The ACTU arose out the New York Catholic Worker movement. Led by president John Cort, the ACTU through the 1960s promoted organized labor, provided support for Catholic union members, and fought communist influence in American unions.
Catholic activism in specific industrial settings and in American culture has presented a puzzling issue to scholars and other citizens (Fisher 2001). The following discussion reviews the key principles of Catholic activism and the philosophy of the industrial workers who advocated for the rights of employees, the duties of employers, and the obligations of the state in response to the increasing influence of the socialist and communist labor movements in America.
The main source of Roman Catholics in the United States has been from European immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries. During the Depression years, Catholics workers experienced a re-creation of their religious consciousness to conform to the new industrial world and to defend the existential interests of workers by unionism. Catholic principles provide foundational support for ethical relations and moral values in the workplace, which were particularly necessary in the struggles of the communist and socialist movements during the second quarter of the twentieth century.
"Although only a minority of American workers joined or supported the [Communist] party," writes Robert Pricket (1975), "that minority was not tiny. Probably more than half a million working class men and women joined the party and at least an additional million worked closely with Communist in trade union causes, community groups, and unemployed councils and in organizations like the International Worker’s Order and International Labor Defense" (p.8).
The Catholic labor movements entered a field that would be dominated by leftist groups of socialists, communists, and anarchists (Taft 1949). The corpus of ideals that constituted Catholic social thought originated from several sources. These principles were represented in major encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII 1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (Pius XI 1931). Also during the 1930s, a significant social movement led by Peter Maurin (1877–1949), Archbishop Edward Aloysius Cardinal Mooney (1882–1958), Dorothy Day (1897–1980), and John C. Cort (1913–2006) offered important contributions to the advocacy of Catholic principles in U.S. industrial labor relations. The ideals contained in these teachings and pronouncements suggested that a “good society” could exist when social peace and stability are predicated upon public virtue and justice, in accordance with the principles of Christian morality. The good society is similarly rendered in the workplace through peace and stability, which again rely on people’s virtuous and just actions towards one another (Leo XIII 1891, no. 19).
Accordingly, “labor is more than a mere commodity, a soulless artifact that works in accordance with the laws of supply and demand; rather, it involves specific human needs and an enduring need for human dignity" (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2004, no. 270). Catholic social advocacy argues that workers should be favored over capital through acceptance of their inalienable rights, such as the right to work, the right to assemble, the right to form associations, the right to engage in strike actions (Leo XIII 1891, no. 135), and the right to receive a “just wage” (Pius XI, 1931, nos. 198–202). Those who are “blessed with affluence” also have the responsibility to share their wealth by establishing charitable “insurance institutes” in order to ameliorate the plight of the less advantaged (Leo XII 1891, no. 55). Workers are expected to “fully and faithfully perform work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon,” to “never injure property or persons … [or] resort to violence, riot or public disorder in defending or pursuing their causes,” and to avoid “people of evil principles” who would divert their interests to ruinous ends (Leo XIII 1891, no. 29).
Consequently, Catholic social thought advances the idea that private property, marriage, family, wise state policy, business philanthropy, social stability, and industrial peace are all essential elements of the good society. In employment, Catholic social thought propagates the notion that workers have certain workplace rights and certain obligations to their jobs and employers. Employers have the right to receive faithful service and have the obligation to treat employees fairly and justly. People in positions of political power are similarly obligated to ameliorate the plight of the needy and the dispossessed, both socially and in the workplace. These obligations are not solely measures of Christian charity toward the social and economic problems of industrial capitalism. They are partly inspired by such morality, but they focus on giving the less fortunate a sufficient stake in the system so as to discourage the influence of evil men who would lead them to revolutionary endeavors.
The socialist movement and the “left wing” in the United States, which emerged in the 1920s, were entirely different in both origin and character from movements in other countries that echoed the Russian Bolshevik revolution. The American left wing was an atypical echo of that event, an idealistic attempt to duplicate the revolution in the United States by replicating Bolshevik methods, repeating its phrases, and imitating its heroes. It was as unpractical as it was romantic, and only the extraordinary glamor and allure of the Russian revolution could account for the spread of the movement, which was short-lived in America (Hillquit 1920).
