Saturday, December 27, 2008

Farm Ownership Linked With Trades Unions


by Reverend John LaFarge, S.J.


Consistently has America probed the causes which keep the labor situation in the United States in perpetual turmoil. It has insisted, in season and out of season, that the internal difficulties which the unions experience are not to be blamed upon the principle of trades-unionism in either form that it may take, whether of the industrial or of the crafts union. It believes that these difficulties are due to personal factors which can be remedied by a change of heart in certain leaders and by the education in the true concept of Christian trades-unionism of the great body of American labor. But another element in the trades-union situation must be reckoned with if trades-unionism is to be saved.

Speaking over the National Farm and Home Hour, William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, declared that “the farmer’s welfare is labor’s welfare. The two are inseparable.” Mr. Green gave as the reason for his statement the “close and direct relationship” that exists between labor’s economy and the farmer’s economy. “This means that the buying power of the farmer depends directly upon the buying power of labor.” Large-scale agriculture, too, has produced a corresponding body of farm laborers, so that agricultural workers’ unions are now forming in fruit and vegetable farming, in beet growing, in onion growing, in large-scale dairies and in fruit and vegetable packing and canning.

It is not the alleged identity of interests between labor and agriculture which is our concern. Indeed, such an identity is vigorously denied by many prominent farm leaders who look upon such identification as mere propaganda for the proposed Farmer-Labor party. We are concerned with the danger to trades-unionism that was pointed out by Dr. Goetz Briefs of Georgetown University at the recent convention in Richmond, of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference: the formation of an ever-increasing wage-earning proletariat due to the vanishing ownership of the land.

The effect of this vanishing ownership, said Dr. Briefs, is to intensify to the point of madness the rivalries among wage-earners, and between wage-earners and their employers. It makes no difference whether it is an industrial or an agricultural wage-earner that is concerned. The bitterness and rivalry, with corresponding difficulty of reaching a solution increase as a greater and greater percentage of our citizens move into the purely wage-earning class, and thus swell the ranks of an eventual proletariat. The terrific pressure upon trades-unionism created by such a situation adds fuel to the flames of internecine labor disputes. A wider and wider area is opened up for the ambitions of organizers and organizations, and, worst of all, youth grows up conceiving of life only in terms of labor with no other idea of man’s temporal existence.

The Catholic Church appeals to charity and justice as the remedy for these disputes. But charity and justice belong to the supernatural order. They are gifts of Divine Grace, and Divine Grace builds upon nature. If that nature is to be restored, there must be a much greater equalization than now prevails between the two main types of wage-earning and the agrarian; and that can only be accomplished by the restoration of private property to the landless proletariat.

Growing tenantry is a sign of the proletarianizing process. In the rural districts, tenantry has increased from thirty-five per cent of the number of farms in 1900 to forty-five percent in 1935. As was shown by Dr. Edgar B. Schmiedeler, O.S.B., Director of the Catholic Rural Life Bureau of the N.C.W.C., this increased tenantry brings with it physical “erosion” of the farms, which are not cared for by those who do not own them; and social “erosion,” in the shape of irresponsible drifters; “vanishing liberty, since renters, like wage-earners, are not the free people that owners are.” But more threatening than that, it means the continuing of the ranks of competing industrial job seekers in the cities.

The Most Rev. Edwin V. O’Hara, Bishop of Great Falls, father of the Catholic Rural Life Conference, resumed recent Papal teaching as: “First, wide diffusion of privately owned property in land; secondly, the ownership of the land by those who operate it; and, thirdly, the desirability of the family-sized farms as opposed to the larger holdings on which farm laborers were little better than serfs.”

How can all this be brought about? The yearly discussions of the Catholic Rural Life Conference have crystallized certain ideas. The opinion has been very positively formed that no amount of mere economic allurement will attach people to the land who are at present disaffected from it. Farming may be made an attractive business for some of the higher-ups in the cotton or the wheat or the dairying oligarchy, or in the large-scale trucking enterprises, but though some way may be devised to make it yield a good living for the little farmers, the multitudes will not be attracted to farming merely because of its paying facilities. Nor will the multitudes be won by any back to the land mysticism, however it may appeal to individuals. Land as a mere money-making agent, or land as an end in itself, does not offer a sufficiently powerful and reliable incentive. People will only learn to appreciate the land and to value land ownership when they look upon it as an instrument; an instrument given to man by the Creator Himself, but an instrument primarily for a spiritual purpose, and only secondarily for the purpose of commercial or monetary profit.

This spiritual purpose is the sustenance and the physical permanence of the farm home, as the seat of the Christian family. This was put very plainly by the Most Rev. Aloysius J. Muench, Bishop of Fargo, as the fifth of six points with which he summed up the topic of religion and rural welfare: “The principles of social justice, effective tenancy legislation, etc., must have their first point in the farm home. The farmstead as a homestead must be cherished as the priceless social institute in the land.”

