Sunday, September 27, 2015

Pope Francis praises radical Catholic journalist Dorothy Day for taking up the "cause of the oppressed"

(Dorothy Day in 1934)

Pope Francis' visit to the United States has reinvigorated debate about the excesses of capitalism in the world's most capitalistic nation, the threats those excesses pose to workers, the poor, the marginalized, and the environment itself. In his historic speech to Congress last week, the Pope cited the examples of several Americans who've pointed the way toward a more humane country that values social justice and not just free enterprise. One of those Americans was the radical Catholic journalist Dorothy Day, whose work has been discussed in Labor South on several occasions. 

"A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did," the Pope told Congress, "when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all their brothers and sisters as Martin Luther King sought to do, when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton."

(To the right, Pope Francis, photo by Korean Culture and Information Service)

Below is a 2011 Labor South review of the most recent of several biographies of this amazing woman, whose life was a testament to commitment to social justice:

I didn’t waste much time when I learned that a new biography of Dorothy Day had been published. I had to order it, of course, since books by or about Day seem never to find themselves to the shelves of your local corner bookstore.

At last it arrived, All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, and even though I’ve read and studied her life many times, I’ve now learned that there was so much I didn’t know about this enigma in American literature and social consciousness.

Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, social activist, newspaper editor and writer, author of the classic autobiography The Long Loneliness, and resurrectionist of the grand-but-almost-forgotten tradition of Catholic social teaching, is a haunting, even troubling figure in modern-day America.

Few have stood farther to the Left on many social issues—from labor rights to civil rights—or bore as many bona fide credentials—from her jailing as an card-carrying IWW Wobbly and suspected revolutionary during the original Red Scare at the end of World War I1 to marches with United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez and with civil rights leaders in the segregated South in the 1960s.

Yet her Christian faith was unwavering, a faith that embodied both a clear-eyed look at the cold realities of this earthly life and a mystical union with the crucified Son of Man and the church he entrusted to his disciple Peter.

Forest, an old hand at the Catholic Worker and friend of Day, captures this dichotomy well. I’ll make a confession here: I’ve not yet completed the book. I plan to read it slowly, too slowly to wait before offering this review. However, I’ve read enough to know that it offers a new, in-depth look at Dorothy Day, filling in many gaps with wonderful details about her life and her views. Yet perhaps what I love best about it are the photographs.

The photographs are wonderful—from the book’s cover photo by Bob Fitch showing her busy at her typewriter in a cluttered room with her beloved books lining the shelves behind her to the closing photographs of her funeral procession through the streets of New York in 1980.

The story of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker is familiar to many, but it’s still a fascinating one. The daughter of an itinerant sportswriter, Day saw poverty and the marginalized up close and personal at an early age. A radical and a rebel from her last days in high school and first days at the University of Illinois, she dropped out of school and launched her writing career with socialist publications like The Call. She had a lover, became pregnant, had an abortion, lived the bohemian life in New Orleans and later Provincetown, befriending Eugene O’Neill, and taking in a common-law husband who was an atheist. Pregnant again, she vowed she would have this child, and the religious impulses that she had long resisted became too strong to ignore.

An Episcopalian by birth, she found herself drawn to the Catholic Church and had her daughter Tamar baptized in it. She and her common-law husband parted. Later in New York she met the vagabond French poet Peter Maurin, who with her co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement at the beginning of the Great Depression and the Catholic Worker newspaper that was at the movement’s heart. They and a long line of volunteers who would eventually would include such folks as The Other America author Michael Harrington fed and sheltered the poor and jobless in the movement’s “houses of hospitality” while growing their own food at communal farms outside New York and elsewhere. Meanwhile, they put out a newspaper that hit hard at the issues of the day while searching the issues of the soul as well.

Day, whose father came from Tennessee, kept an eye on the South even as she wrote about urban life in New York. The first issue of The Catholic Worker (cost 1 cent per edition, 25 cents per year’s subscription—still true today) in May 1933 dealt with the treatment of black labor on the levees of the South. The newspaper’s third issue focused on child labor and the Carolina textile mill strikes.

In 1935 Day traveled to Memphis to get a first-hand look at the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and its struggles to improve workers’ lives in the area. “During that trip I saw men, women, and children herded into little churches and wayside stations, camped out in tents, their household goods heaped about them, not one settlement but many—farmers with no land to farm, housewives with no homes. I saw children ill, one old man dead in bed and not yet buried, mothers weeping with hunger and cold. I saw bullet holes in the frame churches, and their benches and pulpits smashed up and windows broken. Men had been kidnapped and beaten; men had been hot and wounded. The month after I left, one of the organizers was killed by a member of a masked band of vigilantes who were fighting the Tenant Farmers’ Union.”

Such was Day’s evocative writing, a pared-down, even simple, style yet one brimming with compassion and righteous indignation against social injustice.

Day was an activist as well as a journalist. As a result of that Memphis trip, she telegrammed First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who in turn contacted Tennessee’s governor. The governor was unmoved, and so was the Memphis Commercial Appeal, which editorialized against outsiders like Day “who came to criticize.”

