The Making of a Catholic Labor Leader

The sky over Washington Square hung cloudy and gray, as if it reflected the mood of a group of New York University graduate students gathering there. Although it was graduation day (May 11, 2006), these newly minted Ph.D.’s and continuing graduate students were dispirited because the university had negotiated a contract with its graduate employees’ union in 2001 but refused to do so in 2005. A rally to support the graduate students was being held just off Washington Square in Lower Manhattan.

Mr. John J. Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., came himself to address the modest gathering. He reminded the students that he had been arrested with them last year and vowed to continue with them in their struggle for justice. He called on New York University to bargain in good faith with their student-workers. Sweeney said he was incensed that a renowned institution of higher learning should trample on a sacred right of all civilized societies: the right of workers to bargain collectively for a living wage. He vowed to stand with the powerless and the disregarded in every job from factory worker to graduate student.


Here was a man of deep conviction. How, I wondered, had John Sweeney developed his convictions? What influenced him to take the journey from his Irish Catholic roots in the parochial Bronx to cosmopolitan Washington, D.C., as president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.? Who challenged and inspired him along the way? What ideas, organizations and people fueled his desire to be of service to others? What, in short, led Sweeney to stand with the N.Y.U. graduate students that day?

To answer these questions, I asked John Sweeney for an interview, and he agreed to share his ideas and memories with America. I also interviewed several of Mr. Sweeney’s associates and consulted archival and other records on key individuals and organizations.

To talk with John Sweeney about the people who influenced him is to return to the days when Catholic labor schools and labor priests dominated the social landscape of the Catholic Church in the United States. From the 1930’s to the 1960’s an otherwise conservative Catholic church paid strong attention to the plight of workers and the injustices of a profit-driven industrialized economy. The roots of the church’s labor activism include papal encyclicals like Rerum Novarum (1891), the progressive U.S. bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction (1919) and the pioneering work of John A. Ryan (Rt. Rev. Msgr. New Dealer) on the living wage in the early 20th century.

This article considers the paramount influence of Philip A. Carey, S.J., and the Xavier Labor School on John Sweeney’s development as a Catholic labor leader. But Sweeney is quick to add a litany of other Catholic activists and priests who influenced him, including Justin Brennan, F.S.C., John M. Corridan, S.J., Dorothy Day, Tom Donohue, and Msgrs. Jack Egan, George Higgins, Charles Owen Rice and John A. Ryangiants all.

Before all others, Sweeney credits his parents, two humble Irish Catholic immigrants. From the earliest days I had this strong interest in the labor movement, says Sweeney, who noted his father’s work as a New York City bus driver and his membership in Local 100, the Transport Workers Union, headed at the time by the indomitable Michael J. Quill. Sweeney’s mothera domestic worker who spent her working life cleaning and caring for other people, says Sweeneyalso inspired him. Family, faith and the T.W.U. built the foundation for his work in the labor movement. We knew that without our family, there could be no love, Sweeney says. Without the church, there would be no hope of redemption. And without my father’s union, there would be no food on the table.

The parish priests and the brothers and priests who taught him at Cardinal Hayes High School in New York City and Iona College in nearby New Rochelle gave Sweeney a sense of mission in life and a lifelong conviction that service to others is the highest Christian calling.

Xavier Labor School

John Sweeney thanks Philip A. Carey, S.J., and the Xavier Labor School for educating him in the nuts and bolts of the labor movement. I received my early social education from a wonderful teacher, Father Philip Carey, a Jesuit who taught us how family, faith and union are connected in Catholic social teaching, says Sweeney. Sweeney first met Father Carey during his senior year at Iona College in 1955, when he took courses at Xavier. He and Carey became good friends. Father Carey directed the school from 1940 until 1988, when it closed; he died the following year.

Founded in 1936 a few blocks north of Greenwich Village as the Xavier School of Social Science, the name was changed to Xavier Labor School in 1938. In a letter seeking approval for the school from Cardinal Hayes, the archbishop of New York, Francis A. O’Malley, S.J., wrote, The object of the school is to try to do something to combat Communism by explanation of Catholic Social Principles. Indeed, Xavier and other Jesuit schools were founded at the invitation of Jesuit superiors in Rome, who urged American Jesuits to find effective ways to combat the Communists by offering American workers a positive, non-Marxist program for bettering working conditions.

Combating Communism, however, does not appear to have been the primary inspiration for the labor priests who staffed the schools. Edward F. Boyle, S.J., chaplain to the Labor Guild of the Archdiocese of Boston, thinks that the primary motive for the priests was a spirituality of service. These priests were confronted daily with the ravages of poverty and what it did to the workers’ families, Father Boyle told me. He added emphatically: They saw Christ in every worker, Communist or not.