In a public address a few days before the Richmond meeting, the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Alexander Troyanovsky, flung down a challenge to the principle of widely distributed, family-sized land ownership as the foundation for a healthy economic life in the nation. It is impossible, said Mr. Troyanovsky, to apply modern technique to the small-sized or family farm. Modern agricultural technique requires large-scale farming, and this means that the only course for American farming is to become collective. That Soviet statement is simply contrary to fact. Where the local community is organized on a cooperative basis, small farms can enjoy every bit of the modern technical facilities—mechanical, electric, biological, etc.,—as are enjoyed in any collective or large-scale enterprise. As was stated by the Conference in a resolution that drew general applause: “We must retain fee-simple ownership of land in small parcels and make technology and scientific research serve this type of land tenure.” A pioneer spirit can use twentieth-century methods.

Behind the Soviet challenge, however, lay a threat of a much deeper nature, a threat that hangs like a cloud over our congressional deliberations at the present time, to the effect that only rigid governmental control can restrain the domination of large-scale farming, curb wasteful competition and greed, and afford sufficient protection to the small farmer. Hence the farmer is confronted with only two entrees on his menu: virtual dictatorship or ruinous laissez-faire. To this challenge we reply:

First, that an immense amount can (and must) be done by the Government, State as well as Federal, to encourage distributed land-ownership and the useful organization of rural economy which does not fall into the class of rigid control or virtual dictatorship. As Bishop Muench noted in the third of his six points, the state can “safeguard the farmers’ interests in the sale of property so that that acquisition of private property is possible.” Taxes can favor small-scale ownership without invading the rights of individuals or destroying all private initiative. Taxation, said Senator Arthur Capper of Kansas at the recent opening of Congress, should favor the family-size farm. Governmental credit can be organized to help the small owner quite as much as the large.

Second, the amount that can be accomplished in this direction by voluntary effort is woefully underestimated. An experiment like that of Father Ligutti in Granger, Iowa, would have been thought utterly impracticable a few years ago. Yet Father Ligutti’s Slavs and Italians have demonstrated a high degree of self-subsistence and skillful utilization of modern technical resources within a framework provided for them through Federal aid. Other experiments spring up daily, all of them in one form or another teaching that no limit has yet been found to the efficacy of cooperation on Christian—not on merely materialistic—lines. The surface of cooperation between city and country groups, between producer and consumer, on a voluntary and regional basis, has hardly been scratched. How many charitable individuals, for instance, in our large cities, have experimented in a most eminently practical form of cooperation, that of making loans, on long-term payments, to young families starting life in the country? Incredibly little has been done in the field of voluntary international cooperation. We talk of export and surpluses as if these things were decreed by the gods on Olympus. Yet they are amenable to voluntary understandings which transcend governmental lines.

At the present time I know of at least one Catholic rural community which is trying to organize itself upon a cooperative basis. Pastor and Sisters are leading in the work. The community is in the East, and is fairly accessible to large centres. Let us suppose that a city Catholic, with some means and some leisure, were to interest himself in the affairs of such a community, were to spend a certain part of his time therein, study on the spot its possibilities for the exemplification of the Christian cooperative, confer with the local men and women who are trying to put the program across, and extend a certain amount of practical aid to the initial ventures—what an immense amount of good could be accomplished for the Catholic social program! Why should a community of decent, self-respecting people, of our own Faith, be obliged always to choose between the dismal alternatives of starting from absolute scratch, or else applying for Federal bounties which are granted only upon rigidly specified lines, entail heavy obligations and dependencies, and, anyhow, do not touch this sort of effort.

While I was writing this paragraph, Father McGoey, of Toronto, dropped in, who has accomplished such wonders in establishing his forty practically self-sustaining families, with their 241 souls, upon the land. He sees a plenty of ways which an intelligent, city Catholic can aid such a rural community. He can help the cooperatives to finance their project. He can help provide outlets in the city, such as a consumer’s organization, for the community’s produce. He can assist the rural community in getting books and furniture for a rural library. But the useful task of all, in Father McGoey’s opinion, for the city person, is to bring the rural dweller to a better appreciation of his own opportunities. This he can do best if he is himself a man who has made a successful career of city life, and so can add realism to his own comparisons.

Finally, it seems to me that we vastly underestimate, in this, as in other matters pertaining to social justice, the immense efficacy of a widespread popular education in the principles of a right order. Were our Catholic periodicals—speaking of Catholics alone—and our Catholic lecturers and preachers and professors of sociology and economics throughout the country to unite upon a wide and general program of educating the American as to the evils of proletarianism, the necessity of distributed private ownership and the family social unit, the nature and efficacy of Christian cooperation and Christian cooperatives, the possibilities, spiritual cultural of Catholic parish life, a definite brake would be put upon the centralizing and depersonalizing theories of agrarian economy which are now invading political circles. The majority of thinking farm leaders welcome these basic truths when they are explained to them. “We simply must accept your Catholic family-economics program,” said the non-Catholic President of a secular college in conversation with a delegate to the Richmond convention. We have had, I believe, altogether too much agrarian defeatism. Let us begin to market the harvest of knowledge which alone can stop the Bolshevist weed from springing up and choking industry and agriculture to death.


From America Magazine (1937)
Farm Ownership Linked With Trades Unions: The Catholic plan replies to a Soviet challenge

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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