CATHOLIC LABOR EDUCATION in Cleveland operated from 1939 until the early 1970s. Cleveland was one of the most prominent and long lasting centers of Catholic labor schools in the United States. The origins of the Catholic labor schools were found in the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU) established in 1937 in New York City from Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement.  The formation of this new labor group was based on Christian principles. The founders expressed the need for an organization to teach Catholic workers about their union rights and to combat the ever growing influence of the Communists in organized labor and industry.  The purpose of the organization was not to be a “union within a union” but to educate, stimulate and coordinate on a Christian basis the action of the Catholic workingmen and women in the American labor movement.  Administered by lay Catholic union members membership was open to all. The most significant component of the ACTU was the worker’s school.   Courses included public speaking, parliamentary law, ethics and workers legal rights under the Wagner Act.  Classes were taught by qualified lay teachers and clergy. 

The origins of the Cleveland ACTU dated from June 1939. Cleveland’s Archbishop Schrembs, an advocate of labor, invited the Catholic Social Action Congress convention to the city.  Here ACTU delegates from throughout the national participated in forums and discussions concerning future development and expansion of the organization.  Fr. Aloysius Bartko an assistant pastor at St. Emeric’s, a Hungarian working class parish in the city, was asked to lead an ACTU forum session. Inspired by these events he formed an ACTU chapter in Cleveland.  Earl Krock, a Cleveland attorney, became the chapter’s first director with Fr. Bartko as its spiritual director. 

The Cleveland chapter promptly distributed flyers to parishes and work sites addressed “to our labor union brothers and sisters in the Cleveland area.”  The group sponsored labor rallies and commemoration ceremonies honoring the papal social encyclicals. The members began to organize non-union shops and invited union men and women to attend chapter meetings.  The Cleveland branch fully supported a newsboys’ strike and assisted them to secure a city ordinance that protected their rights. Additionally, the chapter spoke out against racism in the workplace and in society.  A Catholic Labor Defense League office opened with three staff attorneys but was fundamentally inactive due to a lack of cases. 

As an active affiliate of the ACTU Cleveland was selected to host the organization’s first national convention held over the Labor Day weekend of August 31-September 2, 1940.  The main purpose of the convention was the formation of a national organization based on the principles of the papal social encyclical Quadragesimo Anno and to: coordinate the activities of the chapters, to adopt a constitution and plan future activities.   The group’s most powerful statement was its resolution that denounced “the activities, policies and tactics of the Communist Party and of its members in the American labor movement.”  The city developed an identity as a staunchly Catholic, unionized and anti-Communist community.  At the CIO’s 1949 convention in Cleveland, the organization renounced the Communists and purged them from the group. Cognizant of this, the ACTU utilized that strength and conducted additional conventions in Cleveland in 1947, 1949 and 1954 as well as the ACTU’s last one in 1959. 

Members of the chapter viewed labor education as pivotal to workers’ rights.  In September 1941, Fr. John Lees, Fr. Leo Fenstermaker, Fr. Francis McGlynn and other priests decided to begin the first labor school at St. Augustine’s Parish naming it the Diocesan Labor Institute.  Other parishes contained labor schools on a full or part time basis. Mirroring courses at other chapters classes were listed as: the Encyclicals and Christian Principles in the Labor Movement; History of the Labor Movement; Parliamentary Procedure and Public Speaking.  Initial enrollment was sixty students with a tuition fee of five dollars per course. The classes, scheduled for two six week semesters, were structured more as lectures than classroom sessions. 

During the war years (1941-1945) the Cleveland ACTU remained active.  William Donovan of the Cleveland Industrial Union Council, an affiliate of the CIO, considered the union movement as an answer to Communism.  He valued the ACTU’s labor school as a means for training labor leaders to contend for better wages and working conditions.  Donovan maintained that the ACTU should be in every parish developing the “right kind of labor leadership.”  He asserted that the “greatest thing ever written about the labor question were the labor encyclicals” but faulted the clergy for not “breaking down and explaining” them for the benefit of the workers.  Only when this happened, could workers and employers understand their “mutual rights and duties” which lead to “Christian industrial democracy.” 

After the Second World War Msgr. Robert Navin, president of St. John’s College in Cleveland, replaced Fr. Bartko as chaplain of the ACTU in 1946. The labor schools, under the directive of Bishop Hoban, moved out of the parishes and were transferred to a central location: St. John’s College in downtown Cleveland.  Bishop Hoban instructed all diocesan educational programs to consolidate their programs at that site.  An adjunct of the college was an adult educational program designated as the Institute of Social Education under the direction of Fr. Francis Carney. The labor school was no longer a separate entity it was now absorbed into the Institute’s curriculum offering. 

In the 1950s, the Labor School maintained its status within the Institute as an educational program.  Attendees came from the major employers such as WestinghouseEast Ohio GasAmerican Steel and Iron WorksRepublic SteelGeneral ElectricGeneral MotorsCleveland ElectricFisher FoodsCleveland Plain DealerParker- Hannifin, Scovill and other corporations. These students were employed as union carpenters, machinists, pipe fitters, steel workers, auto workers, tool and die makers, accountants, line workers, teachers and the occasional policeman, lawyer and banker. 

The Cleveland ACTU’s role in local labor education diminished significantly by 1960. The chapter embarked on a reconstitution of the group to meet the needs of local workers and diversified into areas of social justice. The Cleveland ACTU was intensely vocal in support of a living family wage, worker unity, federal rent control measures in the city and condemnation of Communists.   The chapter remained visible in its support of workers and marched with picketers and launched labor rallies. This was evident particularly during the three month long textile workers strike at the Cleveland Worsted Mills.   The ACTU also ventured to organize “white collar” workers into a distinct union to educate them about Christian principles in the work place. The organization’s primary form of publicity came every Labor Day when the ACTU sponsored a Labor Day Mass at the Cathedral. 

Achievement of the “American dream” and other national interests such as the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, combined with worker apathy, provided an excuse to abandon the ideas of the ACTU movement.  Labor education moved away from religious themes to manifest a more academic perspective.  These factors eroded the purpose and agency of the Cleveland ACTU.  The organization was still vigorous in the early 1960s however after 1965 the Catholic directories for the Diocese of Cleveland no longer listed any activities associated with the ACTU. The Cleveland chapter, like those in other cities at this time, quietly vanished. 

Catholic labor education at the Institute persevered into the 1960s adapting to the changes in industry and the work force.  Fr. Carney and his lay labor advisory board adjusted the curriculum to reflect current needs that emphasized the employee-employer relationship.  To achieve this the Management Institute on Labor Relations opened as a section of the labor school.  This program was for management executives and supervisors with instruction by human resource or corporate labor relations professionals.  The sessions included: History of Unions in the United States; Legal Background of Collective Bargaining; Labor Relations Policies; The Supervisor’s and Line Manager’s Role in Labor Relations; White Collar Unionization and The Moral Basis of Labor Relations.  By 1973 labor education reached its coda and St. John’s College closed in 1975.  This was the last of the Catholic labor schools in the nation to close. 

Paul Lubienecki, Ph.D. 

From:  The American Catholic Diocesan Labor Schools.  An Examination of Their Influence On Organized Labor in Buffalo and Cleveland.   By Paul Lubienecki, PhD Dissertation, Case Western Reserve University.

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