Since we scarcely know where to begin a response to Peggy Noonan’s inane and wholly uninformed screed against New Jersey’s public school teachers—in which she compares them to gangsters portrayed in the great movie I spent a decade researching and writing on–let’s start with the lurid and work toward the substantive. Can you imagine how much more histrionically Ms. Noonan’s piece would have played had she reported that the head of the New Jersey Education Association, the teacher’s union, had once engaged in a friendly sit-down with a capo of the Genovese family, for decades Jersey’s most fearsome mobster?
She can’t report that, since it was not a teacher’s union official but Peggy Noonan’s new hero Chris Christie who chewed the fat with Tino Fiumara at a Texas federal prison in 1992. And what if a union official had a brother and key supporter who saw eleven of his partners in a financial services firm indicted for fraud, the kind of chicanery that ransacked public pension funds and helped destroy the global economy? As we suggested in our most recent post, let’s write these off as instances of Jersey luck—which, as our old Rutgers colleague Tom De Haven memorably wrote in a novel, means no luck at all–and move on.
The real issue is that New Jersey’s public school teachers have pensions because they belong to a legitimate labor union, the kind that Ms. Noonan’s other avowed hero, Pope John Paul II, championed every time he invoked the century-old tradition of Catholic social teaching pioneered by his predecessors Leo XIII and Pius XI. They launched a tradition that made collective bargaining a centerpiece of Catholic social justice ideology. The longshoremen portrayed in “On the Waterfront” had no pensions, no collective bargaining, and no social justice because they were wholly misrepresented by an illegitimate “union.”
“On the Waterfront” was inspired by a real-life Jesuit labor priest, John M. “Pete” Corridan (Karl Malden’s “Father Pete Barry”). Corridan struggled for years to convince longshoremen they enjoyed God-given rights as workers, grounded in their human dignity.
But Pete Corridan went much further, insisting that pensions, seniority rights, and collective bargaining were integral features of Catholic social doctrine. Nobody in the church–apart from gangsters–challenged the legitimacy of Corridan’s teachings and his waterfront apostolate. That’s why Pete risked his life and saw his career destroyed, because he thought dockworkers enjoyed a God-given right to a legitimate union, one akin to the NJEA.
We’ll never forget you, Budd Schulberg, or how persistently, courageously, you told Pete’s story.