Lacking popular clout, radical elements turned to labor unions as promising avenues of influence. The newly increasing number of organized workers of America needed direction and support; when conflicts and disputes occurred, the workers needed legal advice and assistance in managing strikes and publicity. Frequently, they turned to leftist groups for aid (Taft 1949). Communists were energetic, experienced organizers who often rose to leadership within the rank and file of the unions they had built within the maritime, automobile, steel, and electrical industries, as well as among white-collar and professional workers (Schrecker 2003). Catholic unionists would play an important role in the struggle between labor movement radicals and conservatives.
Dorothy Day (1897–1980), a social activist and a devout Catholic convert, and Peter Maurin (1877–1949) started a newspaper that publicized Catholic social philosophy and promoted steps that would bring about the peaceful transformation of society. Maurin “developed an anti-capitalist philosophy of voluntary poverty and pacifism that emphasized solidarity with poor” (Wood 2004, 87). He initially proposed the name Catholic Radical for the paper that was distributed as Catholic Worker, beginning on May 1, 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression (Forest n.d.). Catholic Worker, a monthly newspaper, was dedicated to fighting the startling phenomenon of communism in New York (Fisher, 2001). The Catholic Worker movement presented a sign of contradiction not only against the materialism of American culture but also against the conformism of the American Catholic Church itself. Furthermore, the Catholic Worker movement was a nonviolent, pacifist, Christian, anarchist movement that combined direct aid for the poor and homeless with direct nonviolent actions on their behalf. According to Tom Sullivan, Day and Maurin saved the faith of many disillusioned Catholics because the Catholic Worker showed “that Catholicism was something more than a police code and that it could and should be integrated with our everyday life” (Fisher, 2001, p. 64).
Day fought against the dehumanization and exploitation of workers in an industrial civilization in which the leading Catholic prelates had in her view enthusiastically thrown the “weight of their influence behind thrift, industry, temperance, and Protestant Sabbatarianism” (Fisher 2001, 64). She also introduced the Catholic worldview to a non-Catholic world. In the 1930s, Catholicism remained as foreign and obscure to other Americans as it had been to Dorothy Day prior to her conversion. The Catholic Worker movement affected mainstream religion leaders. When Father Charles Owen Rice, who was known as the “Chaplain of the CIO,” became a priest in Philadelphia, he declared, “I am a radical, a Catholic radical. … I believe that the present social and economic system is a mess and should be changed from top to bottom” (Wood 2004, p. 87). In 1936, Rice established the Catholic Radical Alliance (CRA) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as an outgrowth of the Catholic Worker Movement (Wood 2004, 87).
A year later, in 1937, Rice supported the formation of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, which originated as an offshoot of Dorothy Day's work in New York. The founders of ACTU were John C. Cort (1913–2006), Edward Squitieri, Edward Scully, George Donahue, William Callahan, Michael Gunn, Joseph Hughes, and Martin Wersing (Schmiesing, 2006). The first meeting of the ACTU took place at the Catholic Worker headquarters in New York in February of 1937. The ACTU initially was dominated by American Federation of Labor (AFL) members but quickly attracted participation from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Later, chapters were formed in a number of other cities: Boston, Detroit, Pittsburg, San Francisco, and Newark (Schmiesing, 2006). In August 1940, following formation of several chapters nationwide the ACTU’s “Articles of Federation” were formulated by Cleveland’s convention (Taft 1949).
The organization aimed to promote trade unionism that was founded on Christian principles and committed to church doctrine, to foster trade unionism in the American labor movement by educating leaders and Catholics about those principles, and to put the principles into practice (Karson 1978).
The ACTU did not endeavor to organize the Catholic labor movement or to attain a mass following, but numbers could not measure its effectiveness (Taft 1949). The ACTU did encourage all Catholics to join labor unions or to affiliate with organizations in their crafts or industries, although they discouraged Christians from belonging to labor unions that had been formed along Marxist lines (Taft 1949).
