Catholics in Trade Unions

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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We recognized, of course, that there was in fact a widespread class war going on, that in places open conflict had been replaced by little better than an armed truce, and that in few cases was there anything like a decent Christian harmony founded on justice.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. 

Of course, the A.C.T.U. does not at the present time attempt to give its members what is usually thought of in the expression “moral and religious training.” We have had a number of corporate Communions; we belong to a monthly nocturnal adoration society; we have started annual retreats for workingmen. But our activity aims mostly at the elementary job of making some practical connection between Sunday Mass and week-day work. We feel that if we can show Catholic workers, in the simplest sort of way, the practical application of their Faith to their jobs and their trade unions, then we have laid the foundations for a “moral and religious training” that will mean something important, something dynamic in the best Christian sense.

Beside our weekly meetings, at which we discussed basic principles and current labor problems, there was a weekly study group on “Quadragesimo Anno.” This was the beginning of our educational program. In November, 1937, working together with Fordham University, we opened our first free Catholic school for trade unionists. Father Boland, chairman of the New York State Labor Relations Board, who combines to a happy degree knowledge of first principles with a wealth of labor experience, gave generously of his time to teach “Labor Relations.” So also did Father Monaghan, our chaplain and inspiration from the beginning, who handled the basically important course in “Labor Ethics,” and Professor Downing of Fordham, who lectured brilliantly on “Labor History.”

The weekly classes were open to union men and women of every religious belief; and the object was always to reduce Catholic doctrine to common experience, apply it in a practical way to labor’s past, present and future. Then, in order that, fortified with a sound theory and practise of unionism, our students might be able to get their stuff across in union meetings, we finished off with “Parliamentary Law and Public Speaking.”

The Catholic labor school spread. Later the Jesuits opened one at Brooklyn Prep. and this year they have another at St. Francis Xavier High School in Manhattan. We not only have our original school in the Woolworth Building, but have added schools at St. Mark’s in Harlem and St. Joseph’s in the Bronx. A.C.T.U. branches in Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit have already started, or are about to start, similar schools, and we understand that recently no less than four labor schools were officially sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Once the educational program had been launched, the need of a publication soon became evident—a paper written by and for trade unionists, containing an account of A.C.T.U. activities, commenting on labor affairs generally and giving clear, simple expression and application of Catholic social doctrine. No such paper had yet appeared on the American scene.

So in January, 1938, we started very simply with a four-page, mimeographed weekly bulletin called the Labor Leader. This we sold to the students at the school. By May 1, just five years after the first issue of the Catholic Worker, to whose pioneer efforts and friendly assistance we owed our own start, we had gained a sufficient amount of reckless courage to plunge off the deep end with a four-page printed weekly newspaper—still called and hoping to be the Labor Leader. All that spring and summer we begged, borrowed, and somehow scraped together the money needed to get the paper out. Its steady progress since then has been largely due to the splendid work of its editor, George Donahue, and a self-sacrificing staff of volunteer assistants. Right now the Labor Leader has a subscription list of about 1,000, including several hundred priests and twenty bishops. It comes out every two weeks, is hard up, but as determined as ever to keep going.

But from the start we realized that the best kind of education was in action. Our study groups, schools and literature were not enough. We must prove that we meant what we said by getting out in the field ourselves, helping workers in practical ways to organize and improve their condition, and, if necessary, manning the barricades wherever labor fought a just fight. For it was clear that we could burn no barricades as unnecessary unless we had fought on them when they were labor’s only resort. (Naturally, the term “barricade” is figurative and applies only to a strike or other labor dispute, since it must be remembered that we are basically opposed to violence.)

Further, we wanted to help bridge the unfortunate gap existing between labor and the Catholic clergy. So, with Father Monaghan leading the way, we persuaded our priest friends to speak at union meetings and made openings for them. In every case the reception was enthusiastic and the result acknowledged as beneficial to both parties. At present there are nearly 25 priests taking part in this important apostolate in about ten different cities of America.

By supplying speakers at union and church meetings, by distributing literature at factory and office entrances urging workers “to join the union,” or protesting against some injustice (we were among the leaflet-bearing “agitators” who invaded Jersey City), we have aided practically in the work of organizing the unorganized. When strikes have been called and brought to our attention, our policy has always been to investigate both sides, and if we found the workers’ demands just and their procedure reasonable, we picketed, spoke, agitated and negotiated for a settlement.

Incidentally, more than half the success of the communists has sprung from the very real assistance they have given to labor. The average worker is not one to examine the abstract validity of Marxist doctrines. If the communists help him win a strike, he is inclined to think well of communism. It is unfortunately not enough for us to display superior principles or a more logical system of thought. If the Catholic worker hovering on the brink of insecurity and semi-starvation sees that heretics are more interested than Christians in his personal welfare, it is painfully hard to persuade him to remain orthodox.

Once we were in the market, it soon became clear there was practically no end to the number of possible ways of helping labor. One of the most important was legal assistance, especially to rank-and-file members oppressed by racketeer or communist leadership. And so was born the Catholic Labor Defense League, a group of young Catholic lawyers who have to date handled over 30 labor cases entirely free of charge, and with excellent results. Thanks is especially due here to the work of attorneys Ed Scutly and John Sheehan.

This brings to mind the question—What do A.C.T.U. members do when they belong to a union controlled or threatened by racketeers or communists? In the first place, we are grateful if we are lucky enough to have members in these unions. In fact we have always urged Catholics to join CIO or AFL unions, even though these may be dominated by communists, just as long as there is any hope at all of saving such unions. The reason for this is simple: there is no alternative but to form a new union, and this action, with all the evils that accompany it, could never be justified unless all other means had been exhausted. So far we haven’t found a union yet that looked hopeless. Perhaps that is because we have consistently refused to admit that Catholics cannot be more effective than communists in any given field of endeavor. We have refused to believe that Christianity is not an infinitely more dynamic and persuasive force than Marxism, and all our experience to date has confirmed us in these convictions.

Above all, and through all our activity, we have kept our faith in the “bright potential” of American workers. If they have been at times too intent on higher wages and shorter hours to the exclusion of everything else, if they have been too easily given to violence, to craft jealousy, to irresponsible violation of contracts and to materialism generally, the fault was usually not theirs. It belonged rather to their leaders, to the captains of industry, and to the whole comfort-loving spirit of our age.

But we are confident that sounder leadership can be developed, is being developed from the ranks of American labor, and that American labor will follow that leadership. Then it is only a question of time before labor takes its rightful place in partnership with capital. Then workers who are capable of creative effort may once again be “workers” in the true sense, no longer the unthinking slaves of machinery and stockholders, but sharing individually in the work of production. Industrial democracy will reign not only in each plant and company, but throughout each industry and through the whole national economy. With its reign unemployment, starvation wages and insecurity on the job will more and more be outlawed. And as this process of self-government in industry grows (with the help of God and a few more enlightened employers), the union will not grow obsolete, but will remain always as the governing machinery of the workers, expressing their will, binding them together, working constantly for their material and mental improvement and cooperating harmoniously with management.

John C. Cort is author of, most recently, Dreadful Conversions: The Making of a Catholic Socialist (Fordham University Press).

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