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Cardinal Leads Scabs Against Cemetery Strike

(3 March 1949)

From The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 10, 7 March 1949, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

NEW YORK, March 3 – Francis Cardinal Spellman, supreme authority of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in America, announced last night he will personally lead more than 100 scabs recruited from a Catholic seminary through picket lines of striking CIO cemetery workers at Calvary Cemetery in Queens and Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, N.Y., both operated by St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Spellman’s own.

He has also secured a court order requiring the strikers to show cause why an injunction should not be issued to halt their strike and picketing.

The striking workers, all Catholics, are members of CIO United Cemetery Workers Local 293, affiliated with the Food, Tobacco and Agricultural Workers of America. They are demanding a 40-hour week with no reduction in weekly pay instead of the old 48-hour week at straight time. Their strike began on Jan. 13, when 249 employees set up picket lines at Calvary Cemetery, largest Catholic burial ground in the area. On Feb. 12 the 47 CIO workers at Gate of Heaven Cemetery also struck.

His Eminence, who holds the rank of Prince of the Church, arrogantly demanded that the strikers disaffiliate from their international union, which he claimed is “Communist.” He said he would “no longer tolerate or deal with” the strikers’ representatives and regards all strikers as having “resigned” from their jobs.

Red Herring

More than 100 priests and students from St. Joseph’s Seminary, Yonkers, are coming by bus and auto today to dig graves and perform other strikebreaking chores. The Cardinal ordered suspension of all classes to release “all physically able seminarians to assist in the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead.

Last night the strikers voted by secret ballot 182-0 against accepting the Cardinal’s demands. Union president Joseph Manning called Spellman’s “communist” charge a “red herring.” A union spokesman said that the Cardinal, at a meeting of 200 strikers he had summoned to his residence, urged them to go back to work “as individuals without any union.”

John Sheehan, union attorney who is also a member of the executive board of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, which boasts of Spellman’s sponsorship, bitterly disclaimed Spellman’s charge of “communism.” He said that the Cardinal had tried to “break the union” in several telegrams and letters sent out to the workers in an effort to mobilize a back-to-work movement.

“High-Handed Action”

He pointed out that the union has had contracts with the management of the struck cemeteries since 1946 and that prior to the strike the St. Patrick’s trustees had been willing to renew the old contract with the union granting an 8% wage increase but no reduction in hours or time-and-a-half for Saturdays.

“The action of the Cardinal,” he said bluntly, “is high-handed, arbitrary and suggestive of the tactics used by anti-union employers ten years ago.”

The Cardinal’s scab-herding climaxes one of the dirtiest strikebreaking campaigns in years in this area. Monsignor George C. Ehardt, managing director of the cemeteries, on Jan. 21 ordered the strikers back to work by Jan 31 or they would be considered fired. A second letter on Feb. 8 raised the “communist” issue. The union answered that the priest-manager had stood behind an “iron curtain of refusal to bargain.”

On Feb. 10 the union was confronted with the demand that as a condition of continued recognition it would have to “disaffiliate from their Communist-dominated international,” elect “a new negotiating committee” and submit its demands to “impartial” arbitration by “one lay and two ecclesiastical members.”

ACTU Embarrassed

The Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, priest-ridden power machine boring within the unions, has been enormously embarrassed by the hierarchy’s strikebreaking.

Labor Leader, ACTU national paper, on Feb. 28 gives just one paragraph to the strike. However, before Spellman’s open strikebreaking, the Jan. 31 issue editorial pleaded for a settlement, saying “it is difficult to believe that a serious position could be taken by the cemetery management against the introduction of the shorter work – week. Today the 40-hour week is practically a norm in business and industry.”

This “management,” of course, is the Catholic hierarchy itself. Since the Roman Catholic Church is the richest tax-exempt institution in the country, it cannot plead “poverty.” The traffic in burials is one its most lucrative enterprises.

“Moral Issue”

Spellman claims that the strike involves a “moral issue” because 1,020 bodies await burial at Calvary. He said the workers should look on the job “as a religious service, not just an industry” and called on them to “mend their evil ways.”

A chief reason for the adamant and arrogant attitude of the Cardinal is the fact that the hierarchy employs tens of thousands of lay workers throughout the thousands of Catholic institutions. These are notoriously low paid and overworked. Most of them are non-unionized.

Allowing the bodies to pile up in the two struck cemeteries is deliberate propaganda. There are 66 other Catholic cemeteries in the metropolitan area, 11 of them under contract with Local 293. Moreover the N.Y. City Dept. of Health has inspected the struck cemeteries daily and announced yesterday that it has found no unsanitary conditions as yet.

Cardinal Spellman, if he were really concerned about “mercy for the dead,” could have easily obtained it by showing a little mercy for the living – the exploited workers who have demanded only that they be granted the legally standard 40-hour work week.

He said, however, that breaking the cemetery strike is “the most important thing which I have had to do in the ten years I have been in New York.” It is also the most revealing demonstration of the real nature of the Catholic hierarchy’s much-vaunted “labor” program being pushed inside the unions by the ACTU.

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