Labor protests and the importance of Catholic social teaching

by Maureen Fiedler

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As I watch the protests in Wisconsin, Ohio, DC and elsewhere, I’m taken back to my days at DeSales Catholic High School in Lockport, NY. One of the extracurricular activities in which we could elect to participate was the “Labor School.” Essentially, it was a free after-school mini-course, taught by local union leaders, about the history of the Labor Movement in the United States. It lasted about 6-8 weeks.

I learned about the struggles, strikes and picket lines used by working people to achieve collective bargaining, decent wages and working conditions. I was introduced to the provisions of the Wagner Act (which legalized unions and collective bargaining) under FDR. And I learned of attempts to roll back the achievements of the labor movement with the Taft-Hartley Act of the late 1940’s.

This was also my deepest exposure to the “social encyclicals,” like Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, and to the Catholic Church’s long support for labor unions and the rights of laboring people. t

Later, as a young nun teaching in Pittsburgh, Pa., I soon became aware of the legendary Msgr. Charles Owen Rice of Pittsburgh, one of the great “labor priests” of the 20th century who walked picket lines with his people. He was part of a generation of publicly pro-labor priests who spoke up regularly for social justice. So was Msgr. George Higgins -- who worked at the old National Catholic Welfare Conference in Washington, and many more around the country.

Priests like Rice and Higgins had opposition to be sure, but they offered solidarity and spiritual support to their working class parishioners. They built a strong, public “justice image” of the church that made many Catholics proud to be Catholic.

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Today, both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archbishop of Milwaukee, Jerome E. Listecki, have re-iterated church teaching about respecting workers’ rights and union rights.

The USCCB was especially strong in saying that not only is refusing to bargain wrong, but "it is equally a mistake to marginalize or dismiss unions as impediments to economic growth." Those were the words of Bishop Stephen Blaire, chair of the conference's committee on domestic justice.

There probably are priests and nuns in that crowd of protestors. And the clergy of many faiths have joined in support of the workers.

Now, this is the church of my youth, the church that supported labor rights, and eventually, civil rights. Today, it’s an interfaith effort. I hope it continues.

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