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(Photo courtesy of the Chancery Archives of the Archdiocese of San Francisco)

San Francisco members of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists pictured on the steps of St. Mary’s Cathedral (destroyed by fire in 1962) at Van Ness and O’Farrell. The ACTU was founded in 1937 to promote unionization and to increase t

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Historian’s thoughts about Catholics and Labor on Labor Day
September 1st, 2010
By Bill Issel

When I was growing up, we considered the Labor Day parade on Market Street one of the high points of the year. Women marched in the parades, but back then if you asked me or my fellow students at St. Agnes School, we would have told you that our dads worked and our moms stayed home. If our dads did not sit at desks at City Hall or wear police or fire department badges, they mostly wore union buttons while they hefted freight on the docks or nearby warehouses, drove trucks, and built and maintained the city’s downtown offices and department stores and uptown schools and houses.

Every other Sunday, our family joined those of my dad’s seven brothers and sisters for dinner at my grandparents’ house after 11:00 o’clock Mass at St. Vincent’s in Petaluma. After the meal, my dad and my four uncles, veterans of the battles to unionize workers who were not yet enrolled in Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) or American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions, traded stories from the front lines of the labor wars.

An abiding theme in these late 1940s discussions between my dad and my uncles was their conviction that they were doing God’s work by spreading the gospel of union solidarity. They could quote by heart passages from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931).

They could also quote their Association of Catholic Trade Unions chaplain, Auxiliary Bishop Hugh A. Donohoe. They read Donohoe’s pro union columns in The Monitor, they listened to his and Archbishop John J. Mitty’s sermons at the annual Labor Day Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral, and they attended union leadership classes at Father Andrew Boss’s University of San Francisco Catholic labor school program.

They had faith in the Church’s social justice teachings that offered pride of place to democratic (and anti-Communist) unions. What they could not understand were fellow Catholics who failed, in the language of a popular song of the day, to “accentuate the positive” when discussing the labor movement.

These naysayers, Catholic neighbors and fellow parishioners, unapologetically sided with business and praised America’s “free enterprise system.” They criticized “aggressive” union organizers, condemned “corrupt” union officers, decried “biased” union membership rules, and generally questioned whether the “coercion” that they believed was implicit in mandatory payment of union dues was compatible with the individual freedoms guaranteed to Americans by the U.S. Constitution.

Then there were those bishops and priests who, during the unsuccessful fight to defeat the 1947 anti-union Taft-Hartley Act and then to overturn President Truman’s veto of the act, sided with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce against the AFL and the CIO; for them, my pro-union family reserved some choice words that ought not to be repeated in a family newspaper.

Ten years later Catholics in San Francisco disagreed about the labor movement again, this time over whether California should be a “Right to Work” state. Prominent Catholic laymen ran newspaper advertisements arguing that Pius XII had condemned the alleged coercion involved in mandatory union membership. Father Boss defended the AFL-CIO position, but the archbishop’s failure to explicitly urge Catholics to vote against “Right to Work” legislation led to grumbling and criticism in city union halls among unionists who expected more robust support.

By the end of the 1950s, it was clear that from coast to coast significant numbers of the Catholic hierarchy, clergy, and laity disagreed with “labor priests” like Bishop Donohoe, Father Boss and others who seemed to be teaching that the Church required lay men and women to support the union movement or jeopardize their standing as good Catholics.

Catholics have witnessed many changes in the past half-century since they debated how to interpret Church teachings about work and the labor movement during the fights over Taft-Hartley in 1947 and “Right to Work” in 1958. St. Agnes School is gone, its place taken by a French language prep school. St. Peter’s Church offers three Spanish language Masses to its Mission district congregation every Sunday, and St. Patrick’s Church provides a Mass in Tagalog once a month.

Today Catholics have more direct access to Church teachings than they did when they turned to The Monitor for news and opinion; Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (2009) and the U.S. Conference of Bishop’s Respecting the Rights of Workers (2009), not to mention numerous websites and blogs devoted to Catholic matters, are available on the internet. But “the labor question” – for a variety of reasons – has receded in importance for most Americans, living as we do in the shadow of post-Reagan Neo Liberalism rather than in the afterglow of post-FDR Fair Deal Liberalism.

On Labor Day 2010 one element of continuity stands out in the midst of the swirl of changes that have taken place since the 1940s. As the well-publicized clash of opinion that has marked recent campaigns to unionize workers in hospitals and hotels demonstrates in dramatic fashion, Catholic clergy and laity still disagree about and make different interpretations of recent Church teachings about labor and work.

Bill Issel, a professor emeritus of history at San Francisco State University, is co-author of American Labor and the Cold War: Grassroots Politics and Postwar Political Culture (2004) and author of “For Both Cross and Flag” Catholic Action, Anti-Catholicism, and National Security Politics in World War II San Francisco (2010).

From September 3, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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