What happened to the US Church’s labor links?

While summertime may be over in the US, the spirit of this “Hot Labor Summer” continued into autumn, when the United Auto Workers declared a strike against America’s “Big Three” automakers, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (a multinational corporation that includes Chrysler Motors), the first time all three major U.S. automakers were targeted in U.A.W. history, writes Michael O’Brien at America Magazine.

While the nation will watch to see both the economic and political effects of the strike, the presence of the Catholic Church has played a hand in the mission of the United Auto Workers long before this most recent strike, O’Brien says.

Connections between the church and U.A.W. activism go all the way back to the fight to save Poletown, Mich., a neighborhood of Detroit (the U.A.W.’s birthplace) named for the presence of the predominantly Polish immigrants who first came to the community seeking jobs in the auto industry.

“Historically, the United Auto Workers has been among the unions most informed by Catholic social teaching,” Joseph McCartin, the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, told America. “I think this is because so many auto workers were Catholic when the union was being formed in the ’30s and ’40s in cities like Detroit and Flint, and also because a number of the activists who were involved in the early U.A.W. were influenced by their Catholicism.”

However, Clayton Sinyai, the executive director of the Catholic Labor Movement, told America that he felt there could be a stronger Catholic presence in the current U.A.W. strike, much in the same way that Msgr. George Higgins, known nationally as “The Labor Priest,” served as the chairman of the U.A.W.’s public review board.

He noted that despite the church’s historic connection to labor, there was not much evidence of a strong Catholic presence during “Hot Labor Summer.” That contrasts with past experiences of strong union action when Catholic leaders were side-by-side with labor officials. Mr. Sinyai told America, “I think there are still a few [prominent Catholic] figures, but not on the level that Msgr. Higgins was at.” He noted that he would “love to see someone [at the U.S. bishops’ conference] doing that work.”

“The shrinking size also explains a lot about the alienation of the church and the labor movement that were very close in the mid-20th century. In the ’50s and ’60s, probably every pastor had union members on their parish council. They understood what the labor movement did, and that’s a lot less true today,” he said.


As the U.A.W. strike expands, Catholics are asking: Where’s the modern-day labor priest? (America Magazine)


United Auto Workers

Russ Tershy: YCW and Peace Corps pioneer

Russell Joseph Tershy passed away on 29 June 2022, marking a century that began before the Great Depression and continued into the Internet age.

Russell Tershy believed in every person’s potential, and he believed that luck and circumstances, not ability, shaped people’s trajectories. He understood this first-hand. Tershy, born in Enid, Oklahoma, fled the Dust Bowl to California with his family in a Model-T Ford in the 1920s. He, his four siblings and his parents, Lebanese immigrants who opened a successful general store on the High Plains, lost everything and became migrant farm workers. They picked peaches in southern California, and through the generosity of a man who rented them a plot of land and a chicken barn in Robla, California but never collected full rent, the Tershy family emerged from financial ruin. They converted the barn into a home with a wood stove and an outhouse, and Russell helped grow and sell fruits and vegetables door-to-door. They started buying fruit from other farmers and reselling it to stores. By age 15 Russell was driving a truck full of fruit back and forth from Robla to Los Angeles and negotiating sales and purchases. Kindness extended was their luck.

Education was an engine of upward mobility for Tershy, as it was for so many Americans. He attended the one-room Robla Elementary school and New Deal era progressive Grant High School which sparked a lifelong commitment to education. His valedictorian speech was about the role of education in building a prosperous future. He attended Sacramento City College, the first member of his family to attend college. When World War II started, he left college to fight facism with the US Calvary. He was stationed on a cold, remote island off Washington State, but after his basic training IQ test was finally processed, he was sent to Stanford University where he spent two years studying Chinese language and culture, mule packing and survival in preparation to be parachuted with a mule into China to aid the resistance to Japanese occupation.

Much to his surprise, he was shipped off to the Philippines where he was retrained as a radio operator and undertook countless patrol missions searching for Japanese soldiers in areas transitioning from Japanese to US control. Next he was on a ship bound for the invasion of Japan and was then among the first groups of soldiers to land in the country after the Japanese surrender.

When he returned from the war after five years overseas, he visited his parents, sister and baby nephew in Robla. They then drove to San Francisco to visit two of his sisters, while his mother stayed behind with the baby. When he returned a few days later, no one answered the door. He climbed in through a window and found his mother dead, his baby nephew asleep in the cradle.

