Few people are aware that in my younger days and prior to ordination I not only taught English in a Catholic High School in Columbus, Ohio, but I also organized and led that diocese’s first Lay Teachers’ Union. It is important that you remember that fact as you continue reading this blog entry. My father was all management having graduated from Holy Cross College in Worchester, Massachusetts with a BA degree and then the next year an MBA from Harvard. From boyhood he loved trains and worked in the summers as a crossing guard for the old New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad at Nantasket Beach, Massachusetts. When it came time in 1922 to look for a job, he was hired into management of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in Richmond, Virginia. Forty five years later he retired and returned to his original family home in Massachusetts. Though management, dad had great respect for unions and often told us that they were necessary to protect workers from unscrupulous employers. He himself worked hard to have good relations with everyone who worked on the C&O and when he retired, their affection and respect for him was evident.
He married and we were born in the ’40′s in a small town in West Virginia called Montgomery. To this day I have vivid memories of Dad being personally supportive of the unions representing coal mine workers and of their President, John L. Lewis. Though the mines were the largest shippers on the C&O, Dad would point out the dangers inherent in working in the mines and felt that the owners were too callous in responding to the miner’s worries. All of this was before the realization of the presence even of Black Lung Disease. So I had from childhood a respect for unions and in my summer employment on the railroad, I too joined the appropriate union. So when I started teaching in 1965 for $4,000 plus lunch and the married woman working in the classroom next to me made only $2,400 plus lunch because she was the second wage earner, my righteous (I hope) indignation welled up and we organized for collective bargaining. Opposed by 80% of the diocesan high school principals and the bishop but supported by the Superintendent of Schools, we successfully negotiated a starting salary of $5,600 for all with no lunch. The Lay Teachers Union in Columbus, Ohio remains to this day.
All of this is by way of far too long prologue to the point I wish to make here which is that I regret what legislatures are doing to unions throughout the country at this moment. The nation and the economy and especially workers need representation and the right to collective bargaining is a part of both Catholic social teaching and papal teaching as well. The situation in Wisconsin, Florida and Texas is regrettable. Unions are not a panacea but they are necessary. Workers without representation often become slaves of an economic system which can be cruel and insensitive to the rights of labor and laborers.
But unions also must show responsibility and they are, in part, in this current predicament because they have chosen to sink large amounts of dues into elections on behalf of political candidates. Unions would be better served to be far less partisan while politically representing the needs of their membership. Unfortunately, this moment in history seems to be payback time as legislators and governors whom they have vehemently opposed in the electoral process are hell-bent on weakening the unions. Unions also sometimes show too little cognizance of the economic realities of the present moment. So there is a part of me which says “shame on both sides” in the current moment. Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that cooler heads will prevail. As a nation we live our lives mostly as “centrists” eschewing both the radical right and left in politics and daily living. Workers have a right to be represented and protected but the body politic also has a responsibility to see that labor is recognized as an essential element of our economic engine and an “inalienable right.” The current rhetoric does neither side any good.
Now about that cat! In the heyday of its passenger service, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad boasted that on its trains, one “slept like a kitten” and “Chessie” became the symbol of the C&O. Never in my lifetime dreamed that someday I would use this image in a reflection on unions.