On a Saturday afternoon in February, 1937, eleven men sat around the kitchen table at the Catholic Worker headquarters in New York, founded the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists and plotted a revolution.
Don’t be alarmed. It was not a violent revolution they plotted, although some might still tell you so. It was a revolution aimed at certain powerul ideas reigning then and now throughout America.
One of these was the idea that there must always be economic distress—unemployment, starvation wages and job insecurity. They hated this idea particularly, for experience had brought them into close and painful contact with its fruits. Most of them had watched good brains and muscle rotting away on the Catholic Worker bread-line for want of work. Two of them, Martin Wersing and Ed Squitieri, had associated in the utility workers’ union with a man who was fired for union activity, couldn’t get another job, finally went mad from despair and hung himself in the bathroom of a five-room tenement flat, leaving a sickly wife and seven small children. It was these two, incidentally, who first thought of starting the A.C.T.U.
Another idea that little group of Catholic trade unionists were out to “get” was the mass-production heresy that labor is a commodity like pig-iron and that men may rightly be enslaved to machines. Finally, they were determined to blow up the Marxist fabrication that always—now and forever—there must be conflict between labor and capital. They were out to burn down the barricades of class war in America.
We recognized, of course, that there was in fact a widespread class war going on, that in places open conflict had been replaced by little better than an armed truce, and that in few cases was there anything like a decent Christian harmony founded on justice. Where labor fought for a just cause (which was nearly everywhere) there was no doubt among us as to which side we were on. It was typical that one of the first things we did was to jump into the arena and back the miserably paid girls striking at the Woolworth and Grand five-and-ten-cent stores in New York. Also typical was the manner of this backing. We had decided to picket the big Woolworth store on Fourteenth Street off Union Square. There had been an item in the papers to the effect that Barbara Hutton wasn’t so bad because she had given heavily to charity. Also the Holy Father had just written his splendid encyclical, “Divini Redemptoris.” So we put the two together and produced a picket sign reading, “BABS GAVE $11,000,000 TO CHARITY, BUT ‘THE WORKER IS NOT TO RECEIVE AS ALMS WHAT IS HIS DUE IN JUSTICE.’—Pope Plus XI.” Maybe we were a little unfair to Babs, but the main thing is that we had put the Pope—perhaps for the first time—on an American picket line.
This was especially important, since we were convinced that in the labor encyclicals of Leo XIII and Plus XI there was a program that would not only solve the problems of the American labor movement, but bring order out of chaos in American industry. The only thing required was that we apply this program with vigor, intelligence and Christian prudence.
And so the first few months of the A.C.T.U. saw a series of meetings that to some were pointless sessions of hair-splitting, but to most of us meant the essential job of hammering out a definite program based on the wisdom and experience of the Church. We conceived our primary objectives as identical with social justice viewed from a worker’s angle and therefore reducible to certain basic rights and obligations that every worker shares by the very fact of his humanity.
This is how we put it:
Basing our stand on the papal encyclicals, the writings of other recognized Catholic authorities, and the basic principles of common sense and justice, we believe that:
The worker has a right to: (1) Job security. (2) Income sufficient to support himself and family in reasonable comfort. (3) Collective bargaining through union representatives freely chosen. (4) A share in the profits after just wages and a return to capital have been paid. (5) Strike and picket peacefully for just cause. (6) A just price for the goods he buys. (7) Decent working hours. (8) Decent working conditions.
And that the worker has a duty to: (1) Perform an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. (2) Join a bona fide union. (3) Strike only for just cause and after all other legitimate means have been exhausted. (4) Refrain from violence. (5) Respect property rights. (6) Abide by the just agreements freely made. (7) Enforce strict honesty and a square deal for everybody inside his union. (8) Cooperate with decent employers who respect his rights to bring about a peaceful solution of industrial war by the setting up of guilds for the self-regulation of industry and producer-cooperatives in which the worker shares as a partner in the ownership, management or profits of the business in which he works.
Once the general platform had been constructed, the question remained: how were we going to get it across? How could we make these ideas vital to millions of American workers who had, for one reason or another, largely forgotten them?
One thing that was clear from the start was that we were not going to start a dual labor movement by setting up Catholic unions. In fact from the beginning our efforts have been in the opposite direction, working constantly to bring the AFL and CIO together into a powerful and harmonious unity. Our purpose then as now was to build an organization of Catholic men and women who were at the same time active members of the established CIO, AFL or independent unions.
In fact, we had already found a mandate for the A.C.T.U. in “Quadragesimo Anno,” where Plus XI points out that “side by side with these trade unions [neutral unions such as we have in America] there must always be associations which aim at giving their members a thorough moral and religious training, that these in turn may impart to the unions to which they belong the upright spirit which should direct their entire conduct.” This was written in 1931.