Decatur Meeting Focuses On Church And Labor
Catherine Locher
Catholic Times
Springfield, Illinois

Clergy and labor leaders from throughout the country met for a three-day conference at St. James Church last week to network, pray and discuss what can and should be done to improve the plight of working men and women.

Msgr. George Higgins, of Washington, D.C., retired head of the United States Catholic Conference labor office, and John C. Cort, a writer for Commonweal magazine, shared their thoughts and historic perspective on the Catholic church involvement in the labor movement. As a young man Cort was with Dorothy Day at the founding of the Catholic labor movement.

The group chose to meet in Decatur, as an expression of our support for Father (Martin) Mangan and the work that he is doing,” said Msgr. Higgins, who served as the advisor to the U.S. Bishops on labor matters. Father Mangan supported the workers during the lockout at A.E. Staley and strikes at Caterpillar Inc. and Bridgestone/Firestone.

“I have nothing but profound respect for Father Mangan,” said Msgr. Higgins. “He has done an outstanding, remarkable job. The diocese of Springfield can be proud that they have a man like Father Mangan and Sister Glenda (Bourgeois, OSU, pastoral associate at St. James).”

Participants in the conference, who came from as far away as Maine and Texas, also included Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit; Father Ed Boyle, SJ, from the Boston Labor School, Father Jack Egan from Chicago, and Father Sinclair Oubre, director of the Apostleship of the Sea, and pastor of St. Mary Church, in Port Arthur, Texas.

“It is very easy for us to look at the situation and say, ‘Oh, it is just happening in Decatur,’ or ‘It is just happening in Port Arthur,’ or ‘It is just happening in Baton Rouge,’ “ said Father Oubre, who helped organize the conference.

“But,” he added, “you begin to talk to people and suddenly you realize that it is taking place everywhere. It is taking place here. It is taking place in England. It is taking place in Wales and Scotland. It is the same story, of young people graduating from high school and taking five, six, 10 years before they could find a living wage job.”

As industries are being shut down, and corporations are reorganizing and downsizing their work force and contracting their work to outside companies, there is developing in some places, said Father Oubre, “A perpetual unemployed class, an unemployable class of young people who have never been taught to work, and they are probably content to being on welfare for the rest of their life.

“We need to read what the church already teaches and begin to stress that to our parishioners to stand with working men and women with dignity. Then we would be doing what we are supposed to do.”

If something is not dome to remedy this situation “the community leaders should shake in fear,” said Father Oubre, “because 20 years from now when the last pension worker dies and the next generation of unpensioned workers come forth, you will have a group of old people who have nothing but the savings that they have managed to gather together and their Social Security. And that means that they will not be buying cars, they will not be maintaining a house. They will qualify for subsidized housing.”

The priests of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s gained solidarity and supported the people as they were working to improve their lives said Father Oubre “That is what Consignor Higgins speaks of in his book, The Labor Priest.

“The reason,” said Father Oubre, “that the union workers have gotten what they have gotten is not because they went in and said ‘Please sir,’ but because they stood in solidarity and they struck and fought when necessary and they improved their lifestyle.”

“The white collar workers, the college educated workers, need to stop looking at themselves as professionals and playing this game like somehow they have control over themselves,” he said. “They can’t hire anybody, they can’t fire anybody, they just get to wear a tie.”

Once professional workers stop seeing themselves as a professional, he said, and “realize that they are workers, then they will see that they have a lot more in solidarity with those who are considered union workers, than with those that they aspire to be like that are above them.”