The courses Sweeney took at Xavier were remarkably similar to those at the 150 or so Catholic labor schools throughout the country. The free courses included Labor Law, Collective Bargaining, Effective Speech, Grievance and Arbitration Procedures, Practical English and Labor Ethics. Unlike the academic courses offered at Jesuit universities, these courses were practical in nature. The only entrance requirement was that a man or woman be a union member. The faculty was composed of union and management leaders and practitioners, who donated their time to teach.

Several one-hour courses were offered each night, Monday through Thursday. Students graduated after two years; and most students, even while taking classes, exercised an immediate effect on their unions. They mastered parliamentary procedure, they could speak in public, they could write resolutions, they could bargain collectively, and they could hold their own in the weightier discussions of labor law and ethics. At their peak in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the schools graduated thousands of students each year. Some were inspired by anti-Communist sentiments, but all were committed to a living wage and dignified working conditions. Many students, including John Sweeney, came to see their labor activity as a vocation that contributed to the building of the reign of God on earth.

In an address at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2005, Sweeney commented on his experience at Xavier: I came to understand that work is a way we worship. Through work we share in God’s creation that is the foundation and ordering of life; that working people have God-given rights; and that there is a moral connection among church, the rights of workers and economic justice.

Sweeney also noted the church’s historic support for unions:

In the early days of the trade union movement in this country, the Catholic church was constantly at the side of workers who were trying to lift up themselves and their families by joining and forming unions, and our unions in turn fought for a better life for all. Wherever there was an organizing campaign or a strikefrom the struggles in the mines of Colorado to the sit-downs in Detroitfighting labor priests took their place beside workers on the frontlines of the battle for social justice.

John Sweeney gives credit for much of the nation’s social legislation to the collaboration between the Catholic Church and the unions. He says:

Together we created and enlarged public education, ended child labor, won the 40-hour week, established the minimum wage as well as health and safety standards in our workplaces, and helped create Social Security to guarantee workers a little security at the end of their lives. Through our unions, we extended Catholic social teachings into the political fiber of our country and helped pass the great social legislation of the 1960scivil rights, voting rights, equal employment opportunity, Medicare and Medicaid.

It is this blend of the spiritual and the practical, the ideal and the real, the mission and the strategy that characterizes John Sweeney’s thought.

Xavier Labor School taught an incarnational theology that viewed the work of unloading ships, building cars and laboring in the mines as a vocation, a call to sanctity. As Father Carey told his students: Look, we work out our salvation in this world. We don’t save our souls in church or on our kneeswe save our souls by prayer and workwork with others. Carey believed that the church as Christ’s mystical body spoke to the vocation of the workers: The ideal of the mystical body, of which he is a member, gives the worker something to live for and something to work for. It gives new meaning to his life. Carey’s associate John M. Corridan, S.J., (dramatically depicted in the film On the Waterfront) also saw Christ in the workers. You are the flock of Christ, Corridan told them, and the church of Christ is strong or weak as you are strong or weak.

Joseph M. McShane, S.J., a historian who is now president of Fordham University in New York, finds the spirituality of the Jesuit labor priests remarkably advanced and refreshingly realistic. Father McShane says that the priests presented the workers with an image of God which was readily accessible and comprehensible to them, and a vision of life that insisted on seeing the four main areas of their lives (family, class, job and union) as the specific areas in which they could find and serve God. In other words, he says, it was truly a lay-based spirituality.

Fighting for Justice

The plight of the student-workers at New York University is one small example of the troubled times organized labor is experiencing today. Their gray day is symbolic of the dark night that workers endure in many places around the world. The current administration in Washington, which John Sweeney describes as the worst in 50 years, seems determined to destroy workers’ rights. Unions and all the benefits they have won for workers are shrinking, and workers are losing not only their jobs but their pensions as well. Some are also losing their self-respect, their sense of dignity.

Today John Sweeney’s A.F.L.-C.I.O., the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice and important allies in the religious community are vigorously engaged in the same struggle for justice that inspired the Catholic labor schools of the last century. They continue the courageous work of Philip Carey, Dorothy Day, Jack Egan and George Higgins. Filled with faith and hope, they refuse to give in to despair and pessimism.

When I asked him how he wanted to be remembered, John Sweeney replied that he was inspired by the motto of Iona College, I have fought the good fight (2 Tim 4:7). That is all any of us can do. The results must be left to God.

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