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 (Updated: May 25, 2001)

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Opening Remarks

Catholic-Labor Network Gathering

The Washington Court Hotel

February 26, 2001

Being Catholic and Working With Workers

Introductory Remarks:

In 1989, the AFL-CIO co-hosted with a number of religious groups a gathering on labor and religion. If my memory serves me correctly, it was held in Washington, D.C., and was the first time in many years that people from the labor community and the religious community gathered to discuss issues of common concerns. Many labor issues of the day were presented, and an important panel discussion was held with representatives of the religious community.

Bishop McCarthy, then the Diocesan Bishop of Austin, Texas, spoke eloquently of the challenges Christian churches face in maintaining a consciousness of solidarity with working men and women. He pointed out that in the 1930's and the 1940's, a person preparing for the ministry was familiar with the unions and union members because the father of the household, or a brother or sister was a union member. The divinity student knew what unions did and how they affected people because he could see what the unions did for his family, or the families of his siblings.

However, with the G.I. bill, a whole generation had access to college education, and a way to move from the union shop floor to supervisory or management positions. Their children learned that their uncle, aunt or grandfather was in a union, but that it was not something that directly affected their lives. 

The children of this generation, the third generation, which forms the bulk of our present clergy and religious leaders in both Catholic and non-Catholic communities, preserves little of the connection that their parents had.

These words of Bishop McCarthy hit a cord in my own experience. As a seminarian at Theological College here in Washington, D.C., I could not understand the reaction to many of my peers toward unions. When I talked about unions, my activities with Frontlash, an AFL-CIO-sponsored college organization or why I felt unions were an essential element of any social justice plan of action, the “Social Justice” seminarians quickly dismissed the importance of unions. They argued that unions were:

 1. Part of the corrupt power structure that could not be redeemed, but had to  be replaced by new models and institutions;
 2. Institutions that had served their purpose, but were no longer necessary except for workers at the lower end of the economic ladder, e.g.,:  farmworkers.

In 1991, with the one hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, there were numerous activities and gatherings in our country that focused on the long relationship between the Catholic Church and Workers. I attended two such programs. One was in Atlanta, Georgia, and was sponsored by a consortium of Catholic organizations and the AFL-CIO. Another was organized by Fr. Don Brooks of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. What was very apparent at all of these gatherings was that there was no national gathering point for Catholics who were both committed to their faith, and committed to the principles of trade unionism. 

In 1995, I learned of the work of Fr. Martin Mangan of Decatur, Illinois. He was the pastor of St. James Parish in Decatur. In 1995, Decatur was hit by strikes at Caterpillar and Firestone, and a lockout at A.E. Staley. Thousands of workers were on the picket line, and as one song stated, it was “a war on the workers.”

At a rally, Fr. Mangan got himself arrested at the main entrance of the Staley plant. I was impressed by his courage, and decided that since I was working with organized labor in Southeast Texas, he could give me some insights in what to do and not to do. 

During the summer of 1995, I returned from graduate studies at Catholic University to Texas via Decatur. We went out to dinner, and what I discovered was that he was just as interested in finding out what I was doing, and how I was doing it as I was about him. What soon became clear was that there were priests and deacons, religious and laity all through the United States trying to live their Church’s social teaching. However, there was no network or structure to support their efforts, to pray for them or to participate in actions of solidarity. 

In an attempt start some kind of support for those of us who are actively involved in labor issues, Fr. Mangan, Fr. Don Brooks, and Tim Vining and Steve Donahue of the Catholic Worker House in Baton Rouge, Louisiana worked with me to organize a Catholic-Labor gathering. In March of 1996, about twenty-six people came from across the country to Decatur for prayer, support and discussions about being Catholic and working with Workers.

Over the last four years I have talked with workers, and labor officials, and a troubling trend is present. A nurse at the local Catholic hospital tells me that about the message she gets from the administration to not even think about unions if she wants to work there. The president of the Building Trade Council in a large diocese tells me that he was unable to talk with his bishop about issues related to union construction workers in the diocese. Instead, he is passed off to a staff secretary. A Catholic woman tells me the story of how she tries to reach out to a Catholic priest who sits in the board of directors of a large corporation, and is completely stonewalled as the priest seeks shelter behind the company’s attorneys.

The effects of these and similar type of stories are not contained within the economic struggle between workers and management. It is also impacting these people’s faith life. How many thousands of Catholic nurses, day care workers and institutional staff who have some knowledge of their Church’s social teaching, but see their Catholic employer using the same tools and strategies that are employed by the most virulent anti-union corporation? 

The result of these experiences is not just the suppression of an organizing drive. It also causes a crisis in faith for the Catholic union organizers and the Catholic worker. When one is committed to their faith, has some knowledge of its Church’s social teaching, and find those in places of authority within the Catholic institution to be completely rejecting these same teachings, the consequences is not just another defeated organizing drive, but a compete loss of faith by the Catholic workers, and the loss of a member of the Body of Christ. Such actions also undermines the moral authority that the United States Catholic Church depends on when it addresses issues of justice in the secular market place.

Tonight, I want to thank you for coming to this second meeting of the Catholic-Labor Network. For those of you who have traveled here just for this meeting, I want to thank you for taking the time, and putting forth the expense to come. For those of you who have given up your only free night of the Social Ministry Gathering, I want to thank you for your sacrifice. 

Tonight, we have three goals:

 1. To pray together;
 2. To hear the reflections of our three presenters on their experiences of trying to work with workers when it impacts Catholics or Catholic institutions;
 3. To allow you to share your own experiences, or to let those of us gathered know about some of the issues that you have been facing in your own area.

I intend to bring this gathering to a formal end at 9:00 p.m. However, it can continue informally much beyond that. Finally, I will be passing a note pad through the gathering. Please supply me with all you numbers and addresses, or place your card under the clip. I will then add you to the sometimes used data base.

Again, thank you for coming, and let us now join in the Litany of Work.

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E-Mail: Fr. Sinclair Oubre