The family was convinced that his mother would have been alive had they been able to afford good medical care. Russell poured his grief into making money. With his father he rented and ran a residence hotel on Polk St in San Francisco. Within a few years they were making over $US300,000/yr in today’s dollars, and Russell was living the life in San Francisco.

His family was finally financially secure, but he lingered on his mother’s early death, the devastation of war he witnessed in Japan and the Philippines, and his family’s stint as entrapped migrant farmworkers, which they escaped with the help of the man who never asked for the full rent. He turned over the hotel business to his family and joined the Young Christian Workers, making less than $US6,000/yr in today’s dollars as a labor union organizer and poverty fighter.

He considered becoming a Catholic priest, got engaged, called it off and reconsidered priesthood before meeting his wife, Ellie Marie Sheridan, in the Young Christian Workers movement. They married in 1960 when they were both 39. Their son Bernie was born the following year, and Russell was recruited by the newly formed Peace Corps to be the Deputy Director for Bolivia. The new family lived in Bolivia for four years until one of Bolivia’s frequent coups forced the Peace Corps program out.

They returned to the US where Russell, thanks to the GI Bill and Stanford’s generous re-admission policy, resumed his college education after a ~20 year pause. His plan was to return to poverty fighting in Latin America armed with a new degree, but they decided to stay in the US when his 2nd son, Bill, almost died shortly after birth and was saved by the state-of-the-art medical care available at Stanford.

Russ Tershy

With renewed focus on poverty in the US, Russell co-founded the Center for Employment Training, a non-profit job training program. Their first office was a small outbuilding behind Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in San Jose, CA, which he shared with Cesar Chavez and the nascent United Farm Workers movement. The bond and close working relationship between the two organizations continues to this day. The Center for Employment training model was to accept all applicants, have them enter the training pipeline at whatever stage matched their level, and have them remain in the program until they were placed in a permanent job with a working-class, living wage. Independent research proved this to be the most effective job training model in the US. The San Jose Center for Employment training was replicated across the country and directly lifted over 200,000 families out of poverty and into the working and middle class. Its model became standard best practice for job training around the world.

After retiring from the Center for Employment Training, Russell, with his wife Ellie, his son Bill’s family and his nephew Joe Tershay, started the Montessori Community School in Scotts Valley.

Russell passed away at the home he shared with his wife Ellie (99 YO) and his son Bill & family. He was surrounded by family and friends. He was the oldest surviving World War II veteran in Santa Cruz County.

He is survived by his wife Ellie, son Bernie, his wife Erika Zavaleta and children Raven, Finn, Russell & Navia Terhy; and son Bill and his wife Regina Tershy their children and grandchild.

Rosary Friday 15 July, 7pm, son Bill’s home- call 831.246.3463 for address & directions

Funeral Mass 16 July, open casket 930-1030am, mass 1030am, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, 435 Monterey Ave, Capitola, CA 95010

Followed by memorial celebration Bill’s home- call 831.246.3463 for address & directions

Burial 18 July, 11am, Central Coast Vets Cemetery, 2900 Parker Flats Cut Off Rd, Seaside, CA 93955


Russell Joseph Tershy (1921-2022) (Legacy)

50th Anniversary (Center for Employment Training)

Synodality and Cardijn’s ‘electrifying’ see-judge-act

Cardijn’s “electrifying” see-judge-act method lies at the heart of the synodality process, writes newly appointed Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego.

Can synodality become a deeper element of Catholic life in the United States? Our current process may prove this to be so. One of the central sentiments expressed in our diocesan synodal consultations has been that the people of God have at times not been meaningfully heard and responded to in the institutional life of the church, and they fear that the synodal process might be another in a series of moments when hopes are raised only to be frustrated. But the current synod process offers a glimpse of a church yet to come. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics have engaged with the church on their joys, their sorrows and their hopes for what the church can be today and tomorrow.

Across the United States, dioceses, parishes and religious communities have undertaken intensive processes of consultation and dialogue in order to help prepare for the global synod on synodality that will take place in Rome in October 2023. Soon, each local church will forward to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops a formal report on their consultation, which will contribute to the work of the global church.

Fortunately, the theology and practice of synodality that have already emerged from the Second Vatican Council and the writings and actions of Pope Francis provide an architecture for us to continue substantive synodal formation during the next two years. This architecture consists of three elements: the see-judge-act methodology that lies at the heart of the synodal process, the characteristics of a synodal church that Pope Francis has articulated, and the overwhelming imperative for constant and effective evangelization that has been a hallmark of the pontificates of St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.

