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Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin Creative in their Approach to the Labor Movement (Labor & Workers)

This article, on labor and support for workers, is the fifteenth in our series on the Roots of the Catholic Worker movement, the saints, philosophers and ideas which influenced Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.

The Labor Cross by Fritz Eichenberg

When Dorothy Day became Catholic, a priest asked her to write the story of her conversion, telling how the social teaching of the Church had led her to embrace Catholicism. “But,” she wrote in The Long Loneliness, “I knew nothing of the social teaching of the Church at that time. I had never heard of the encyclicals.”

It was Peter Maurin who brought the social encyclicals to Dorothy when she met him five years after her conversion. He also brought her his understanding of Church history, the prophets of Israel, the Fathers of the Church, the Thomistic doctrine of the common good and the Sermon on the Mount, whose sayings he called the “shock maxims” of the Gospel. It was Peter who brought the idea of a newspaper to popularize his ideas, his program of action of round-table discussions, houses of hospitality and agronomic universities, the new synthesis he wanted to make, as St. Thomas had in the Middle Ages.

One of the most commonly neglected areas of discussion is the name Dorothy Day chose for the paper—The Catholic Worker. She chose this name as an alternative to the popular Communist Daily Worker to show that there was an alternative to Communism, that there were Catholics who cared about the workers.

Dorothy Day—Communist or Catholic?

Dorothy Day was never a Roman Catholic Communist. She was a Roman Catholic “Encyclicist” who accepted Catholic social encyclicals which fiercely criticized industrial capitalism and defended the dignity and rights of workers. Peter Maurin said the goal of the Catholic Worker was to “make the encyclicals click.” Dorothy accepted all of the encyclicals—no Americanist she!

The great gift of Dorothy Day to the American Church was that she taught Americans how to be Roman Catholics.

Nor was she a William Buckley, the inventor of cafeteria Catholicism and the pro-choice stance (at least in economics), who accepted encyclicals he agreed with and rejected others. He reacted to Pope John XXIII’s famous encyclical affirming Catholic social teaching and linking ethics and economics, Mater et Magistra (The Church as Mother and Teacher), with “Mater, si, Magistra, no!—Mother, yes, Teacher, no!

The early issues of The Catholic Worker carried stories of workers, labor issues and strikes. Peter was a bit dismayed, because he wasn’t sure about strikes. His famous comment was “Strikes don’t strike me.” (Later when he heard about nonviolent sit-down strikes, he was very much in favor of them.) However, concern for the worker was always there at the heart of the CW paper and with Peter and Dorothy.

Peter was so radical as to teach that working for wages, especially on assembly lines, was dehumanizing. He recommended giving away one’s labor as a gift. He also pointed out that “ours was a long-range program, looking for ownership by the workers of the means of production, the abolition of the assembly line, decentralized factories, the restoration of crafts and ownership of property.” (The Long Loneliness, p.220)

It is interesting to read about the early Catholic Workers picketing a New York department store notorious for underpaying employees and making them work long hours. New York’s finest—the police—were arresting and carrying off to jail the picketers, but when Dorothy and her Catholic high school students showed up with picket signs quoting the popes on just wages, the police, mostly Catholic, were dumbstruck and didn’t know what to do:

“There was mass picketing every Saturday afternoon during the Ohrbach strike, and every Saturday the police drove up with patrol wagons and loaded the pickets into them with their banners and took them to jail. When we entered the dispute with our slogans drawn from the writings of the Popes regarding the condition of labor, the police around Union Square were taken aback and did not know what to do. It was as though they were arresting the Holy Father himself, one of them said, were they to load our pickets and their signs into their patrol wagons. The police contented themselves with giving us all injunctions. One seminarian who stood on the side lines and cheered was given an injunction too, which he cherished as a souvenir” (The Long Loneliness, p. 206).

The police felt very much like the Catholic FBI agents sent to arrest Dorothy during World War II for her pacifism. They were astounded that this daily communicant based her pacifism and resistance on Catholic Church teachings. This obviously helped to undercut her arrest, which J. Edgar Hoover wanted.

Where are the “Encyclicists” Today?

It is the strangest thing in the world that we don’t hear the voices of other Peter Maurins or Catholics saying we must make the encyclicals click. In fact, we hear the opposite. Neo-conservatives, such as Fr. John Neuhaus, George Weigel and Michael Novak, among the best and the brightest and most powerful Catholic intellectuals in the U.S., ignore all of the encyclicals except one, (beware the person of one book) which gives them a toehold in promoting so-called creative capitalism. They do not mention the Pope’s recent condemnation of laissez-faire capitalism in Poland.

This is unfortunate, not only because of the neglect of other encyclicals, also outstanding ones, but because the conditions of workers throughout the world are so bad that they live on the margin of human existence (See the January 1998 issue of the Houston Catholic Worker on “The Neediest and the Greediest.”)

