few well-known apparel brands are gradually turning away from sweatshops.
It is likely too late to get into slow fashion purchasing before Wednesday, December 25, 2019. However, Advent (also called the Journey Outward) is an appropriate time for solid reading on the topic of clothing.

In Beaten Down, Worked Up (Alfred Knopf, 2019) Steven Greenhouse gives two thorough chapters to the history of U.S. apparel manufacturing.
In the early 1900s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a premier manufacturer of affordable women’s blouses. It occupied the top three floors of New York City’s Asch Building (now known as Brown Building and owned by N.Y. University). In November 1909 the women there and in other factories staged a 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–from a set amount per day, no matter the number of hours to an hourly wage. When they settled, the Triangle workers got a small raise and a 52-hour week. They did not get the first goal of every worker action: sole and exclusive bargaining rights. Nor was workplace safety part of the outcome.
Beaten Down, Worked Up profiles Clara Lemlich Shavelson (1886-1982). She was 23-years old in those last weeks of 1909. She emerged as a leader of the garment workers. 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.
Beaten Down, Worked Up goes on to detail a devastating fire at Triangle Company that occurred in March 1911. After just 18 minutes, 144 people were dead.
Before 1900, it might be noted, 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 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 stylish shirts; the beginning of what today is called fast fashion. Of course, the main ingredient in the early 1900s as with nearly all garments today was cheap labor. An exploitative wage system was and is justified.
Beaten Down, Worked Up then profiles a witness to the Triangle Company tragedy: Frances Perkins (1880-1965), an Episcopalian. She was in a nearby café, on break from her position with National Consumers League (www.nclnet.org). Her friend was Florence Kelley (1859-1932), a Quaker and the first general secretary of Consumers League.
If you have ever drawn overtime pay, ever collected an unemployment check, ever benefited from Social Security, ever been thankful for safety features at your job site, it is because of the tireless efforts of Perkins. After her time with the Consumers League, she worked for New York State and then became the first woman cabinet member, serving through all of President Franklin Roosevelt’s terms. She was compelled to improve conditions for working families by the imprint of the horrible Triangle Company tragedy.

How is it that all our clothes come from Asia or Latin America? Might President Donald Trump revive apparel manufacturing in the U.S.? Is there something we can do about dirty clothing even during these short days before Christmas? To be continued with information drawn from Fashionapolis by Dana Thomas (Penguin, 2019).

Droel edits a print newsletter of faith and work for National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Strikes

The Working Catholic: Strikes
by Bill Droel

Strikes are in the news: auto workers, janitors, teachers, hotel workers and more. Catholicism has a well-developed doctrine on labor relations that includes moral considerations regarding strikes. Most Catholics, I suspect, know nothing about this doctrine. Some who know about it don’t accept it.

Catholicism says that a wholesome, holy society must have bargaining associations for workers. This teaching is part of the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. It also fits with Catholicism’s experience of responsible freedom—something lacking in societies without independent worker associations and other countervailing forces. Totalitarianisms, on one hand, squash unions. Libertarian capitalism with its equation of freedom with extreme individualism likewise rejects unions and other mediating structures. A healthy society by contrast encourages workers’ groups and other associations.
Catholicism does not say that every workplace must have a union. It does not say that this or that union is a good fit for this or that workplace. It does, however, assert that the workers make the choice for or against a union without the maternal or paternal meddling of management. In support of this doctrine Catholicism says that bona fide workers’ groups are entitled to job actions. Catholicism does not vouch for the wisdom of any one job action. That’s a prudential matter for the workers.

