Monday, May 7, 2012

People First

22 Sunday B #125

Dt 4, 1-2. 6-8
Ps 15
Jas 1, 17-18. 21b-22. 27
Mk 7, 1-8. 14-15. 21-23

Deacon Tom Cornell
St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
Labor Day Weekend 2006

It’s Labor Day Weekend already, the end of summer, back to school. What does Labor Day have to do with labor? And why should we talk about it in church? When you get back to school, take a look at your high school history book, you students. Parents, you take a look too and see what it has to say about the labor movement. I have taught public high school in four jurisdictions, Connecticut, New York City and New York State, and New Hampshire. We are lucky here in Marlboro. Jack Mazza tells me there is a whole week long unit on labor in the advanced placement American History course in our high school. That’s great but it’s not the way it is in most places, and it’s still not enough. You’re lucky to get a paragraph on the Knights of Labor in the 19th Century and another on the AFL-CIO in the 20th, and something about the Wagner Act of 1935 that established the National Labor Relations Board and (this they never tell you) the weakest labor laws in the industrialized world.

If a history book tells you in the Preface that it’s going to give you an overview of the story of our nation, how it came to be, who formed it and how and it does not include the mighty battle to establish minimal protections for the working people of this country, then it is not telling you the truth. If it’s not the truth, it’s a lie. I realized this when a good Jesuit priest, Father Ryan, offered to teach a course in Labor History for us at Fairfield Prep, after school, not for credit. It was the most important class I ever took, in high school or in college, because it taught me that what I had been led to believe was history, wasn’t. The struggle for the forty hour week, for health and safety regulations, for the right to organize for collective bargaining, for social security old age pensions, for workers’ compensation for injury on the job, for unemployment compensation, for a minimum wage, that was all left out.

It cost blood! Yes, there was violence, almost all of it aimed against unarmed workers. Men, women and children were burned to death, men were shot, some were lynched, castrated, dragged through the streets and hanged. Deputy sheriffs near Hazelton, Pennsylvania in 1897 shot down nineteen unarmed Slavic, Hungarian and Sicilian miners because they went out on strike. That stimulated the building of the United Mineworkers Union. Organizers were imprisoned unjustly for as long as twenty years, all for trying to form a union. Why talk about this sort of thing in church? Church is where we come to get closer to God, to hear the Word and to come together in Communion with Jesus our God and with one another and all God’s children. There you have it! ALL GOD’S CHILDREN, not just the sons and daughters of the powerful. The God we worship is a God who demands justice, “Whose mighty right arm scatters the proud in their conceit, who lifts up the lowly and casts down the mighty from their thrones, who fills the hungry with good things....”

By the middle of the 19th Century, the Catholic Church had to deal with the devastating effects of the industrial revolution on its people. In countries where the bishops were chosen from the sons of the powerful, the Church was very slow, too slow to respond to the crisis, and Pope Pius IX lamented, “We have lost the working classes.” In England, where the Catholic population was small and mostly Irish and poor, and in the United States, where the bishops were, almost every single one of them, sons of workers, the response was quick and positive. The rich and powerful, the noble families that ruled Italy, Spain, France, Germany and the Austro- Hungarian Empire and their bishop cousins wanted the Pope to condemn the labor movement, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Knights of Labor in the US as Communists and enemies of Christ and his Church. On the other side were Cardinal Gibbons in Baltimore and Cardinal Manning in London. They went to Rome and appealed directly to the Pope. Gibbons and Manning won.
In 1891 Pope Leo XIII gave his answer to the social question in an encyclical that set off the development of modern Catholic Social Teaching, Rerum Novarum, or In These Revolutionary Times. Labor is prior to capital. Work comes first, because work creates capital. People come first because men and women are made in the image and likeness of God. Dollars, pounds and euros are made in the mint! Labor is not a commodity on the market, subject to the law of supply and demand. All God’s creation was meant for the benefit of all. On the other hand, the Church defends the right to private property. “Property is proper to man.” The problem with capitalism is that it doesn’t get enough capital to enough people. Private property, yes, but it is not an absolute right and must be subject to the requirements of the common good. Workers have a right, even an obligation, to band together to assert their right to a fair share of the product of their own labor by all honorable means, including the withholding of their labor. The public sector has the duty to intervene for the re-distribution of wealth when necessary.
Catholic Social Teaching is the envy of our fellow Christians in the denominations. Many times I have been told by Protestant colleagues that they simply do not have the resources to develop and bring together such a body of teaching. “You write the documents, and we teach them in our seminaries,” one told me. And yet, so very few of our fellow Catholics are aware of it. Even a smaller percentage of our fellow citizens know anything about the terrible long struggle to attain the degree of social justice we enjoy in this land today, the Pullman Strike in 1894, for example. President Grover Cleveland called out 20,000 troops to put it down. They shot thirteen unarmed men dead and wounded fifty-seven more and the courts condemned, not the killers, but the strikers’ leader, Eugene Victor Debs, in prison for six months, one of the greatest Americans of all time. Or the Haymarket Riots of May 4, 1886 in Chicago. Someone threw a bomb at a rally and four policemen were murdered. It was a terrible crime. Somebody had to pay, so four labor leaders were hanged and one cheated the gallows by suicide in prison. Or the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike of 1911, the “Bread and Roses Strike.” Two women representing the strikers went to the local newspaper editor. He asked them, “What do you want?” One woman answered, “We want bread!” The other chimed in, “And roses too!” Or the Ludlow Massacre on Easter Night, 1914, when the National Guard in Ludlow, Colorado shot dead a dozen striking coal miners, thirteen of their children and one pregnant woman. Or the Lawrence strike of 1919, led by my beloved teacher, A.J. Muste, or the 1937 Flint, Michigan strike against General Motors that established the United Auto Workers Union, led by A.J.’s students.
The last survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in Lower Manhattan in 1911 just died this year. Two hundred and seventy-five young women, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrants right off the boat, worked six day weeks ten hours a day in this sweatshop. The doors were kept locked so that none of them could sneak out. When fire broke out on the ninth and tenth floors, many of them jumped to their deaths to escape the flames. One hundred and forty-six died. That spurred the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, where my aunt learned to speak English, with a Jewish-Italian accent. These lives were part of the price we paid for health and safety regulations in factories.