Worker conditions in the world are as bad or worse than they were at the time of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800’s–with its chimney sweeps, seven-day work week and slave wages. Unfortunately, there is no modern Dickens who has emerged to write about contemporary conditions. Oh, that Fr. Neuhaus, George Weigel and Michael Novak would do this!

Cavorting with Bishops

Most admirers of Dorothy Day would never believe that Dorothy spent time at Bishop’s residences discussing the conditions of the unemployed and the strikes that were going on in auto plants.

Archbishop McNicholas of Cincinnati insisted on sharing his pastoral letter about the condition of capital and labor with Dorothy and encouraged her to go to Detroit to cover the situation of “sit-down strikers in the Flint auto plants… He had one of his priests reserve and pay for a Pullman berth for me so that I would be fresh the next day for my work.” (LL, p. 218)

Dorothy was more comfortable with abbots, bishops and priests coming to the Worker, where they often shared a meal, than visiting rectories. She always desired that parish priests live simply.

Not Just One Focus

Dorothy recounts in The Long Loneliness how the emphasis on labor and support of strikes, so needed in the depression years when strikes were against the law and working conditions were so bad, changed at the Catholic Worker in later years:

“We published many heavy articles on capital and labor, on strikes and labor conditions, on the assembly line and all the other evils of industrialism. But it was a whole picture we were presenting of man and his destiny and so we emphasized less, as the years went by, the organized-labor aspect of the paper.

“It has been said that it was The Catholic Worker and its stories of poverty and exploitation that aroused the priests to start labor schools, go out on picket lines, take sides in strikes with the worker.

“And many a priest who afterward became famous for his interest in labor felt that we had in a way deserted the field, had left the cause of the union man. Bishops and priests appearing on the platforms of the A. F. of L. and C.I.O. conventions felt that we had departed from our original intention and undertaken work in the philosophical and theological fields that might better have been left to the clergy. The discussion of the morality of modern war, for instance, and application of moral principle in specific conflicts. Labor leaders themselves felt that in our judgment of war, we judged them also for working in the gigantic armaments race, as indeed we did. Ours is indeed an unpopular front.

“When we began our work there were thirteen million unemployed. The greatest problem of the day was the problem of work and the machine.

“The state entered in to solve these problems by dole and work relief, by setting up so many bureaus that we were swamped with initials. NIRA gave plan to NRA, and as NRA was declared unconstitutional another organization, another administration was set up. The problem of the modern state loomed up as never before in American life.

“One of Peter’s criticisms of labor was that it was aiding in the creation of the Welfare State, the Servile State, instead of aiming for the ownership of the means of production and acceptance of the responsibility that it entailed.”

The greatest problem of our day is again the problem of work throughout the world, especially in poor countries. The free trade of the global economy, is as Bishop Sevilla says in his article in this issue, is not free, but managed trade. It is managed for the good of the wealthy countries and the companies who move their plants to Third World countries to take advantage of cheap labor. Encyclicals and other statements of Church leaders continue to condemn treating workers as commodities instead of persons, commodities that can be eliminated or paid slave wages to produce more profits for stockholders. The situation of workers in the maquiladoras in Latin America and on other continents is as bad as that faced by the workers Dorothy Day and other Catholic Workers supported in the thirties. The general situation of workers in the Third World in the global economy is precarious at best.

Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was a critic of Communism, but criticized capitalism in very strong terms. He believed, with the Church tradition, that ethics and economics could not be separated. He pointed out that in the Middle Ages “the idea of acquiring wealth was limited by a body of moral rules imposed under the sanction of religious authority.” He went so far as to call the capitalist system a racketeering system because it is a “profiteering system.”

We receive in hospitality the immigrants who are forced to migrate because of the global economy. We know there are many more who cannot even think of making the difficult trip to try to work to send money to families in desperate need.

How can a person with stock in a company that is posting huge profits at the expense of the poor receive dividends with impunity, knowing that when these companies had their plants in the U.S., they paid an average of $14.00 an hour but are now paying $20.00 a week or less?

The stockholders of these companies don’t want to hurt the poor, nor force them to immigrate illegally to the United States, but they do want to make money (profits). It is easy to forget that Jesus did not die for gold.

It appears that a new colonialism has taken over to replace the old, with foreign investors being the new Conquistadors, outmatching the old in cruelty in re-establishing a new slavery. One must ask, How could one be so blinded by gold that one could not see that the workers are dying? How could people be so interested in profits and in maintaining an elevated lifestyle that they don’t see or are willing to rationalize and minimize the effect of decisions on the suffering poor of Latin America, Asia, Africa?

There was a time when unions became powerful, perhaps too powerful. That is not the situation today. Workers need our support.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, July-August 1998.