Steelworkers at a plant in Pittsburgh, c. 1903-1928

Courtesy of the Library of Congress


Catholics and the Labor Movement: Laying the Groundwork

            The years of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) marked the Catholic labor moment. It was during them – from the CIO’s founding in 1935 until its merger with the American Federation of Labor in 1955 – that the Church visibly, courageously, and consistently stood both for and with its working-class members. It was at the 1947 CIO convention that Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston proudly proclaimed: “I belong here.” It was during the CIO years that the Church advocated the radical restructuring of American capitalism via the Industry Council Plan or, as the Detroit Association of Catholic Trade Unionists called it, “economic democracy.”

            The working-class character of Roman Catholicism originated in the Irish and German migration of the 1840s and 1850s. Irish-Americans – and German-Americans to a much lesser degree – led the Church that later immigrants experienced when they arrived in the U.S. Eastern-European parish-building, in which working-class believers played an essential role, produced institutions similar to those their predecessors had created. The parish, the Church’s basic unit of organization, provided not only the sacraments and the sacralization of the profane, but also what we now call social services. It provided God’s presence in an intimate community tied directly to working people’s lives: steelworkers in and around Pittsburgh; packinghouse workers in Chicago’s Back of the Yards; and, auto workers in Detroit. It was here that Catholic working people learned solidarity and justice, and nourished a sense of their self-worth and possibilities as children of God.

            The publication of Rerum Novarum (1891) set the U.S. Church officially on the side of unions, but until the 1930s, it remained publicly neutral in most battles between capital and labor. There were exceptions, such as in 1911 when Bishop Joseph Schrembs outspokenly supported a furniture workers’ strike in Grand Rapids, Michigan, or in 1919 when Father Adalbert Kazincy opened his church in Braddock, Pennsylvania, to steel strikers. The hierarchy and most pastors, though, generally took a hands-off attitude. Many things were at work here: the insecure material conditions of most Catholics; the caution produced by the immigration experience; the sometimes cozy relationship between church authorities and manufacturers; and, finally, the circumspection, if not inertia, of a large, hierarchical institution.


Monsignor John A. Ryan

Courtesy of ACUA



Enter Monsignor John A. Ryan

            Something, though, was going on that made all the difference in the world when things changed in the 1930s: Monsignor John A. Ryan rose to prominence within the Church. He had begun studying U.S. economic and social conditions within the framework of Catholic theology as well as mid-western populist pragmatism in the mid-1890s. The author of the Bishops’ 1919 Program of Social Reconstruction, he was appointed chair of the Social Action Department (SAD), an integral part of the newly formed National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC, the forerunner of the current U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops). From then on, the SAD kept alive Catholicism’s commitment to working people. It, as Ryan noted in 1941, had “continuously and assiduously propagated and applied” the lessons of Rerum Novarum and then Quadragesimo Anno (1931) for two decades. Numerous priests – at least two of whom would rise to the episcopacy – studied social Catholicism under Ryan’s tutelage at Catholic University. Many of them would become stalwart labor priests.

            Two developments dramatically changed the economic and political terrain and provided the SAD with the opportunity to move the Church to attend to the needs of its working-class membership for unions. First, the Great Depression of the 1930s not only weakened faith in the system, but also established a continuing crisis of material well-being. On the surface, at least, the 1920s had been relatively good for working people. All that changed, however, as unemployment reached – and remained at – historic proportions. Capitalism no longer delivered the goods, and corporations taught continuing lessons in how it worked by putting profits before people. Parish priests saw their people suffering, but could do little to alleviate it.

            Second, working people began acting for themselves. Coal miners, led by John L. Lewis, were the first as they took advantage of the National Industrial Recovery Act’s section 7(a) to join the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in the thousands. Then, in 1934, factory workers in Toledo, teamsters in Minneapolis, longshoremen in San Francisco, and textile workers up and down the Eastern U.S. fought for union recognition in bitter strikes and violent confrontations with authorities. Catholic workers were involved in the pre-CIO upheavals, but it is impossible to determine precisely how many. A considerable number of miners were Catholic, especially in Pennsylvania, as were their leaders. Philip Murray (1886-1952), who eventually became president of the CIO and the United Steelworkers of America, is the most important and the best-known.


Future CIO presidents Philip Murray, left, and John L. Lewis.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress



The Church and the CIO

            Within the context of the Wagner Act (1935), which the Church firmly supported, Lewis’ Mineworkers not only led the movement to found the CIO, but also provided it with much of its initial funding and many of its organizers. Among those whom Lewis hired were members of the Communist Party, which had begun sustained industrial-union work in the late 1920s. They were especially active and effective in steel mills, packinghouses, agricultural implement plants, machine shops, and electrical equipment and radio manufacturing plants.

            For the next twenty years and beyond, the official Catholic Church, especially the SAD, not only stood with and for its working-class membership, but also strongly supported the CIO’s continuing efforts to expand its membership. That was the only way, as the SAD continually argued, that economic democracy – a truly Christian economic order – would come into being. Internal opposition to this stance and its accompanying commitments developed early in the CIO’s history and flared up periodically, growing stronger as the years went on, but never seriously threatened its hegemony.

            The documents that follow provide the broad outlines of this Catholic labor moment in dire danger of being “overpower[ed]” by a “present,” in Walter Benjamin’s words, that does not “recognize itself as intended” in it. For, as he argued, “even the dead” are not safe “from the enemy if he is victorious.” This Catholic labor moment needs to become part of our consciousness as American Catholics.

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