Who remembers that Gene Debs ran for President of the United States from a federal prison cell and won a million votes! Debs opposed World War I. For saying so out loud, that’s right, just for saying so in public, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison. President Harding freed him after three years, but Debs’s health was broken and he died not long after. Or A. Philip Randolph, who organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first Black union when many unions were still segregated? Mister Randolph – even his closest associates called him Mister Randolph – was the Martin Luther King of his time.

I hope in this parish the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are not forgotten, men who were executed in 1927 for being labor activists and for being Italian immigrants. “We never brought a morsel of bread to our mouths, from our childhood to today, which has not been gained by the sweat of our brows. Never!” Vanzetti wrote the night before he was murdered in the electric chair. The State of Massachusetts legislature has apologized, thank you! Let us never forget! The trial and appeal records are there for anyone to read, and a more shameful exhibition of ethnic prejudice and hatred can not be found. My Italian mother impressed upon me the meaning of all this, and why we must all come to the defense of any people who are humiliated for their race or their ethnic identity. Lest we forget!

It wasn’t all beer and skittles within the labor movement. Communists vied for control with gangsters. The Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, before and after World War II, set up labor schools all over the country to teach rank-and-file union members how to keep control of their own unions. One of its leaders, my friend John Cort, died just last month at age 92.

Little is known of the part that organized labor played in the great Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties, but I know because I was there. I know who paid the bills! My teacher, A.J. Muste, trained Walter and Victor Reuther of the United Auto Workers Union. These names, if you don’t know them, and Cesar Chavez’s, each of them deserves a chapter of its own in every American history book. And they were all connected to Martin Luther King through A.J. Muste. A.J. sent Bayard Rustin to Montgomery in 1956 to assist Doctor King in running the Bus Boycott. Then Bayard put together the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC, Dr. King’s organization.

You have to ask yourself why they are not there in your history book, except for King of course. Many texts don’t even tell you that King was a Christian minister, and they surely don’t tell you anything about his social philosophy. Whose interests does this silence serve? If you want to know the answer to that, look for the people who fought Social Security then and would undo it now, look for those who fought the minimum wage then and now, for those who fought the forty hour week and are fighting still to keep it all for themselves.

When workers band together to secure justice for themselves and their fellows so that they might raise their families in decency, they are acting under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God. That’s what Dorothy Day taught, and that’s what Cardinal O’Connor taught, and it’s right out of the social encyclicals of the Popes for the last one hundred years.

It was one hundred years ago, in 1906, that Father John Ryan published his book, The Living Wage, arguing that everyone has the right to honest work and that all honest full-time labor deserves compensation at a level sufficient to maintain a family in decency. One hundred years later we still don’t have it, and it takes two full-time jobs to maintain a family with the kids in child-care, educated not by a parent in their family’s beliefs and traditions and values, but by a corps of hirelings in a day-care center where the mention of God is forbidden and the concept of family is, shall we say, flexible.
Young people crave adventure. Do you want a struggle, young people? Here’s a struggle for you! Learn your own history, not the lying pap they feed you in school or in the mass media. You have to search it out for yourself. You have to find it. Then engage yourself, get in gear, take your part in the struggle, the only struggle that can honestly claim that it has God on its side, the nonviolent struggle for justice, peace and equality in this land of the free and home of the brave.

Happy Labor Day, everyone, and remember where you came from. Remember Labor! And as Mother Jones put it, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living!” W

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