Browse Exhibits (6 total)

Catholics and Industrialization

Catholic Responses to Industrialization

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The spread of industrialization across the world over the last three centuries has created enormous new wealth for some, and desperate poverty for others. As industrialization accelerated in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, Americans debated vigorously how to best cope with the change.

American Catholics, too, weighed in on these issues. They brought their own unique perspectives to the debate, but they did not always agree. Monsignor John A. Ryan, for example, looked to the government to help the poor; others like Cardinal William O'Connell feared government intervention would be heavy handed and intrusive. Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, once a parochial school teacher but later alienated from the Church, looked to unions to earn workers a proper living.

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Catholics and Labor Unionization

Forging Bonds of Sympathy: The Catholic Church and the Knights of Labor

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Knights of Labor membership certificate
Courtesy of ACUA

In the 1880s, the Knights of Labor was the largest labor union in the United States, and while they were predominantly Catholic in membership, the Catholic Church wasn't sure Catholics should be Knights. Some priests and bishops were perplexed by the secrecy and perceived radicalism within the union and sought to bar Catholics from joining. Others believed that unions could promote better lives for workers. In 1888 the matter was resolved through the efforts of Knights Leader Terence Powderly and Baltimore Archbishop James Gibbons, when their attempts to gain Vatican permission for Catholics to join the union met with success.

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George Higgins, Cesar Chavez, and the Unionization of California Agriculture, 1955-1977

One was a member of the U.S. Catholic clergy, director of the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Social Action Department, attendee to the Vatican II Council, and an authority on labor relations. The other was a farm worker, a lay member of the Church, and a union leader who was in on the ground floor of a revolution in farm labor organization. Together, Monsignor George G. Higgins and Cesar Chavez made a potent combination that helped bring a degree of labor justice to agricultural workers in California and other parts of the United States. Chavez and his United Farm Workers union sought higher pay and better working conditions for domestic agricultural laborers, using strikes and boycotts to induce growers to come to the bargaining table. Higgins and the Bishop’s Ad Hoc Committee on Farm Labor became a forceful negotiator between the sides. The combination eventually led to thousands of workers finding representation under the auspices of the UFW. Today, the memories of both men are cherished for their unrelenting crusade to better the lives of the workers in the fields.

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Higgins and Chavez: The UFW and the Church

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Cesar Chavez and
Msgr. George G. Higgins
Courtesy of ACUA

Monsignor George G. Higgins and Cesar Chavez, both as individuals and through there respective organizations, helped to change labor relations for the farm worker during the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to the main site on the work of these men, this site includes six documents from the collections of Higgins and the Bishop's Ad Hoc Committee that reflect some of the more important writings associated with the United Farm Workers and the Ad Hoc Committee. The exhibited documents span from the beginning of the grape boycott in 1965 up through the fight with the Teamsters in the mid-1970s. 

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Mother Jones and American Labor

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Mother Jones
Courtesy of Library of Congress

During the early part of the 20th century, there were few women in the United States better known than Mary Harris Jones, better known as “Mother” Jones. Whether loved or hated, no one disputed her influence on labor organization between 1900 and the mid-1920s. Her tactics made her a much-loved icon of the working class, while they got her labeled as “the most dangerous woman in America” by business interests.

While working for several labor causes during her life, in addition to a stint as a lecturer for the Socialist Party of America, Jones concentrated most of her efforts on organizing coal miners, particularly in West Virginia and Colorado. While Jones became marginalized in the history of the labor movement and met with only moderate success, a renewed interest in her life came during the turbulent 1960s. This interest grew with the establishment of Mother Jones magazine and subsequent publication of her correspondence and speeches, as well as biographies about her. The documents on this site help to shed light on this “angel of the miners,” both her personal and public life, which are inextricably intertwined.

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The Catholic Church, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and Labor in the United States, 1930-1950

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Ford River Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan
Courtesy of Library of Congress

While conditions for workers had been a concern through United States history, advocacy for the working class became particularly prominent by the 1930s, as the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935 attests.  While the Catholic Church had officially supported organized labor for decades, that support intensified in the 1930s. Pope Leo XIII had expressed support for organized labor in the late nineteenth century, and Pope Pius XI reiterated that commitment with the issuance of the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno in 1931. The Vatican asserted the right for workers to unionize and to earn a “just wage.”

Many Church leaders in the U.S. would enthusiastically embrace Pius XI's statement and begin to ally with unions across the country. The creation of the CIO would be of particular importance, as many in the Church would support, and in some cases join, the organization in order to bring what many leaders termed “social justice” to the working class. Much of the work of the Church in the area of labor would be conducted through the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Social Action Department (SAD), which would become a fervent supporter of workers' rights during the Great Depression. For the next several decades, the Church would play a critical role in the labor movement, spreading its Christian ideal of “economic democracy” to the working class, as the resources on this site reveal. 

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