Friday, September 27, 2019 - Updated: 2:36 pm
Anniversaries not only remind us about our past, they also challenge us to determine what we value in the present.
This past Labor Day, the Diocese of Pittsburgh hosted the 60th annual Mass celebrating workers and labor unions. It was begun by then-Bishop John Wright on September 7, 1959, right after he was appointed as our eighth bishop. As a kid I can still remember being dragged by my dad, a proud member of the United Steelworkers local 1843 in Hazelwood, to Labor Day Masses at St. Paul Cathedral. At least one Mass was even held in the former Civic Arena, with maybe 10,000 in attendance. In the late 1970s, the Mass was moved to St. Benedict the Moor Church in the Hill District, to serve the many labor leaders, politicians and workers who would walk in the parade.
This year also marks another, sadder, anniversary. One hundred years ago over 350,000 steelworkers went on strike in 16 states. The American Federation of Labor and many smaller unions had struggled to organize the country’s steel mills, after the failure of the 1892 Homestead steel strike against the Carnegie Steel Company, where Pinkerton guards killed ten men. Eventually the power of the owners used law enforcement, health departments and banking to pressure workers to end their strike after 15 weeks. Union organizing in steel plants wouldn’t become viable again for another 15 years.
A Pennsylvania historical marker acknowledges the Great Steel Strike of 1919 in the parking lot of the USW local 1219 in Braddock. It also notes, “Rev. Adalbert Kazincy, pastor of St. Michael’s here, championed the strikers and provided the church as a meeting place.” Across the street from the sign is Good Shepherd Catholic Church, which before the merger of seven parishes in Braddock in 1985, was called St. Michael the Archangel. Both the sign and the church are in the shadow of the Edgar Thomson steel mill, now in its 147th year of operation, which is part of U. S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works.
Father Kazincy was an immigrant from Slovakia, who in 1896 was named pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Braddock. In his pastoral care for his parishioners he came to see the hardships the mills inflicted on men, women and children. Six and seven days of work a week, ten and twelve hours a day, no health benefits and unsafe working conditions for the workers.
In 1919 when the strike began “Father K” allowed union organizers into his church to — yes, pray — as well as organize and teach and feed and support workers. The banks tried to foreclose the mortgage on his church. His bishop at that time tried to stop his pastoral care to these workers, most of whom were immigrants from eastern Europe. The legislature dragged him into hearings and possible criminal accusations. But Father K held firm in his concern for steel workers and their families, before, during and after the 1919 strike. He remained pastor in Braddock until his death in 1947.
In one of those personal ironies only God can create, I am a successor to Father K. If only I could be one tenth of the priest he was.
The third anniversary for this year is a seminal document of the Catholic bishops of the United States, called “The bishops’ program for social reconstruction.” It was ghostwritten by a young priest from Minnesota, John A. Ryan, who would go on to be an advisor on labor issues to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression.
This 1919 document was far ahead of its time.
One section of the document was entitled “abolition and control of monopolies.” The bishops wrote, “Human beings cannot be trusted with the immense opportunities for oppression and extortion that go with the possession of monopoly power.”
To oppose monopolies, the bishops encouraged employee ownership. The bishops affirmed the principle of the universal destination of goods, that is, that the goods of God’s earth are for all, not just the one-tenth of one percent. Worker participation in management and ownership can enhance productivity, increase profitability and provide greater job security.
The 1919 bishops’ program wholeheartedly backed unions and the union movement. Years before the national Labor Relations Act, the bishops’ program asserted the right of labor to organize and deal with employers through representatives. Here the bishops were completely in line with Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking 1891 social encyclical “Rerum Novarum.” All popes since then down to Pope Francis continue to affirm and protect the rights of workers and the value of unions.
A fourth issue the 1919 bishops’ program supported was universal health care. Health care is a right of all persons, and needs to be brought about by government and society, employing the principle of subsidiarity.
These anniversaries challenge us today. Is it possible for church leaders and union leaders to work more closely together, especially in advocating for the rights of immigrants and asylum-seekers? Is it possible for our country to truly embrace and enact universal health care for all its citizens? Can workers in the so-called gig economy get a living and family wage with proper benefits during the largest bull market in our country’s history? Can union membership increase, in the face of powerful monopolies? What anniversaries will our children remember?
Father Almade is administrator of the parish grouping that includes St. Colman in Turtle Creek, Good Shepherd in Braddock, St. John Fisher in Churchill, St. Jude in Wilmerding, Madonna del Castello and Word of God in Swissvale, and St. Maurice in Forest Hills.