Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Working Catholic: Food Processing by Bill Droel

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) is a standard on high school summer reading lists; that is, for those high schools that still expect education to occur beyond the classroom. It was first published in serial form in 1905 for a Kansas City weekly newspaper, Appeal To Reason. The author’s intention was to highlight the exploitation of immigrant workers in Chicago’s stockyards. The book’s positive outcome, however, was directed elsewhere. As Sinclair put it: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” To the public The Jungle was an alarm about food safety, not so much about the safety of workers. Thus soon after publication, President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) advocated for and Congress passed two major food policies and established a department which is now called Food and Drug Administration. So what happened to the workers?

            Chicago’s Union Stockyards closed in 1971 (though two small slaughtering houses still operate in that neighborhood). In our country slaughtering and meat packing now takes place in the South. Chicken and other poultry, for example, is processed in Arkansas and North Carolina. Beef and pork are still packaged in the Midwest, but now in smaller plants in remote towns.

            Ted Genoways in The Chain: Farm Factory and the Fate of Our Food (Harper Collins, 2014) takes us to the Hormel Meat factory in Austin, Minnesota. The entire food industry—from planting corn or raising a calf to lunch at a restaurant or dinner in the kitchen—is remote to us. Austin is tucked away on IS 90, west of Rochester and about a dozen miles north of Iowa. Hormel’s infrastructure is also deliberately remote. The chief executive has a Texas address but, as Genoways discovers, there is no such place. Some of the workers likewise, though for a different reason, have phony IDs. Since the Great Depression the Austin plant has specialized in Spam—the kind that comes in a can. The current recession has put Spam production into overdrive.

The pace of work is what Genoways means by The Chain. In a so-called pilot project the government now allows some automated plants to run the production line as fast as possible. “Upping the speed of slaughter…set off a wide-ranging and sometimes disastrous series of events,” Genoways says. A dirty and perhaps infected carcass more likely makes its way down the line. Workers suffer more injuries, including a nerve-damaging infection that is only detected later. Our relatively inexpensive meat “comes at a high cost to its workers,” Genoways concludes.

What can be done? The workers in Austin and in other nearby plants are nobly represented by United Food and Commercial Workers. In 1985 they staged perhaps the “most notorious and rancorous” job action in our country’s history. That story plus and an insider’s account of meat inspection as well as more from Genoways and other journalists and, late this year, a return visit to Chicago’s stockyards… all of that will appear in a subsequent Working Catholic columns.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a printed newsletter about faith and work.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Working Catholic: A Race Man by Bill Droel

It was cold in the parking lot after the funeral, but I lingered long enough to chat with an elderly priest. “We were about to get our first assignments out of seminary,” he began. “A teacher gave me some advice: Stay away from Falls; he’s a race man. Well, I was bold in those days and I replied: No, he’s a man of justice.”

The funeral, celebrated at St. John of the Cross in Western Springs, Illinois, was for Arthur Falls (1901-2000), a medical doctor, a pioneer in race relations and a lifelong Chicago Catholic. He was indeed a “race man” or a militant, but not in the sense of episodic, sloganeering skirmishes that result in little more than superficial media coverage. Falls was confrontational, but consistently worked inside hospitals, schools, housing agencies, businesses, parish committees and more to achieve incremental policy changes.

Lincoln Rice in a new biography of Falls, Healing the Racial Divide (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014), supplies some background on my parking lot conversation. From about 1937 to 1942, Falls met regularly with seminarians away from church property to talk about urban issues and race. The group—which totaled about 30 over the years—included Msgr. Jack Egan (1916-2001), Fr. Martin Farrell (1911-1991) and Fr. Howard Matty Hoffman (1916-2004), Rice tells us.

Falls founded and joined scores of organizations in his steady persistence to end racism. A partial list includes serving on the executive board of the Chicago Urban League, facilitating an interracial dialogue group in the Morgan Park/Beverly neighborhood, active member of the Federation of Colored Catholics which became the National Catholic Interracial Federation, committees and ministries in his south side and then Western Springs parishes, founder of Chicago Catholic Interracial Council, founder of Committee to End Discrimination in Medical Institutions, member of Fellowship of Reconciliation and member of Congress of Racial Equality.

