A Worker Justice Victory Worth Remembering

courtesy of Mark Piper

Winters in Wisconsin are cold, but on one particular evening it wasn’t just frigid but bleak for the employees of the Allen-Edmonds shoe factory in Belgium, WI. In January 1984, an Allen-Edmonds shoe factory went up in flames — a total loss. It appeared that the non-union 250 employees would be unemployed either short-term or long-term. But, down the road in Sheboygan, Robert Laverenz of Laverenz Shoe Company, joined with his unionized workforce to step in and step up. “It wasn’t a question of should we or shouldn’t we help out,” he was quoted as saying. “The question was how soon and how much could we help?” Members of Local 796 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, representing his employees voted to switch to a four-day work week. “Every single hand went up in affirmation,” he said in praise of the union vote. The competitors’ employees, out of work, came by bus and worked continuously Friday – Sunday producing 1,200 shoes a week of their own – until Allen-Edmunds was able to rebuild from the fire.

This action was done through Catholic Social Teaching, solidarity, and by a non-church entity, a union, which the Church affirms as a good. As recorded in the book Confident & Competent: A challenge for the lay church:

There was no formal church or parish involvement in this act [Local 796] of sustaining and improving the world, no prophetic actions, no special ministries — just laypeople collectively doing what they thought was right in the normal course of their lives… the church in preparation and reflection has the responsibility to train, support, agitate and minister to [people] at work in the world.