New Labor Schools

New Labor Schools

by Bill Droel

Bishop Blasé Cupich received several invitations to speak with union groups after he arrived in Chicago in November 2014. He declined for a time. But after nearly one year Cupich went to Local 130 Plumbers Hall this past September at the request of the Chicago Federation of Labor. There he delivered a 50-minute, pro-union address. The next-day’s newspapers highlighted Cupich’s challenge to what he accurately called “so-called right-to-work laws,” as favored by our Illinois governor and others. “The Church is duty bound to challenge such efforts by raising questions based on longstanding principles,” the bishop said. “Lawmakers and others may see it differently, but history has shown that a society with a healthy, effective and responsible labor movement is a better place than one where other powerful economic interests have their way and the voices and rights of workers are diminished.”

Near his talk’s conclusion Cupich made the point that the word church means all baptized Christians: “The presence of the church in the labor movement is not primarily through the participation of clergy, but through the leadership of Catholic lay men and women in their unions and in the larger labor movement. The Catholics in this room and those who follow you are the church in the labor movement. You put your faith into action. You are Catholic social teaching at work.”

Then, with a lay-centered church in mind Cupich made a suggestion: “Many years ago we had labor schools here in the Archdiocese. Today, let’s explore how Catholic labor leaders, Catholic business leaders and others can find new ways to share the message and educate the next generation of Catholics and workers. The church is deeply concerned about how consumerism, materialism, excessive individualism and extreme libertarianism and economics shape people’s lives today… The Catholic vision and its moral framework offer a different way of thinking and a different way of acting in economic life. We need to share this vision more broadly and deeply, ever committed to a consistent ethic of solidarity.”

Cupich is correct about Chicago church history. In fact, most industrial cities had one or more Catholic labor schools in the post-World War II years. The best-known is probably New York’s Xavier Labor School that inspired the award-winning movie On the Waterfront. The school’s priests, Fr. Phillip Carey, SJ (1907-1989) and Fr. John Pete Corridan, SJ (1911-1984), became the character portrayed by Karl Malden (1912-2009) in the movie.

Today only the Boston Labor Guild in Braintree, Massachusetts remains. It offers regular classes in parliamentary procedure, labor history, public speaking and the like. Teachers include attorneys, union officials and Catholic thinkers. There are workshops on current issues, including social ethics. The Guild also provides a neutral space for negotiations and at times is asked to mediate contract votes or elections. The Guild’s annual banquet honors all those lay women and men involved in labor-management relations–business leaders, administrators, attorneys, government officials, union leaders and some church activists. In this regard the Guild is different from most of the old labor schools that concentrated only on union members.

The Chicago effort of years-gone-by also had inclusive membership. Called the Catholic Labor Alliance, it was founded in 1943 by Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand (1904-1979) and Ed Marciniak (1917-2004). Msgr. Daniel Cantwell (1915-1996) was its chaplain. The Alliance was not an Archdiocesan office; it raised its own funds. Its activities were similar to the Boston Guild. The Alliance published a hard-hitting newspaper titled Work that within a few years grew its circulation to 10,000. Eventually the Alliance changed its name to Catholic Council on Labor Life in order to better reflect its concern for business, government, church and unions.

Like the other labor schools, the Chicago effort disappeared by the late 1960s. In 1977 Cantwell and Marciniak with others launched the National Center for the Laity. It counters the concerns articulated by Cupich at the Plumbers Hall (“consumerism, materialism, excessive individualism and extreme libertarianism and economics”) with what Cupich called “the Catholic vision and its moral framework.” NCL publishes an acclaimed newsletter, INITIATIVES, and convenes roundtable discussions on faith and work topics.

Would the revival of Catholic labor schools, as Cupich suggests, be a good idea? How would they mesh with ecumenical groups like Interfaith Worker Justice, with the new worker centers and with support groups and centers focused on business? Reaction from readers is welcome.

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