There are at least three Catholic Worker Houses in Chicago today. But do its members know who founded the first one here? Arthur Falls in 1936. He is also responsible for integrating the masthead of the New York Catholic Worker newspaper.

All the while, Falls was a husband, father, practicing doctor, a surgeon and for a time chief of staff at Provident Hospital.

Falls “was strongly grounded in Catholic theology,” Rice says. He was particularly animated by the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ, which holds that each person regardless of status is godly. Falls, of course, was aware that Catholics (including himself) and Catholic institutions did not consistently live out their own beliefs. He was fond of saying that when it comes to the Body of Christ, the doctrine is “mythical not mystical to too many of its members.” And because of this doctrine it is, said Falls, a heresy for Catholics and others to tolerate racial injustice.

No one—white or black—goes to confession—now or back in former times—and admits the sin of racism. Treating racial injustice as a heresy, suggests Healing the Racial Divide, might be more effective than calling it a sin.

Falls believed in the power of moral suasion and appealing to people’s informed conscience. He was a militant, but a militant for interracial justice. Falls believed that black equality benefits blacks and whites alike, explains Karen Joy Johnson in a March 2015 essay for the cyber-publication Religion in American History (www.usreligion.blogspot.com). Even as early as the 1930s this stance put Falls and others against those who wanted black-only organizations. Because of Falls’ insistence on interracial life, Johnson writes, he “refused to attend one of the colored parishes” as so designated by most Catholic clergy in Chicago. Participation in a regular neighborhood parish was thus for Falls a protest.

Falls’ optimism about dialogue was never, Rice continues, uncoupled from “dedication to a long and bitter struggle.” An impulsive, impatient struggle will never bear fruit. Falls plotted campaigns with the precision he brought to his surgery. Only campaigns led by thoughtful people grounded in the virtue of hope will succeed.

We don’t know how Falls would specifically react to current events. However, Rice quotes a 1968 interview. Some protest movements, Falls said, have “a great deal of vocalization and very little cerebration… I realize it’s not as dramatic a cry to shout We want competent teachers instead of We want black teachers… But that’s what’s needed… I’d rather have [those in the classroom] think science than think black… We’ve already heard all the things the white man has done… Now the thing to think about is what we do now.”

Lincoln Rice PhD is a theology professor at Marquette University.  He is a long time member of the Catholic Worker 'Casa Maria' community.

Droel edits a free, print newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Monday, May 4, 2015


May Day of 2015 will be remembered as a significant day in U.S. history because of dramatic events in Baltimore. 

   The Milwaukee Voces de la Frontera – workers’ center May Day march is to remember the sacrifices of immigrant workers in Chicago and Milwaukee who in 1886 challenged police, the National Guard and a Justice system designed to serve the interests of capital.  We also marched because workers are still being abused; it’s a moral issue.

   The Milwaukee County Sheriff and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the Federal Government collaborate to separate families intent on working to achieve a life as intended by the Creator.  This year’s march highlighted this issue and its injustice.

    May Day in Baltimore saw the U.S. democratic system demonstrate integrity.   Commentators on the recent spasm of police violence have said that justice is impossible, because of the close relationship of the police with States – District - Attorneys.  Police then continue violent action with confidence and impunity.  But, Baltimore States Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, elected on a reform platform, brought criminal charges against six police officers for the murder of Freddie Grey.

   Voces de la Frontera and the New Sanctuary Movement recognize Latino roots in Africa.  Slaves were transported not only to North America but also to South America and the islands of the Caribbean.  Jesuit Peter Claver ministered to slaves as they disembarked in Cartagena, Columbia.  We embrace our North American brothers and sisters of African ancestry and join them in the cry for justice.  ‘Black lives matter.

Saint Peter Claver, S.J.  ministering to slaves arriving at Cartegena, Colombia.  The plaques is on display at Saint Benedict the Moor Parish in Milwaukee

   “It’s so beautiful to see people of so many nationalities here together,” said Maria Hamilton at a rally before the Voces march.  She is the mother of Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed African-American man shot dead by Milwaukee police officer Christopher Manney one year ago.  Manney was fired for not following proper police procedures but was not charged with a crime by Milwaukee D. A. John Chisholm. 

   Milwaukee May Day marchers expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the Hamilton family, and the people of Baltimore.