1891     Pope Leo XIII issues the encyclical Rerum Novarum (“Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor”), which helped to establish the Church’s position on social justice and labor


1919     The National Catholic War Council issues The Bishop’s Program for Social Reconstruction. The document called for government insurance for the ill, unemployed and senior citizens; the participation of labor in management; public housing; union organization; and a “living wage” for workers.


1919     The National Catholic War Council, created in 1917 to allow the Church to provide support to the U.S. during World War I, was transformed into the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC) and became the primary voice of the Catholic Church in the U.S. during the mid-20th Century.


1919     The Social Action Department (SAD) of the NCWC was established soon after the NCWC came into existence. The department came to promote the social thought of the Catholic Church in the U.S.


1920     Monsignor John A. Ryan becomes first director of SAD. Ryan would be SAD’s longest serving director, holding the position until his death in 1945.


1929     Stock market crash in October inaugurates the Great Depression, leading to unprecedented unemployment and economic problems in the U.S.


1931     Pope Pius XI issues the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (“In The Fortieth Year”), during the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. The document carries the ideas of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical even further by advocating the abolition of class conflict.


1933     Congress passes the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA), part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal package. The law included provisions guaranteeing the rights of workers to form unions, establishment of maximum pay and minimum hours, and standards for working conditions. The act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935.



1935     Congress passes the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act). The law succeeded the NRA by guaranteeing the rights of workers to form unions, engage in collective bargaining, and take collective action (strikes) if necessary.


1935     Father Raymond McGowan, assistant director of SAD, authors Organized Social Justice, which described SAD's basic principles concerning working people and "social justice," but also broke new ground in its preliminary outline of "a right social order": "Organization by Occupational Groups."


1937     First Summer School for Social Action for Priests held at St. Francis Seminary in St. Francis, Wisconsin. Organized by SAD, the schools were established to inform priests as to how to respond to the burgeoning labor organization movement in their parishes.


1937      The Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU) is founded in New York to provide support to working-class Catholics. Branches would appear in other cities, most prominently in Detroit.  


1938     United Mine Workers of American (UMWA) president John L. Lewis founds the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) after the American Federation of Labor (AFL) shows little interest in organizing industries.


1939     Bishop Bernard J. Sheil of Chicago appears at a meeting of the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, an affiliate of the CIO, where he advocated for the rights of workers and appealed for labor peace. Sheil’s appearance, along with that of other priests, was a physical manifestation of the Church’s alliance with the CIO.


1939     The United Auto Workers union (UAW) organizes a strike at Detroit’s Chrysler plant following a speedup in production and the subsequent firing of uncooperative workers by management. Popular radio priest Father Charles Coughlin condemned the strike as being detrimental to the entire community and was pointless. He was subsequently rebuked by Father Raymond Clancy and the Archdiocese of Detroit’s newspaper, the Michigan Catholic, both of which stood by the strike and said Coughlin erred in his statements.


1940     The NCWC issues “Church and Social Order.” While its Social Action Department had long been the voice of social justice for the Church in the U.S., this statement by the NCWC was perhaps even more influential due to the prominent nature of the Council. The document endorses most of SAD’s reforms and endorsed a program of reform - a "right social order" that explicitly called for a sharp break with economic business as usual.


1940     Father John M. Hayes, a member of the staff at SAD, begins his newsletter series “Social Action Notes for Priests.” The newsletters were used to keep priests across the country abreast of actions undertaken by SAD in relation to social justice and labor issues.


1940     Catholic Philip Murray is named president of the CIO. The former head of several unions, Murray is elevated to post after the retirement of John L. Lewis. Murray would be the longest serving president of the organization, remaining at the post until his death in 1952.


1940-41     Detroit ACTU president Paul Weber sets out the idea of “economic democracy” in the pages of the ACTU’s newspaper, The Wage Earner. Weber, opposed to both modern capitalism, and communism and socialism, proposed that industries be divided into their own self-governing units, with labor and management working together as equal partners. These units would be governed, in turn, by a national economic affairs congress.


1945     Upon the death of director Monsignor John A. Ryan, SAD elevates assistant director Father Raymond McGowan to the position of director. McGowan would lead the department until 1954, when he stepped down due to health issues.


1948     SAD issues its annual Labor Day Statement, causing much consternation within the Church. The statement strongly suggested that the Taft-Hartley Act, which was passed in 1947 and prohibited many so-called “unfair labor practices.” Opponents of the act, including SAD, saw it as a severe limitation of the rights of workers and the power of unions. Many Church leaders did not share SAD’s view, and would try to limit the power of the department from this time forward.


1949     Internal disputes over communists within its constituent members led to open battle in the CIO over the issue. One of the members, the United Electrical and Machine Workers of America (UE), which had a heavy communist influence in its leadership, would leave the CIO before the organization expelled it. In 1950, ten more communist-led unions were ousted from the CIO. 


1955     The CIO merges with the AFL to form the AFL-CIO. The two organizations merged after former contentious issues, including the AFL’s refusal to organize industrial companies, had been solved.


1957     Fathers Edward A. Keller C.S.C. and Jerome L. Toner O.S.B. engage in debate in The Homiletic and Pastoral Review over “right-to-work” laws. Keller, who supported such laws, argued that unions were essentially compulsory in nature if a person wanted to work, and that “voluntary unionism” was the answer to an issue that was essentially moral in nature. Toner, on the other hand, also argues that it is moral issue, but instead writes that right-to-work laws take away a worker’s right to collective bargaining, and definitively came down on the side of unionism.

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