Richard Morrisroe has given to Interfaith Worker Justice since 1997, but his history supporting worker justice and other social justice issues spans decades long. Now a city planner with city of East Chicago, Ind., Richard recently shared his passion for labor rights with IWJ.
For the last forty years I have worked in East Chicago, a steel and oil production city. The Calumet Project for Industrial Jobs, an IWJ affiliate, and the Jesuit Heartland Center helped support the link between religion and work in Northwest Indiana.
Work and worker issues have moved me since the 1950s. Manual labor such as carrying golf bags, cemetery grounds maintenance and construction have been an important part of my life. The availability of work—its hours, rules, pay and struggles with fairness—took hold of me throughout high school, college and seminary. While then an almost exclusively male world, the experiences opened for me the gates of economic survival and struggle.
At a laborer’s pay, I assisted ironworkers erecting the Henry Horner Housing Project on Chicago’s West Side, later the subject of Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here. Sorting and carrying out vertical and horizontal reinforcing rods, I began making what was then big money, $3.25 per hour. But I was making it in a funny, mixed-up, unfair environment. "Integration" consisted of three all white carpentry, framing crews and a single all black carpentry crew, a single black plumbing apprentice (who had to take an amazing amount of bad bathroom insults) and segregated iron workers.
I returned to Mundelein Seminary after three construction summers. I spent a great deal of time trying to integrate work and theology, the Bible and its work environments, the Second Vatican Council and ministry to workers in their workplace. I was so proud to see both Irish-American Phil and African-American Eddie at my first Mass! I was prouder still to visit Eddie, no longer a laborer but now working as an iron worker foreman when the Daley Center Courts building was under construction five years later. It took the Civil Rights Act and some Justice Department intervention to make it happen. But the changes came!
Such work-directed movements as Chicago’s Catholic Labor Alliance had influenced me since high school. In the 1950s, its speakers included Eisenhower Labor Secretary James Mitchell and Civil Rights Lawyer Thurgood Marshall. The mix of work and reflection influenced my later choice of ministry. Interfaith Worker Justice was not on my radar until Monsignor Jack Egan inspired me on his 80th birthday to give to IWJ.
Giving to IWJ is a small but significant token of repaying a lifelong debt. Such giving, small as it is, reminds me of the intimate bond between work and religion. I would like others to know how important it is to reach out to a generation of seminarians and priests who do not know IWJ's work and its relevance to parish ministry. For the last three Septembers, I took to the pulpit as part of the Labor in the Pulpits.