My hope is this new biography will help excite further new interest in Day. A movement is already underway to have her declared a saint, something she likely she would have opposed. Her life is a testament to the validity and strength of Catholic social teaching, however, a tradition nearly forgotten until recently.

The phenomenon of once-staunchly Democrat Catholics, all of them immigrants or descendants of immigrants, siding with the Republican Party in recent decades is, as the late and fiery Catholic labor priest Monsignor Charles Owen Rice of Pittsburgh once lamented, “another cross in my old age.”

This writer recalls attending the annual meeting of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists here in Oxford, Miss., in October 2009, and hearing speaker after speaker attempt to brand even fascism and Nazism as sins of the Left, not the Right.

In a Labor Day speech in 2011, however, the head of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockdon, Calif., praised unions and pointed to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 and subsequent papal encyclicals and statements as unassailable proof of the Church’s deep commitment to the right of workers everywhere in the world to unite and to be treated justly as workers and human beings.

Dorothy Day would have approved.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mississippi's Howard Industries pays bottom-feeder wages but enjoys plaudits & subsidies


OXFORD, Miss. – Politicians and local editorial writers love Howard Industries of Laurel, Miss. The editors at the Laurel Leader-Call shower their blessings on Jones County’s largest employer and castigate any naysayer who might want to offer an alternative viewpoint.

Politicians shower the producer of electrical transformers with money—taxpayers’ money--to the tune of at least $60 million in local and state subsidies so far, plus a $20 million bond issue from the county.

Howard Industries rewards its friends. Besides taking out newspaper ads, it recently gave $8,000 worth of new helmets and face shields to the Laurel Police Department. Each of the state’s legislators once received a Howard Industries laptop computer, a nice little thank you for their $31.5 million taxpayer-funded gift to the company back in 2002.

The only thing politicians asked of company CEO Billy Howard was that he use the money to create more jobs.

And there’s the rub. What kind of jobs?

Many of the company’s predominantly black workers say they’re underpaid for the hard, grueling work they do, but negotiations with management went nowhere after at least 16 meetings. A recent union-backed study shows a top-line Howard Industries maintenance worker earns just 61 percent of the wages paid a similar worker at the ABB transformer manufacturing plant in Crystal Springs, Miss.

Defying the local newspaper and the power Howard Industries wields in the community, the Laurel City Council voted 5-1 in July to support the workers’ call for higher wages. Those five council members quickly found out what happens when you stand in solidarity with workers rather than their bosses. In August, the council reversed its vote.

The council members initially “decided to pander to a handful of disgruntled workers,” the Laurel Leader-Call editorialized. The council’s support of the workers “got our community crossed off the list of every major company that would think about locating and hiring a large workforce here.”

Nowhere in the Leader-Call’s August 10 editorial was there mention of the dismal record of arguably one of the state’s worst employers.

This is the company that seven years ago became the site of the largest raid against undocumented migrant workers in the history of the United States. Approximately 600 workers from Mexico, Panama and points farther south were summarily arrested by federal immigration agents. Most of them were hauled off to a prison camp in Jena, La., where they languished for weeks in overcrowded cells without formal charges. Female workers who were mothers avoided jail but had monitoring devices locked onto their ankles.

This is the company that then had to be shamed by the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance into releasing 283 paychecks it still owed to the migrant workers it had hired.

Howard Industries is also the company that subsequently pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate immigration laws and received a $2.5 million fine in 2011. A year later, the company agreed to a $1.3 million settlement of a discrimination lawsuit by four black women who said they were refused jobs because of the company’s preference for Latino workers. As many as 5,000 non-Latino workers were eligible to receive funds from the settlement.

This is a company that was fined nearly $200,000 for 54 violations of work safety rules by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the same year as the immigration raid. “It is unconscionable for an employer to tolerate serious injuries, including amputations, as just a cost of doing business,” said Clyde Payne, Jackson’s OSHA director at the time.  

Apparently the company is still going on the cheap as regards its workers.

“For the type of work they do, (wages) are incredibly low,” says Roger Doolittle, a Jackson-based attorney who represents the 2,000-plus workers at the 4,000-worker plant who belong to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1317.  “It is a travesty that the city of Laurel supports hundreds of thousands in tax exemptions to that kind of employer. … It defies belief.”

Attempts to get a response from Howard Industries have been unsuccessful.

The workers protesting the low wages are IBEW members, a fact that sticks in the craw of both company leaders and the Laurel Leader-Call.  This is the solution offered by the newspaper: “If you’re unhappy with your pay or working conditions, get another job.” And remember, the newspaper editorialized, “unions fleece workers under the guise of working in their best interests.”

Ironically, the city of Laurel was the site of one of the greatest victories of the pro-union movement known as Operation Dixie after World War II. Some 3,500 workers at the Masonite plant there joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), prompting Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hodding Carter in Greenville later to write, “CIO union contracts have added more than five million dollars to Laurel’s annual payrolls.”

Worker payrolls apparently aren’t a priority with Howard Industries’ friends in the news business and legislative halls. Keeping Howard Industries happy is their priority.

A shorter version of this column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.