Ratifying the value of labor relations

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Under director Thomas Paine Cronin, a former union chief, Comey Institute of Industrial Relations will offer classes for unions, community groups, even management to understand complexities of labor relations.

When longtime labor organizer Barbara Rahke came to Philadelphia in 2005, she was stunned to learn that this union town didn't have its own union-leadership school.

"For a major metropolitan area, it was weird all the way around," said Rahke, who had worked in Detroit and Ithaca, both of which had thriving labor schools to teach the nuts and bolts of union leadership.

Next Monday, Philadelphia will have such a school - the Comey Institute of Industrial Relations at St. Joseph's University.

The Jesuit university and the Philadelphia AFL-CIO are resurrecting the Comey Institute, founded in 1943. It had withered away from a lack of funding just before Rahke came out of retirement in 2005 to become executive director of PhilaPOSH, a labor-funded organization for worker safety.

Enrollment is open for its first classes. Rahke will be one of the teachers for a course on worker safety.

"Education leads to more professional relationships in the collective-bargaining arena," she said. "That's what keeps bad things from happening."

Named after Father Dennis J. Comey, known as a waterfront peacemaker for his role in mediating labor disputes at Philadelphia's docks, the institute will offer a combination of practical and theoretical courses designed to help unions, community groups - and even management - understand the complexities of labor relations.

The credits will count toward a degree at St. Joe's, if the students pursue a diploma. They'll be the cheapest credits on campus - $60 total for a three-credit course.

The institute's initial roster skews more toward the practical side - worker safety, conflict resolution, labor law in the construction industry, grievance and arbitration, and public relations.

One of the courses, Public Sector Labor Law, will be immediately relevant, as contract talks begin this year for the city's employees.

It's not surprising that the institute would offer such a course as part of its initial round. Its director, Thomas Paine Cronin, retired last year as the head of one of the city's largest public-sector unions, District Council 47 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Cronin hopes to broaden the course selection to offer classes in, for example, labor in the global economy, or race and gender in unions.

"There's a lack of understanding of unions in what they do and what they fight for - certainly a lack of class-consciousness," he said.

Typical students may include shop stewards, union presidents, and bargaining agents.

Cronin also believes that some of the skill and sociology classes would be useful to community group leaders who may not have access to other ways of acquiring this kind of knowledge.

"I think in today's environment, with all the restrictions and anti-labor attitude, it's important for unions to be as well-informed and educated as humanly possible," he said, "and also for community groups and religious groups to have the same information."

Cronin said the courses aim to help unions and management draw on the legacy of Father Comey, who believed that communication and education for workers and managers were the keys to labor peace and productivity.

Comey started the school near 17th Street and Girard Avenue, then a manufacturing district and his boyhood neighborhood. His parents were Irish immigrant factory workers, and he was one of eight children.

William Madges, the dean of St. Joe's college of arts and sciences, said he hoped the institute would develop online courses to create a broader base and attract more financial support.

"We've embarked on this venture, not because it will be a revenue source, but because of our values," Madges said. Jesuits, he said, believe in service and in the human dignity of all workers.

The AFL-CIO is providing classroom space, plus some publicity help. The labor federation also lobbied for St. Joe's to restart the program.

The Comey Institute of Industrial Relations will not be housed in St. Joe's business school, but in its liberal arts college.

"My guess," Madges said, "is that the business school is perhaps more focused on creating managers and business leaders and may not be the place to address the issues that laborers have."


Contact staff writer Jane M.

Von Bergen at 215-854-2769

or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.