Why Does This Topic Matter: Thinking About the Big Issues

Issues of continuing relevance

This page describes some of the general ideas that the Catholic Church, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and Labor in the United States, 1930-1950 website can illuminate in the classroom.


Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching

Much of the basis behind the documents presented in the site can be directly or indirectly traced back to established teachings of the Church. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, devotes a chapter to Church beliefs regarding human work. According to this publication, work was established for man by God in the Garden of Eden, where humans were instructed to “fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth,” as well as to “to cultivate and care for” the Garden. (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). Jesus was noted to have worked, first as a carpenter and then in His ministry, as well as teaching against laziness. Other teachings include that man has a duty to work, which is to be done with and for others. Labor is greater than capital, but both must work together in harmony, which leads to workers having a fundamental right to take part in ownership. At the same time, ownership has a duty to uphold the dignity of workers by providing safe working conditions, just wages, and unemployment benefits. In the event that these rights are not upheld, then workers have a right to unionize and have representatives attempt to alleviate these problems. In short, according to those in Church who would take up the cause of the worker, there was ample Biblical support for their views.


Catholic Social Doctrine, Economies, and Labor

The idea of caring for the economic needs of its parishioners was not developed by the Catholic Church out of thin air beginning in the 20th century. The roots of social welfare had been part of the local European parishes for many years before immigrants brought such ideas with them to the United States in the 19th century. Pope Leo XIII made the Church’s position on the working class official with Rerum Novarum in 1891, as he endorsed the right of unionization for employees and advocated better working conditions. Pope Pius XI would go further with Quadragesimo Anno in 1931, which advocated the elimination of classes and the creation of an economic system based on vocational groups of workers and employers striving to improve society together. U.S. church leaders, through the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Social Action Department (SAD) would take this latter encyclical and use it to stress the need for improved conditions for the American working class, through both the training of local priests in labor issues, as well as in educating workers about these same issues while also incorporating Church teachings. This proactive stance would put the Catholic Church at the forefront of religious involvement in the U.S. labor movement.


1. Did the Church have a moral obligation to become involved in the U.S. labor movement?

2. Why did SAD believe that it was important for priests and the working class to receive instruction in labor issues and Church teachings?


“Catholicism” and Unionism

As Church officials and lay leaders increasingly embraced the mantle of champions of the working class, they also became allied to the burgeoning conglomeration of unions known as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Formed in 1937, the CIO sought to organize industrial unions, breaking away from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) when the latter showed little interest in industry. Church leaders in Chicago would become firmly allied with the CIO in 1939 when a large number of priests showed up to support one of the CIO’s constituent members. Many Catholics would go on to serve in the organization, with future president Philip Murray among the most prominent. In addition, SAD would also encourage the creation of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU), which would have chapters in several industrial cities. This new organization would advocate for workers in general, with special attention to Catholic workers in particular. These new outlets of activism, accompanied by the continuation of social training, would make the Church one of the most vocal leaders of social justice and fair labor conditions in the U.S.


1. What kinds of obstacles, if any, would leaders throughout the Church hierarchy have faced in becoming involved in the labor movement?

2. What might have been some positives and negatives for both parties in the Church’s alliance with the CIO?

3. Did the ACTU offer anything that membership in another union perhaps did not?


Communism, the Labor Movement, and the Church

The pursuit of social justice was not always easy or simple for Church and labor leaders. Controversy would erupt particularly after the end of World War II in 1945 over the presence of communists in the U.S. labor movement, something that the majority of Catholics could not tolerate. While attempts were often made to marginalize these factions, several unions would embrace communist ideals and elect leaders who held these ideals. Things would come to a head in 1949 when Catholic CIO president Philip Murray and other CIO leaders and members would attempt to oust the United Electrical and Machine Workers of America (UE) due to heavy communist influence in the latter. The UE would secede from the CIO before this could be accomplished, though a number of other unions with communist sympathies would be ousted in 1950.


1. Why was it significant that Philip Murray was president of the CIO during the height of the debate on communists in unions?

2. What reasons would a union have to embrace communist ideology?


Right-to-Work Laws and Catholic Social Teaching

While many Catholic leaders did not want communist influence in the labor movement, some vocal priests and others criticized SAD for not taking a firmer anti-communism stand. Right-to-work laws, however, were a different issue. A labor idea that advocated voluntary unionism and an open shop, only a handful of Church leaders approved of these ideas, which they felt would harm employees’ ability to enter into collective bargaining discussions with management. Referendums to enact right-to-work laws would later fail in five of six states by 1958, in contrast to numerous states passing such laws after the war.


1. Why did right-to-work laws become such a topic of debate among Church leaders?

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