In the years following the First World War, Joseph Cardijn became a worker priest in Brussels, seeking to organize working men and women in pursuit of justice. While doing so, he came to understand that true work on behalf of justice and solidarity required a process of genuinely coming to know the real world situations that workers confronted, of judging these realities in the light of the Gospel and then of choosing to act concretely to transform the world they faced. “See-judge-act,” the dynamic of engagement that Cardijn brought to the world, became an electrifying construct for confronting injustice—revealing its contradictions to Catholic faith and generating bold and sustained action.

St John XXIII brought this penetrating insight and framework to the world in his encyclical “Mater et Magistra.” The church of Latin America adopted this framework as a primary method of engaging with the realities of human life and the renewal of the church. And the encuentro process that deeply enriched the church in the United States during the last decade placed “see-judge-act” at its very center. An understanding of the three steps of this basic framework in the context of our current synodal moment in the United States is helpful in appreciating its potential for advancing synodal formation during the next two years.


Bishop McElroy: Pope Francis and Vatican II give us a road map for the synodal process (America Magazine)

See-judge-act bishop now a cardinal

Pope Francis has appointed Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego as one of 21 new cardinals. Bishop McElroy, who visited Australia in June 2017, has made a name for himself for a pastoral approach very close to that of Pope Francis.

In February 2017 address to the US Regional Meeting of Popular Movements he offered a powerful endorsement of Cardijn’s see-judge-act method.

“For the past century, from the worker movements of Catholic action in France, Belgium and Italy to Pope John XXXIII’s call to re-structure the economies of the world in ‘Mater et Magistra,’ to the piercing missionary message of the Latin American Church,” Cardinal-elect McElroy said, “the words ‘see,’ ‘judge’ and ‘act’ have provided a powerful pathway for those who seek to renew the temporal order, in the light of the Gospel and justice.”

He continued:

As the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace described this pathway, it lies in “seeing clearly the situation, judging with principles that foster the integral development of people and acting in a way which implements these principles in the light of everyone’s unique situation.”

There is no greater charter for this gathering taking place here in Modesto in these days than the simple but rich architecture of these three words: “see,” “judge” and “act.” Yet these words — which carry with them such a powerful history of social transformation around the world in service to the dignity of the human person — must be renewed and re-examined at every age and seen against the background of those social, economic and political forces in each historical moment.

In the United States we stand at a pivotal moment as a people and a nation, in which bitter divisions cleave our country and pollute our national dialogue.

In our reflections in these days, here, we must identify the ways in which our very ability to see, judge and act on behalf of justice is being endangered by cultural currents which leave us isolated, embittered and angry. We must make the issues of jobs, housing, immigration, economic disparities and the environment, foundations for common efforts rather than of division. We must see prophetic words and prophetic actions which produce unity and cohesion and we must do so in the spirit of hope which is realistic. For as Pope Francis stated to the meeting in Bolivia: “You are sowers of change,” and sowers never lose hope.

San Diego Diocese has a long history it the jocist movements. For many years, it hosted a Cardijn Centre founded by YCW and YCS chaplain, Fr Leo Davis. It was also the home diocese for Fr Victor Salandini, who became known as the “tortilla priest” for his work with Latino farm workers.


Bishop W. Robert McElroy (Wikipedia)

Bishop McElroy: Pope Francis and Vatican II give us a road map for the synodal process (America Magazine)

Transcript of speech by San Diego Catholic Bishop Robert McElroy to community organizers (San Diego Tribune)

Pope Francis names Bishop McElroy a Cardinal (San Diego Diocese)

Pope announces 21 new Cardinals from around the world (Vatican News)

Leo Davis (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Victor Salandini (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Labor priests make comeback

The “labor priest” is making a comeback, according to US Catholic magazine.

Leading the charge is Father Clete Kiley, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. As a young priest, Kiley had many opportunities to help workers and to learn from the previous generation of labor priests. He eventually received the permission of Cardinal Francis George, Chicago’s archbishop at the time, to pursue this work full time as the director of immigration policy for the labor union UNITE HERE.

In 2012, Kiley followed in his mentors’ footsteps by organizing a new generation of priests in the labor movement. Working with the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, Kiley founded the Priest-Labor Initiative, a group of bishops, priests, and scholars committed to supporting worker justice.

In this interview from the September 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic, Kiley discusses the history of the labor priests and their role in the church today.

Among the many priests, he mentions are early Chicago YCW chaplains, Reynold Hillenbrand and Jack Egan.


Catholic priests and the labor movement (US Catholic)