A Blessed Labor Day

Can I relate to you an incident from the history of the Church in our beloved country?  Back in the 1880’s, the labor force in our nation, in our railroads, factories, mills, and mines, was made up mostly of Catholic immigrants.  Many of these hard workers were active in the earliest attempts by laborers to organize, promote their basic human rights for a living wage, safe and humane working conditions, and protection for themselves, their wives, and their children in case of their own death or injury.  These pioneers  — our great grandparents — were encouraged by their parishes, priests, and bishops.

In fact, one of the earliest “unions” in our country, the “Knights of Labor,” was almost two-thirds Catholic, with a president, Terrence Powderly, who was a very prominent and serious Catholic lay leader.  There was trouble, though: to protect themselves, the Knights of Labor had to be a “secret society,” since news of membership could lead to loss of a job.  But, the Catholic Church taught that membership in a secret society was immoral.  Thus, the looming question on everyone’s mind: could a Catholic worker in good faith join the Knights of Labor?  Following the praxis the bishops themselves had agreed upon, that pivotal question was referred to Rome.  What would Rome decide?  The Holy See had already condemned membership for Canadians, so there was some trepidation that this early union would be condemned.

The leader of the American hierarchy at the time was James Gibbons, the archbishop of our premier see, Baltimore.  It just so happened that, at this very time, in February 1887, he was in the Eternal City to be named a cardinal.  While in Rome, Cardinal Gibbons wrote a Memorial to officials of the Holy See who would be considering the question, urging them not to condemn the Knights of Labor.  The cardinal was firm in his belief that workers in the United States had the right to organize, to defend their rights, and to protect themselves and their families.  He observed how the working class in America looked to the Church as a friend, and that laborers took their faith very seriously.  To condemn the Knights of Labor, Cardinal Gibbons warned, could risk alienating them from the Church.  Simply put, the Church needed to be on the side of justice.

The appeal was successful:  Rome did not condemn the Knights of Labor.  The strong alliance between the common working man, and the Church was solidified.  Not only that, but four years later, Pope Leo XIII issued his epochal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which defended the rights of the worker.

About twenty years later, the story goes, the same James Cardinal Gibbons visited Pope Pius X at the Vatican.  The saintly pontiff expressed admiration for the Church in the United States, and then asked the cardinal, “In America, the worker loves the Church, is active in his parish, takes his faith seriously, and considers the Catholic Church a friend.  In Europe, we are losing the working class, and the laborer feels the Church is always on the side of the wealthy.  Why?”  “Because,” the cardinal replied “the Church has been and is on the side of the worker.  And that is where we must be.”

I hold that inspired reply before your eyes as we get ready for Labor Day weekend.  I am so proud that the workers of our county look to the Church as an ally, and realize that the Church has been in the lead from the earliest day in protecting and promoting the legitimate rights of the laborer.

And, lest you think such a stance is a thing of the past, I only remind you of less than thirty years ago, when a devoted Catholic husband, father, electrical repairman and labor leader, Lech Walesa, inspired a revolution, with quotes, not from Marx, but from John Paul II, wearing on his lapel not the hammer and sickle, but a medal of Our Lady of Czestochowa.

Today, thank God, Catholics in America are among the best-educated, most prosperous people in the country.  However, as 130 years ago, we still are grateful to number among our people those brave workers struggling for a decent wage, job, security, and elementary justice.  Our great-grandparents will haunt us if we ignore them.

Happy Labor Day!

Tags: ,

8 Responses to “A Blessed Labor Day”

  1. Carl says:

    I work in Indiana as a union roofer and I can’t agree with the bishops’s views on the church and labor nowadays. I’ve witnessed absolutely zero practicing Catholics among any of the trades. At my parish I can’t think of anyone who actually labors for a living. I can count the number of workers I know who try to live Christian lives on one hand. Just last week one of the Sheet Metal workers, while we were talking about how the Catholic high school being built contracted a non-union electrician contractor, mentioned how the Church always throws organized labor under the bus. The pastor at my parish went on a rant about the unions because they kept bugging him after our parish contracted nonunion trades.
    Unfortunately, our Catholic schools and universities are more interested in shaping social workers and global-solution-finding scientists than giving any attention to the children who will end up being working class. Catholic workers find more camaraderie at bars with their work buddies than they do from their parish. You can talk with peers and have fun every week at a bar, but the parish will offer dinners and social events a few times a year with people you really don’t know well. I can guarantee people aren’t witnessing to faith at the bars (unless they’re really, really drunk).
    That’s my experience. Organized labor feels cold towards the Church and the Church at the local level doesn’t offer anything for the working class to benefit their spiritual well being other than mass (and nobody cares if you stop going to mass).

