That story begins in about 1804 up in New England when a group of leather workers had the temerity to discuss among themselves whether they could ask the owners for a slight increase in their pay. THEY WERE LOCKED UP FOR THAT CRIME! Thanks be to God, we have come a long way from that situation, but there are still tremendous obstacles for working people to improve their lot in a way that would enable them to get their share of the economic pie, a pie that is for the most part actually physically produced by them.
With 10% unemployment and union membership down to a small fraction of what it was 30 years ago, things give the appearance of being quite peaceful. However, there is a lot of anger, frustration and disappointment in the lives of people who are struggling to put food on the table. They hear about the infamous 1% while they lose their homes. They see their jobs disappear and if they can get another one, it is at a much lower level of pay. They see much that they have achieved between 1935 and 1980 being swept away and that includes health insurance, retirement, vacation, etc., etc.
Things were tough in the ‘30’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s but you know what was a great source of encouragement for blue-collar working people? Time after time in this or that economic struggle, they would see the Roman Catholic priests standing with them in their struggles. They also knew that behind that priest was their bishop. The Church was with them. It made a tremendous difference. It gave the people the courage to struggle on and struggle on they did.
It is a different world. There is a whole new set of problems, extraordinarily difficult obstacles, not the least of which is the mindset of the American public that has come to see the union movement as something to be disdained. In the middle of all that, I was thrilled to see in the newspaper a few weeks ago that a group of 35 priests met in Chicago to review the situation for the difficult conditions that are besetting our workers and to see if they could reinvigorate a movement that was so successful 50 years ago.
This is really encouraging to me personally. I had the honor of serving for several years as the assistant to Monsignor George Higgins who was the informal national chaplain of the union movement. Pray for these priests who are struggling to reinvigorate this movement that they can count on God’s help, St. Joseph the Worker and Monsignor George Higgins.