Laboring for the Workers
William Bole
Our Sunday Visitor
April 28, 1996

The new realities of a global economy can be encapsulated in a particular time and place -- Easter Sunday, Decatur, Ill. It was then and there that approximately 400 workers at the Bridgestone-Firestone plant punched in at 7 a.m. and punched out at 7 p.m. It was a mandatory work day, part of a new deal at the Japanese-owned tiremaker.

The rubber workers call it a raw deal. No time for Easter dinner with the family. No time for worship -- in a city of churches -- one for every 560 people.

That is where Father Martin Mangan enters the picture. The pastor of St. James Church, Decatur, rose early on Easter morning to lead a sunrise service in a used car lot across the street from the factory gate.

"The workers couldn't go to church, so we brought church to the workers," said Father Mangan, who offered an ecumenical service rather than a Mass because most of the workers are not Catholic.

About 150 workers attended the 6 a.m. service, holding Easter candles in the morning darkness, before starting their 12 hour day.

Father Mangan said he was there at the invitation of the union local, not just to give workers a chance to worship on the holiest day of the Christian year, but also to dramatize some of the new woes of work.

"For many years, the labor movement fought and fought for the 8-hour workday, and finally won. So here we are, in 1996, going back to 12 hour, rotating shifts," said Father Mangan.

Firestone workers rotate between day and night shifts of 12 hours -- two days on, two days off. They work different days from week to week. The purpose is round-the-clock production.

Over the past three years, Decatur, a declining industrial city 170 miles southwest of Chicago, has been a focal point of labor conflict, and now of labor defeat. Managers have broken strikes at Bridgestone-Firestone and Caterpillar, Inc., and successfully locked out workers at A.E. Staley, a leading manufacturer of corn sweeteners.

During this period, the soft-spoken Father Mangan has become one of the city's most vocal defenders of labor.

His sunrise service was but the latest in a series of symbolic actions that have raised the ire of industry leaders.

"Father Mangan is perfectly entitled to hold his service, but I think he's very misdirected," said Trevor Hoskins, vice president of public affairs for Bridgestone-Firestone, based in Nashville, Tenn.

He said thousands of Americans would love to have those jobs, with or without an 8-hour day. Workers there make an average of either $13 or $17 an hour, depending on the figures used -- the union's or the management's.

"It's rather a little puzzling that a man of the cloth would make a fuss of all this," said Hoskins. "I'm sure there are very many pressing needs that the father could be attending to."

But Father Mangan said that the Church has always fussed over work and wages.

He sees himself following in a historic line of priests who have stood with labor in times of economic turmoil. In decades past, they were called "labor priests." A little before Father Mangan's time -- he was ordained in 1957 on the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, celebrated May 1 -- they led prayers on picket lines and blessed the early struggles of industrial unionism.

Now, with the fruits of those struggles -- the 8-hour day included -- apparently withering, some clergy are looking to reconnect with working people and their unions.

Two months ago, 30 of the new labor priests and others from around the country came together in Decatur, meeting for three days at St. James Church. They lodged at the homes of union families and had their meals prepared by union wives.

Father Sinclair K. Oubre, the 38-year-old pastor of St. Mary's in Port Arthur, Texas, and chaplain to the Sabine Area Central Labor Council, said the purpose of the gathering was to begin forming a network of prayer and support for those in this ministry, and also to bring words of comfort to working families in Decatur, which has a population of 84,000.

In Father Oubre's town near the Louisiana border there is labor peace, unlike in Decatur. But as he sees it, it is a peace without justice. "We've had unemployment of at least 15 percent ever since 1983. We're still waiting for the Reagan boom," the priest said with a slight chuckle.

Even those who have jobs often lack a living wage, he added.

Father Oubre's parishioners, most of them black, tend to work two or three or more part-time jobs in nursing homes, fast-food restaurants and other cheap-labor venues. Most of the families in his parish earn between $11,000 and $18,000 per year. The official poverty line is set at $15,580 per year for a family of four.

"What we're seeing all over the country is a campaign to drive down workers' wages, even while corporate profits go up," said Father Oubre. "We're creating a new class of indentured workers."

Father Oubre and others would like to recharge a tradition that began when Pope Leo XIII cried out against the abuses of industrialization in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (on capital and labor), published May 15, 1891. Pope Leo endorsed the rights of labor and denounced the "inhumanity of employers [who]...misuse men as though they were things."

In Father Mangan's view, people are being misused in today's economy in Decatur. The priest got involved in the city's labor troubles after British-owned A.E. Staley locked out 760 union workers in 1993. The union, Local 837 of the Allied Industrial Workers, had balked at a management plan to slash hundreds of jobs and abolish the 8-hour day.

At both A.E. Staley and Bridgestone-Firestone, the workers saw their jobs filled by permanent replacements. And at both plants the unions eventually bowed to corporate demands for 12-hour rotating shifts and other concessions.

Noting the constantly shifting days and nights of work, Father Mangan said the new arrangements are anti-family and anti-community.

"You can't plan ahead to be involved in the kids' school or athletic programs. You can't coach in the Little League because you can't be counted on to be there. You can't further your education by enrolling in a course at the community college," he said. "It's like going back to the company town. It's an insidious form of control over people's lives, in my opinion."

The company disagrees. "This is just a fact of life," said Hoskins, citing the need for global competitiveness. As for protests at the plant, he said, "This is all union harassment, and they have got the religious people involved."

Decatur's "religious people" aren't the only ones getting involved in these questions of economic justice.

Speaking last month to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Pope John Paul II called attention to "the rapid increase in social inequalities" not only between rich and poor countries, but also "in the heart of nations normally considered rich." He warned that if the economic system "privileges only those who possess capital, and if it makes labor merely a means of production, it becomes a source of serious injustices."

Last month the Pope also brought his message to laborers at a glass factory in Siena, Italy, marking the March 19 holy day of St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers and social justice. (The feast of St. Joseph the Worker is a separate observance.)

On other occasions, Pope John Paul called unions "indispensable" -- a view adamantly shared by those who turned out for the recent meeting at St. James Church. Among them were Msgr. George Higgins, who at 80 years old is still the key bridge between the Church and organized labor in the United States, and Jesuit Father Edward Boyle, chaplain of The Labor Guild of the Archdiocese of Boston.

A Detroit contingent included Father Norm Thomas, a parish priest, and Sister Kathy De Santis, a pastoral worker, who have supported strikers permanently replaced at the Detroit Free Press.

Despite an uptick of interest in labor problems, Father Oubre said most priests of his generation feel distant from the struggles of ordinary workers, having grown up in a Church more affluent than that of the old labor priests. Father Oubre himself comes from generations of carpenters.

"The Church in the United States did not lose the working class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries," he said, as did the European Church. "It stood by the workers. Now, many of the same issues are confronting us again. If we want to keep the working class, we'll have to stand by our social teachings, and stand by the workers."