The ACTU supported industrial councils and called on workers to organize trade unions and employers to organize associations, which these industrial councils called “corporations.” It proposed that unions and associations in each industry establish joint boards so that those engaged in a common field of production could act for the good of all. Corporativism was essentially an economic, not a political, arrangement, and this organic structure endeavored to support the common welfare of all people through integration: all distinctions between workers and employer should be eliminated (Taft 1949). The ACTU’s plan suggested a board of directors, chosen by laborers and investors in partnerships that would set the conditions of work and the prices that would govern each industry. A National Economic Council would be federated by the total number of corporations whose boards of directors, workers, and owners would be represented, and the Council would institute rules for the economy in conformity with the law of Congress (Taft 1949). The ACTU’s plan was similar to that of the CIO's Philip Murray, who recommended that industrial guilds should direct production in defense industries through industry-wide councils composed of labor and management representatives, with government representatives serving as chairpersons. Consequently, the industry councils would have the authority to govern production in their industries (Taft 1949).
Other important ACTU activities can be summarized in five areas (Taft 1949):
The Association of Catholic Trade Unionists significantly differed from the Catholic Worker movement. Both the ACTU and the Catholic Worker movement were concerned with furthering union organizations; Day’s group, however, consisted of idealistic young people, whereas the ACTU was primarily composed of salaried trade union officials. Day's followers sought to emulate Christ’s radicalism by living among and helping the poor, whereas the ACTU was more concerned about the danger to Christian ideals that was posed by the presence of Communists in leading roles in the labor movement, particularly in unions such as the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), in which half the membership was Catholic (Schatz 1987, p. 181).
The ACTU destabilized Communist influence through its labor schools and attacked Communists directly through its organizational apparatus and legal arm. A group of ACTU members who called themselves “Actists” led and collaborated in campaigns to defeat Communists in union elections through various tactics. For instance, they supported dismemberment of unions that did not reject Communists leadership, through the methods of raids and splits (Schmiesing, 2006).
That the role and influence of ACTU on American labor was conservative has been widely accepted, though the extent of that influence remains disputed. Some scholars believe the ACTU was a vital force in preventing radical union action while others argue that organized labor in the United States would have rejected Communist tendencies in any case. After all, red scares and Cold War were powerful aids for the business community, under the flag of anti-Communism, to roll back unions gains since the 1930s. Another perspective suggests that the ACTU smoothed relations between the Catholic Church and organized labor, by providing institutional support for Catholic union members and by defending unions in general against the charge of communism; after all ACTU was instrumental in building a positive relationship between unions and American Catholics (Schmiesing, 2006). Finally, it has been noted that the ACTU chapters had differing views on the role of government and the extent of social and economic changes, and as a result was, “often disorganized, sometimes ineffective, and occasionally in conflict with the hierarchy" (Karson 1978).
With the Communist threat largely put to rest and the principle of organized labor widely accepted in Catholic circles by the end of the 1950s, the ACTU's purpose lost its urgency and the last surviving chapter (New York) ended its publication The Labor Leader, although the group existed into the 1970s (Schmiesing, 2006).
Fisher, Terence James. The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933-1962. University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Karson, Marc. Review of Catholic Activism and the Industrial Workers’, by Neil Betten, Industrial and Labor Relations Review 31, no. 2 (Jan. 1978): 262-263
Prickett, Robert James. Communists and Communist Issue in the American labor Movement, 1920-1950. PhD diss., University of California Los Angeles, 1975.
Schatz, Ronald W. The Electrical Workers: A History of Labor at General Electric and Westinghouse, 1923-60. United States: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Schmiesing, Kevin E., "Association of Catholic Trade Unionists," in Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History, ed. Eric Arnesen. New York: CRC Press: 2006.
Schrecker, Ellen. ‘Labor Encounters the Anticommunist Crusade.’ In Major Problem in the History of American Workers, by Eileen Boris and Nelson Lichtenstein, 375–384. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
Taft, Philip. “The Association of Catholic Trade Unionists.” Industrial and Labor Relations Reviews 2, no. 2 (1949): 210–218.
Wood, Cushman Darren. Blue Collar Jesus. Santa Ana, California: Seven Locks Press, 2004.