In 2012, the New York Labor History Association established the Bernard Bellush Prize for the best graduate research paper written during a given academic year. With permission, an abstract of the winning paper is posted on the NYLHA website. Please encourage your best graduate students to submit their work!
Papers on any aspect of labor or work history will be considered. Entries will be evaluated on the basis of scholarship and literary merit.
The winner of the first annual Bernard Bellush Prize is William S. Cossen, Pennsylvania State University, for his research paper entitled “The Rise and Decline of a Catholic Labor School: Hartford’s Diocesan Labor Institute and the Education of the American Worker.”
Abstract: Seeking to overcome the traditional disjuncture between labor history and religious history, this paper analyzes the role of Catholic labor education as a central point of contact between the Catholic Church and workers in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. Spearheaded by the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Social Action Department and by labor priests and lay workers in dioceses, parishes, religious orders, and Catholic colleges across the country, a national network made up of dozens of Catholic labor schools flourished from the 1930s to the 1960s. These schools endeavored to reach out to workers to assure them that the Catholic Church was concerned with their practical and moral welfare. Priest-teachers sought to foster a more cooperative, amiable relationship between labor and management; they also attempted to inform workers of their legal rights and aimed to train their students in effective unionization and debating techniques. The schools’ reach often extended beyond the classroom, as evidenced by several priests’ repeated interventions in union affairs and by their active opposition to communist influence in the labor movement.
This study takes as its primary subject Hartford, Connecticut’s Diocesan Labor Institute (DLI), founded in 1942 by Joseph F. Donnelly, a priest of the Diocese of Hartford. Hartford’s program is of particular historical interest due to its relative longevity, its extensive public reach, its role as a model for the establishment of similar labor schools, and its function as a clearinghouse for written materials that served as the foundation of several other schools’ core curricula. The DLI provides a useful window through which to view the motivations and activities of labor priests and Catholic workers in the postwar era, an important period of both economic adjustment and labor organizing in one of the country’s most industrialized states. This paper argues that the history of the DLI and similar labor institutes provides compelling evidence that the Catholic Church was an active player in the postwar labor scene and that gender and class transformations — particularly the increasing entry of women into the workforce and a perceived climb up the class ladder by many Catholic workers — in addition to an ever-present hostility toward communism were substantial, interconnected factors in both the rise and decline of Catholic labor education in Connecticut and in the United States.