King Coal and the dignity of workers

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King Coal and the dignity of workers

I grew up hearing stories about life in the coal mines. They were delivered in my grandfather’s heavy Italian accent, and often concluded with a punchline I didn’t entirely understand. (“Can’t a guy make a u-turn in this place?”)

But other stories were delivered in a more somber tone. They were stories about strikes and cave-ins, about brutality in the streets. One character loomed large — literally and figuratively — in Grandpa’s stories. His name was Shorty Martinez, and he was seven foot six, or six foot eight, or however tall Grandpa felt like making him on any given day. Shorty carried a white-handled revolver, which he used to pistol-whip strikers, or to poke in the backs of recent immigrants relieving themselves outdoors. Which was how young Dante Bonacci first made Shorty’s acquaintance.

Like most kids, I only half understood the stories, and thought of them more as fairy tales than actual events. I started to take his stories a little more seriously when I took a Colorado history class in Junior High. “Wait a minute!” I remember thinking. “My grandpa was there. Only he tells it better!”

Grandpa got another credibility boost recently when I discovered Upton Sinclair’s novel King Coal. Sinclair wrote King Coal to expose conditions in the coal mines of Southern Colorado. He traveled to Huerfano County three times during 1913-1914, just as my grandfather was arriving, to learn firsthand of the conditions there.

Turns out Grandpa wasn’t exaggerating at all. Every story he told was verified in Sinclair’s book.

Most of the mines were controlled by John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Colorado Fuel and Iron. CF&I recruited heavily overseas, convincing poor young European men like my grandfather that they could make a fortune in Colorado. But when they arrived, generally penniless, they discovered conditions significantly less rosy than they had been led to believe. Men worked deep underground, constantly risking injury or death. They lived in rickety tar-paper shacks provided by CF&I, and they were paid not in U.S. currency, but in “scrip”, redeemable only at the company store. CF&I acted in loco parentis, providing the miners’ health care, their schools, their meager shopping and their saloons. Voter fraud was rampant. Citizen miners were blocked from voting, or told who to vote for, or camp officials simply filled out their ballots for them. My grandfather told me that if there weren’t enough votes for CF&I’s preferred candidates to win, the camp mules were registered to vote.

Essentially, these young immigrants were treated like animals. CF&I’s fear of union organizing was such that they provided no common areas for miners and their families to socialize, and any hint of miners congregating together was met with pistol-whipping, beating, even imprisonment. And, in Huerfano County, Deputy Silvio “Shorty” Martinez was one of the chief enforcers.

It was a dangerous, violent place. But even Upton Sinclair didn’t realize the full extent of the dehumanization of the immigrants in CF&I’s care. In 1923, my grandmother was sterilized without her knowledge or consent, by CF&I doctors, at a CF&I facility, during a routine procedure. Apparently this was common. J.D. Rockefeller was a friend of Margaret Sangers, whose Birth Control League’s motto was “More Children From the Fit, Less From the Unfit.” And these southern European immigrants, my ancestors, were the unfit. And so they were neutered like animals, so that they couldn’t propagate, and the likes of me couldn’t enter the world.

CF&I’s problem was simple. It saw these workers — “labor” — as simply another form of capital. Their employees weren’t treated like individuals created in the image and likeness of God, with dignity and dreams and aspirations. They were treated like machinery. They were useful in extracting coal from the ground. Outside of that, they were simply problems to be controlled by any means necessary — up to and including violence.

J.D. Rockefeller could have learned a lot from St. John Paul II.  In Veritatis Splendor, he wrote about the “scandal of the dignity of every human person.” Every person, no matter how poor or weak or small or ignorant, is created in the image and likeness of God. And the only appropriate response to a human person — in any context — is love. Looking out for the best for him or her. Which, in business, means a fair exchange for labor, and safe working conditions, and the opportunity to advance and create a better life for oneself and one’s family.

I told a long, extreme story to make a short, simple point: Our Christian life doesn’t end in the workplace.  Businesses today may not house their employees in tar paper shacks or pay them in pretend “company” currency. But the story of CF&I should serve as an examination of conscience for any person who employs another person. Do I see them as images of God in my care? Or are they simply means to my own ends — a way to accomplish my goals, without regard for their aspirations and their welfare? Am I fair and reasonable? Do I strive to create a healthy working environment? Do I create opportunities for advancement, for my staff to grow and learn? Do I pay a just wage? When funds are tight, do I l try to find other ways to cut back before I lay off employees? Do I refuse to bully my underlings, and root out bullying in management?

If you want to learn more about the story, I recommend reading King Coal. If you want to learn more about the point, I recommend reading St. John Paul II’s excellent Laborem Excercens.

And whoever you are, whatever you do, I recommend taking “the scandal of the value of every human person” into the workplace with you.

COMING UP: Catholic schools plan to reopen for in-school learning this fall

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Having endured a rather challenging last few months of the school year, parents of Catholic school students can now rest easy with the knowledge that Catholic schools will be open this fall.

In a letter issued May 29, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and Denver Catholic Schools Superintendent Elias Moo announced plans to reopen Catholic schools for in-school learning for the 2020-21 school year. At the forefront of these plans is the health and safety of students and faculty.

“We will carry out in-person instruction with increased health protocols and processes to ensure that our schools are going above and beyond to protect the health of every member of our Catholic school community, especially our most high-risk members,” said Archbishop Aquila and Moo in their letter. “We are confident our schools’ protocols and processes will keep our school environments as healthy and as safe as possible for all members of our communities.”

To help ensure healthy school environments are maintained, a task force composed of school leaders, nurse practitioners, doctors and a virologist has been assembled. This group is working with schools to identify the best health measures and policies in preparation for the coming school year.

For those parents who may not feel comfortable sending their children to school for any in-school learning, the archdiocese and Office of Catholic Schools are also formulating a virtual distance-learning option. Families who are interested will still be able to receive instruction in core content areas while remaining connected to their local school community. More details on this option will be available at the end of June.

Recognizing the unique challenges parents have faced over these past few months as schools have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Archbishop Aquila and Moo expressed sincere gratitude for their increased efforts in making distance learning a success.

“None of this would have been possible without the incredible efforts made by our parents to play an even bigger role in their children’s education,” they said. “While balancing your own work, caring for your families and other day-to-day responsibilities, you have stepped up to make sure we had a productive finish to the school year.”

Given the fluidity of the COVID-19 pandemic, Archbishop Aquila and Moo said that Catholic schools will continue to abide by mandated health protocols while working to keep Catholic schools operating for the good of the communities they serve.

“Our Catholic schools are a critical part of the educational ecosystem and fabric of our state, and we remain committed to working in a spirit of cooperation with our local and state officials when possible as we all seek to advance the common good of our communities,” they concluded.

As plans for reopening Denver’s Catholic schools are continually developed, parents are invited to participate in a survey to help school leadership consider the needs of the community so they can open schools in the safest possible manner. The survey can be accessed by visiting denvercatholicschools.com.