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: Working to make our schools safer

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By Carol Nesbitt

The issue of school safety is always on the minds of parents. Parents want to know that schools have a plan in place for all types of emergencies, from fires to intruders to staff or students feeling unsafe for various reasons.
The Archdiocese of Denver is excited to share that they now have someone directly supporting the safety preparedness and plans of the 37 Catholic schools under its watch and care.

Matt Montgomery is a former police officer and award-winning school resource officer (SRO). He’s also a chemistry and forensic science teacher as well as Director of Security and Safety at Holy Family High School. And, as of Nov. 13, he is the new Interim Director of Schools Security and Safety for the Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools. The position is new and the first of its kind for the Archdiocese of Denver, but important.

“As a Catholic school community we believe the safety and wellbeing of our students comes first. Time and again we hear our parents rate school safety as one of the top reasons why they entrust the care and formation of their children to our schools. As such, we believe we have a duty and moral obligation in our schools to ensure we are doing everything we can to ensure our children are safe from any type of harm,” said Elias Moo, Superintendent of Catholic Schools. “Historically, each of our schools has had to take on the crucial task of defining and implementing their own safety and security plans and systems. While our schools have certainly gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the safety of their school community, we believe it is critical in our current reality that we provide our schools with the expertise and qualifications of someone like Matt to support them in really analyzing their plans and assisting them in ensuring best practices are being implemented. It’s the least we can do for our school communities.”

“My role is really to lead a task force with the intention of identifying needs around school safety,” said Montgomery. He says there are a number of great models for school safety around the area, so it’s more about bringing it all together. “All public schools have someone overseeing safety and security, usually with staff members doing threat assessments, suicide assessments and emergency drills, building security, fire drills, and those kinds of things, but there really isn’t a position like this in other dioceses that we are aware of.”

Montgomery says that his job will be taking the variety of practices at schools and helping to bring consistency in efforts across the Archdiocese of Denver Catholic School community. He also says that the term ‘school safety’ is more broad than people realize. “When people think about school safety, they always gravitate to school shootings, but I think we really have to step away from that and realize that school safety and security is an umbrella. It encompasses everything from events prior to an incident all the way through recovery (post-incident).”

The five areas Montgomery is focusing on include:

Prevention
What do we do to create a loving and responsive Catholic community where students and staff feel safe and are empowered and given resources to report any behaviors or activity that is unsafe and counter to our values?

Protection
What systems and proceses do we have to vigilantly monitor for behavior or activity that is harmful to our Catholic community?

Mitigation
What procedures and policies are in place to mitigate issues?

Response
If an incident occurs, how do we respond to that incident? How do we support that school from an archdiocesan perspective? What tools are we able to provide to that school? What relationships do we have with law enforcement and first responders in that community?

Recovery
Recovery begins the second an incident occurs. How do we reunite students with families, provide counseling support and address staff issues in the case of a crisis?

Montgomery says his work will also help establish a plan for the archdiocese in the case of a larger emergency.

“What is our incident command structure going to look like so that we can respond to an incident, while also keeping in mind the unique structure of the various schools beneath the Office of Catholic Schools?”

He’d like to see the Standard Response Protocol — created by the I Love You Guys Foundation — used throughout the school system.

“One of the issues I noticed is that there are a lot of different agencies who respond to various incidents and they don’t know what the other ones are doing,” Montgomery said. “The crisis plan needs to be uniform, created for a specific age group. We need to standardize our crisis plans throughout the AoD and work with the schools to create private plans for each school that is specific to that school, simple plans that outline for administration on how they implement the plan at the moment of crisis.”

One of the biggest things Montgomery will be doing is identifying policies and procedures and training. “This is uniformly saying ‘This is what we’re doing, this is how we’re going to do it, and these are the amount of times we will practice it each year.’” This also includes training of staff on mandatory reporting, the importance of documenting things, and threat assessments that ask the right questions to get a non-biased, vetted approach to assessing threats. “There are a lot of things we can do to mitigate the chance of someone being hurt at a school. That’s by good training, good policies and procedures, and hardening our targets, meaning the physical security of our school buildings,” said Montgomery.

As a teacher, Montgomery says he has a unique perspective. “I’m not just some cop or just an SRO. My heart is in the classroom. I’m a Catholic educator who used to be a cop. My goal is to make sure kids can focus on being a kid and learning, not having to worry about being hurt at school or being bullied or having thoughts of suicide. I want them to feel that school is a safe place. That’s why I do it. I really love doing school safety.”