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.