  2. Irene says:

    I am so grateful that we have a union member in our own family and I am very relieved that we live in a City and State that protects the rights of workers. My husband, like his father before him, has worked for more than 20 years for the NYC Transit Authority, maintaining and repairing the bus fleet that moves our City. While my own financial situation, like that of so many New Yorkers, has suffered because of this enduring recession, I thank God that we have the safety net of my husband’s union job. Although his work is hard (he has had a number of workplace injuries), he makes a living wage that pays our bills and allows us to send our children to Catholic school. We have good health insurance and we know we can look forward to a secure retirement someday when we are old.

    I know I have a lot of people to thank for this: the great Mike Quill, founder of my husband’s union; the working men and women who came before who fought to unionize; our local State and City government which recognizes the rights of workers; and, our Catholic Church which continues to defend and support those rights.

    My prayer this Labor Day Weekend is that other working families will have the same economic security that we do.

  3. john kelsey says:

    With all due respect. I find it astounding that The Archbishop can write such a correct column while tolerating the labor situation in his archdiocesan high schools; in particular at our lady of lourdes in poughkeepsie. The priest-principal of Lourdes is the exact antithesis of what Cardinal Gibbons and I believe Archbishop Dolan stood/stand for. The description in this column of early American laborers is exactly the climate Fr. Lagiovane has created at Lourdes. Please, Archbishop Dolan, intervene and correct the labor situation in your high schools.

  4. Randy Lee says:

    Be very careful, unions of today especially those affiliated with the AFL-CIO do espouse marxist principles and beliefs that are detrimental to our way of life. Unions have chased most of major manufacturing out of our country (steel and textiles). Growth in manufacturing is taking place in non union states.

    I believe Labor Day should be a day to thank the almighty God for the strength and ability to work and provide for our family and loved ones. Not praise a Union.

  5. B Barrett says:

    Dear ArchBishop,

    I wrote to you about the Syracuse Diocese terminating the labor contract and 6 union workers employed by the Catholic Cemeteries which is run by the Board with Bishop Cunningham, Fr. Yaezel (Vicar General) and Fr. Elmer). I respectfully again implore you to intervene in support of the multitude of union members and parishioners who oppose the action of Bishop Cunningham (Fr. Yaezel and Fr. Elmer’s). The signage at the August 30th picket/rally in front of the Diocese and Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception “practice what you preach”. Will you?

  6. I have great respect for the labor leaders in the past who were responsible for improvements in the lives of millions. While in college I benefitted from a good paying union job in the summers. However, I believe that a balance has been lost. Taxpayers have been burdened with supporting unreasonably costly union contracts for government employees. Hopefully we can move to a more balanced or fair situation for all.

  7. AndyP/Doria2 says:

    As a 30+ year Union member and leader I have seen Unions go from family oriented, mom apple pie America to socialist backers of what one of my heros Cardinal Raymond Burke calls the party of death,.

    We placed all of our eggs in one basket as did the NAACP and other African American groups and are now taken for granted.

    We have elected the most anti Catholic, anti Christian President in history who not only has homosexual marriage and the killing fields of abortion as a top priority but exports this culture of death around the globe as a condition for American aid. He has appointed the most rabid abortion minded people in all parts of government. The little known judges he filled and will fill at the federal level will be around for a generation so our children will enjoy this slaughter and debauchery.

    Don’t get me wrong, Republicans aren’t much better IMO but the democratic party has self destructed – again, and 70,000,000 poorly catechized and leaderless Catholics elected him.

    When He comes back will He find any faith in America?

  8. Kurt says:

    One simply cannot be an orthodox Catholic and oppose the right of workers to organize. But our duties as Catholics go beyond even that. It is not enough to simply philosophically accept the Church’s teaching on the rights of labor. Catholic trade unionists should never view the union as “those guys” who help bring them dignity and justice on the job. The union is all of its members in solidarity and fellowship. A good Catholic should be actively involved in his union — go to meetings, vote in union elections, volunteer for committees and consider serving as a Steward or officer. Just as a good Catholic does not just accept the teachings of theh Church but is part of the fellowship and community of his parish church.