Labor Guild continues mission of helping workers achieve the 'American dream'

BRAINTREE -- Lisa Field says that she "grew up on the line."

Her grandfather was a steelworker. Her mother, an Irish immigrant, worked for the U.S. Postal Service, as did several other relatives. All of them were in labor unions.

"They had a good life," Field said, "and that's all because of their union jobs."

In order to help other workers achieve what she called "the American dream," Field became president of the Labor Guild in January 2022. A devout Catholic herself, she wants the guild, which has helped workers organize for over 70 years, to reach a new generation.

"I find the Labor Guild resonates perfectly with my faith," she said. "I want to see the Labor Guild continue. I want to bring it to new audiences. I want to get more people involved."

Under the sponsorship of the Archdiocese of Boston, 50,000 workers have gone through the Labor Guild's School of Labor Management Relations, which teaches workers about their rights as well as negotiation, leadership, and conflict resolution skills. The Labor Guild serves all workers regardless of their religious beliefs.

"The guild is intended to offer the opportunity for working people to utilize their God-given gifts and maximize their potential," said Labor Guild Executive Director Father Marc Fallon.

Most importantly, the guild wants to promote dialogue between labor and management. The guild's annual Cushing-Gavin Awards are given to both workers and managers.

The guild's philosophy is based on two papal encyclicals which touch upon workers' rights and labor-management relations: "Rerum novarum," written in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII; and "Quadragesimo anno," written in 1931 by Pope Pius XI.

"These are very important assessments of the labor community and society," Father Marc Fallon said. "The concern with both documents is that the rights of the human person would be sustained and protected . . . It is to claim our rightful place for workers and labor in that conversation."

In Father Fallon's austere office on the fourth floor of the Pastoral Center, a bold red hand-woven tablecloth stands out. The tablecloth was a gift from the Central American refugees that Father Fallon has worked with for 20 years at the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores in New Bedford. With the help of Father Fallon, the refugees organized to fight wage theft and other forms of exploitation.

"The guild, of course, was a tremendous resource when we were working in New Bedford," Father Fallon said.

Recognizing the changing demographics of Massachusetts's working class, the Labor Guild's courses are available in Spanish, Cape Verdean Creole, and Haitian Creole.

"Many of the people we met had relatively few years of formal education," Fallon said, "but still they certainly had the right to adult education for labor rights and dialogue in the workplace."

An all-volunteer staff of attorneys, labor organizers, academics, and other professionals teach the courses, either in person or, since the pandemic, on Zoom.

"I was among a number of people that was very hopeful that the organization could sustain itself during the post-COVID reality," Father Fallon said.

The Labor Guild's increasingly younger and more tech-savvy members appreciate the online classes, Field said. Zoom and video courses have also allowed the guild to expand outside Massachusetts, educating workers in 10 U.S. states and Canadian provinces. The guild recently rebuilt its website to make it easier to use and plans to transfer control of its IT to the Archdiocese of Boston rather than a third party.

"Right now, we're in one of those moments in labor history," Field said. "When you look at the polls, with younger workers there's much more interest in joining a union. It's an exciting time."

Father Fallon was more cautiously optimistic, saying that the Labor Guild must tackle artificial intelligence and the threat it poses to the productivity and identity of human workers.

"So often in the media," he said, "the public relations approach [is] for those who want to celebrate the latest opportunity to amass a good deal of capital ... So many of these conversations do not include human labor."

The Labor Guild was founded in 1945 under the sponsorship of the Archdiocese of Boston. Cold War fears of Communist activity in the labor union caused the guild to fade out shortly thereafter.

In 1952, however, a small group of labor leaders decided to resurrect the Labor Guild: John Cort of the Boston Newspaper Guild; Ed Sullivan and Joe O'Donnell of Service Employees International Union Local 254; Bill Cloherty of the American Federation of Technical Engineers Local 105; John Bercury of Postal Clerks 51-100; and Mary Featherson, a member of the Boston School Committee Administrative Guild.

The six of them approached Cardinal Richard J. Cushing with the idea, and the reformed Labor Guild, once again under archdiocese sponsorship, elected its first officers in 1953.

Since then, the influence of labor unions in America has declined. In the 1950s, the Labor Guild matriculated 500 students a year. This year, it was 200. Schools like the Labor Guild's used to be in over 200 cities across Massachusetts and the country. Now, the Labor Guild is the only one remaining.

Field said that the Labor Guild must continue to reach out to workers, including those who are not yet unionized, in order to survive. To do this, she has restructured the Board of Directors to include more women, people of color and young people.

"They're younger, so they recognize the need of younger members of the labor movement," Field said.

With Labor Day coming up, Field said that it is important to recognize that "this country is built on the back of workers."

However, she won't be taking the day off. On Labor Day, she will be attending a Greater Boston Labor Council breakfast. After that, she will be at a rally for Boston-based members of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) who are currently on strike.

"I'll be right there with my brothers and sisters in the labor movement," she said.