Father Jerome fought to uphold the dignity and rights of workers throughout his life.
The legacy of Father Jerome Toner, “Saint Martin’s Labor Priest,” continues to inspire Saint Martin's students today.
Each year, Saint Martin’s University honors a student in the social science division with the Father Jerome Toner Award for Student Activism. This award, also known as "The Troublemaker Award," is named for a remarkable man of faith who not only was active in social justice issues but also taught students to follow in his footsteps.
Father Jerome, who is called “Saint Martin’s Labor Priest,” was noted for his grassroots labor organizing activities in Brooklyn and other work in the labor movement.
Father John Scott’s Centennial history, “This Place Called Saint Martin’s, 1895-1995,” leaves a brief account of Father Jerome’s career. Father Jerome came to Saint Martins’ to attend high school in 1914, became a member of the abbey in 1923 and a priest in 1930. At Catholic University of America, where he studied economics under famed labor priest Monsignor John A. Ryan, he earned both a master’s and doctorate. After authoring a groundbreaking study, “The Closed Shop in the American Labor Movement” based on his doctoral thesis and following his service as a U.S. Army chaplain, he was appointed by President Harry Truman as a delegate to an International Labor Organization conference in Switzerland. He shared insights and concerns about labor issues gleaned from the conference with both U.S. and Vatican officials.
Scott writes, “In Washington state in 1956 and again in 1958, Father Jerome effectively marshaled religious and educational institutions against what he considered oppressive anti-union right-to-work initiatives. Both were thrashed by more than 2-to-1 negative votes. Governor Rosellini appointed the well-known cleric to the new State Human Rights Commission of which he later served as chairman. Father Jerome’s avid commitment to workers’ rights fitted into his overall philosophy of what he called ‘Industrial Relations.’”
Father Jerome believed in fostering mutual respect on both sides of the negotiating table. And despite angering a great many powerful people, he continued to fight to uphold the dignity and rights of workers throughout his life. He served as an arbiter for the American Arbitration Association and the U.S. Mediation and Conciliation.
At Saint Martin’s, he founded the College’s Industrial Relations Program, in which students studied and researched aspects of industry, labor, government and public relations affecting employers, employees and the public. Many of his graduates became respected labor relations specialists while still others became attorneys prominent in labor law.