A strike is morally OK with some conditions. It must be a just strike. That is, the workers have previously exercised good faith in expressing their position. The issues are serious enough. No violence can occur, though strikers can be loud and can temporarily assert extreme demands. During a strike the union must have a negotiating posture. So too, says Catholicism, must management. This is why a lock out is immoral.
Finally, the strikers are not allowed to put customers, patients, students, neighbors and the like in danger. This is why a wholesale strike by police officers is immoral. For the same reason a nurses’ strike is morally dicey. It could be acceptable, only if provisions for patient care are taken and if it is of short duration.
In keeping with these criteria Catholicism says that no Catholic is allowed to cross a legitimate picket line. No Catholic, meaning suppliers, customers and managers. (If this stricture were observed, all strikes would be settled quickly. After all, about 25% of all executives are Catholic.)
Cardinal John O’Connor (1920-2000) of New York was schooled in labor doctrine from his childhood. One time a major Catholic entity scheduled its high-priced ticket fundraiser at an elite country club. Days before the event the club’s staff went on strike. O’Connor announced that his religion prohibited him from attending the event and mentioned that the prohibition should apply to any Catholic. The event was cancelled, even though the entity really needed this fundraiser.
From the doctrine pertaining to strikes it logically follows that the use of permanent replacement workers is a contradiction in terms. O’Connor testified to our U.S. Congress on this point.

Finally, the record must state that Catholic institutions sometimes flaunt our faith and engage in union busting. That their trustees and managers are able to get away with their behavior, provides proof as to why workers need their own associations, free from maternalism or paternalism. A list of Catholic institutions that harmoniously deal with a union is found on this Catholic Labor Network website.

Droel is an author of Catholic Institutions and Labor Unions (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $1)

Disabling Help

The Working Catholic: Disabling Help
by William Droel

Good intentions are not enough. Indeed, good intentions can be harmful.
Tarence Ray provides a case study of wasteful, ineffective and disabling social improvement programs in “Hollowed Out: Against the Sham Revitalization of Appalachia” for The Baffler (https://thebaffler.com/; 10/19). He assessed 15 organizations in his region that received money from Appalachian Regional Commission plus he looked at other economic development projects. ARC is a federal agency with state cooperation. It began in 1965 and is targeted to West Virginia and parts of a dozen other states. The particular funding arm that concerns Ray began during the administration of President Barack Obama to create employment that would offset job loss from the coal industry.
“Wading into the bureaucratic refuse of these [15] organizations was exhausting,” Ray says. He was bounced from one employee’s phone extension to another; several groups didn’t respond to him at all. Only one located in southwest Pennsylvania supplied information.
The organizations are strong on narrative-building (i.e. verbiage) but never really do much, Ray discovered. It could be that leaders of these groups are sincere. They presume that enough high-sounding talk and writing will trickle down to Appalachian culture, will change mindsets and will somehow create prosperity. Some of their goals are simply impractical. For example, proposing a Silicon Holler or tech utopia in rural areas that lack adequate broadband infrastructure. Or in one of a handful of other examples, a program suggests that a former miner train as an elevator operator in a region that has only a few four-story buildings.
Ray’s essay is not a critique of government bungling, though that occurs. These same organizations get foundation grants, which encourages the government to renew funding, which attracts more grants. His target is the crucial fallacy of these and other Helping Interventions: The priority is never to help the underemployed help themselves. It is not a bottom-up agenda. It is top-down assistance always packaged with an “enduring faith in technology.” Developers and investors will acquire property, build facilities, install hardware and garner consulting contracts. College-educated planners, supervisors, technocrats, lawyers and others will oversee the project. Some of whom will be located on the scene but many of whom, after an initial visit, remain in an office with a high-grade computer in Boston or Washington. If a rationale is needed, the government and foundation leaders invoke “trickle-down.” And again, maybe they are sincere in their incorrect belief.

How can a responsible citizen, an ordinary worker avoid a government-sponsored, foundation-funded merry-go-round to nowhere? Run away from jargon. Ray supplies several terms associated with “sham” programs: entrepreneurship, business incubation, targeted, deployed, innovation ecosystem, business coach, sustainable infrastructure, feasibility study, cultural heritage assets, elevating awareness, opportunity zone and the like.
One word that doesn’t appear in all this is organize. The alternative to neoliberal paternalism or maternalism is organized citizens who through their church, their union, their precinct and their self-funded community organization tell big tech and big government what they want in their schools, their communities and their environment. And they say, “Let’s negotiate.”

On this topic of disabling help I recommend Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank (Picador, 2016). He is particularly good on the use of jargon to avoid genuine social change. Also read Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas (Knopf, 2018). And we would benefit from once again considering any of the books by Ivan Illich (1926-2002).

Droel’s booklet, Public Friendship, is available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $6)