Readers of this newsletter probably know that the Catholic Church endorsed the right of workers to organize as a basic element of Catholic Social Teaching in 1891, when Pope Leo XIII issued his Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum. But did you know that the Church in the United States played an active role in preparing workers to exercise that right?
In 1935 the U.S. Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, guaranteeing workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, leading to a burst of organizing activity by workers in factories, shops and warehouses. New unions like the United Auto Workers and the United Steel Workers sprung up – and so did a network of Catholic “labor schools.” In these labor schools housed in Catholic colleges and universities and even Parish social halls, Catholic workers learned the basic skills of union organizing and administration – parliamentary procedure, handling grievances, negotiating contracts. Through the 1940s and 1950s thousands of Catholic working men and women were formed in these labor schools and became active in the labor movement.
It happens that one of these labor schools is still in existence: the Labor Guild of the Archdiocese of Boston. The late Fr. Ed Boyle, SJ, Executive Secretary of the Guild in the 1980s and 1990s, was one of the founding members of the Catholic Labor Network. Today the Guild continues to offer courses in union skills and administration to working men and women in the Boston Area under the leadership of Executive Director Dave Kowalski of the Utility Workers Union of America.