"Launch out into the Deep and Let Down Your Nets": Father John Corridan, S.J., and New York Longshoremen in the Post-World War II Era

Article excerpt

Labor priests have long held an important position in the American labor movement and a vital role in Catholic working-class communities. Such prominence was accelerated during the Great Depression as their parishioners endured increasing hardship and unemployment. In addition to economic issues, the labor priests were concerned by the rise of the Communist Party. Catholic Labor Schools were developed to counter such influences among the laity. One such school was the Xavier Institute of Industrial Relations, run by Jesuit priests. Father John Corridan, S.J., was Associate Director of the School and became a visible figure along the New York waterfront. He was eventually portrayed by Karl Maiden in the Oscar-winning film, On The Waterfront.

Organizing on the docks along the west side of Manhattan, Father Corridan represented the dual crusade for improved working conditions for the downtrodden New York City longshoremen and opposition to Communism. He then fought simultaneously against corrupt union bosses and shipper employers and Communist agitators along the waterfront. How successful Father Corridan was in placing the issue of atrocious working conditions and mob control of the International Association of Longshoremen (ILA) before the country is the subject of this paper. Corridan successfully increased public awareness of his deep fear of communist opportunism on the New York waterfront and of the acute corruption of the ILA. Though he increased the visiblity of these problems, he was bitterly disappointed in his efforts to counter criminal control of the ILA.

The establishment of the Xavier School was symptomatic of the Catholic Church's "Social Action" crusade of the 1930's. The catalyst for such a movement was of course the Great Depression and the rising strength of the Communist Party. A series of papal encyclicals formed the basis for the Catholic attack. In 1931, Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno calling for "social justice" and stating that "riches . . . ought to be distributed among individual persons and classes that the common advantage of all . . . will be safeguarded:' Important to promoting "social justice" was the role of the State. Although taking a "subsidiary function," the state nonetheless was expected to encourage responsible trade unionism and employer associations.' The American priesthood and Catholics were quick to respond to the encyclical. Although there were significant differences between many of the groups and their leaders ranging from Father Charles Coughlin, the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, and Dorothy Day, the Jesuits quickly established Labor Schools to educate Catholics about the twin evils of capitalist exploitation and communist infiltration of the American labor movement. The Xavier School was one of the schools that emerged during the period of 1932-1945.2

Founded in 1936 as the Xavier School of Social Studies, it soon switched its attention to the labor movement. Changing its name to the Xavier Labor School, it concentrated its efforts on organizing Catholic workers in New York City. The growing influence of the Communist Party in New York City, particularly with transit workers, stimulated the change in direction. As Father Philip E. Dobson, Sj., a Xavier priest, explained, "What prompted the decision . . . was the fact that the Communists seemed to be spending most of their money and their energies on the unions. . . ''3 Xavier established courses to counter the Communist influence. One of the courses taught was an understanding of parliamentary procedure. As Dobson pointed out, most workmen would "not recognize Communists or Communism in their unions unless Earl Browder rose to speak. . . . Thus the courses were designed to train constructive, well-informed, Catholic, American, union men, who knew what to say or do, how to go about it, and who could handle themselves under any circumstances? Throughout the late 1930's and World War II, the target union for the Xavier School was the Transport Workers' Union (TWU). …