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 2014 Bernard Bellush Prize is Trish Kale, of the Department of History of the University of Chicago, for her paper entitled “The Graveyard Shift: Energy Industry Reorganization and Rank and File Rebellion in the UMWA, 1963-1973.”
Abstract: The rise of the Miners for Democracy (MFD) in the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) has typically been remembered as a struggle to oust a particularly corrupt union leader, Tony Boyle. The incredible tumult which destabilized Boyle’s rule and made possible the victory of the only union democracy slate to win control of a union at the international level, however, was much broader than internal corruption in the union. Rank-and-file rebellion in the UMWA emerged at the beginning of a broader economic and social transformation which would later be termed neoliberalism. Caught at the intersection of struggles over energy production, workplace safety, and environmental politics, coal miners were among the most vulnerable to these changes, but also among the best placed to shape their eventual outcome. Miners grappled with an energy economy in transition as oil conglomerates diversified their interests, investing in coal, uranium, and natural gas at the same time they were faced with a safety crisis in the mines and an epidemic of black lung. Boyle, in a bid to preserve his own power, linked these issues, but the MFD used these connections to channel miners’ anger into rebellion. In particular, the development of a class-based ecological consciousness played a central role in turning rank-and-file miners’ anger over corruption and ineffective leadership in the union and the government into political and workplace action. As such, their understanding of these issues–and the action miners took around each–mirrored each other: the environmental issues of strip mining and the development of nuclear power were understood as safety issues, while working conditions were understood as an environmental issue as well as a safety issue. Yet ultimately, the miners were unsuccessful in shifting national energy policy. Once the oil companies expanded into energy conglomerates, it was no longer adequate to challenge specific elements of capitalist energy policy—the entire system had to be restructured. It was a challenge the miners were unable to meet. Still, this story remains important. It challenges the idea that union power in energy-extractive industries is necessarily at odds with environmental justice and suggests an environmental labor history of the long seventies may provide a more comprehensive explanation of changes in capitalism, work, and working-class life during neoliberal transformation.
The winner of the first annual Bernard Bellush Prize was 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.