The US Catholic Church was for most of its history—and, in many places, still is—a working-class church. The choice for worship by successive waves of immigrants, from the Irish to the Polish to the Mexican, the Church, once it had created an institutional presence, welcomed “these strangers in a strange land.” These immigrants play a major role in creating and sustaining parishes that served both as a soul-sustaining refuge and, in many cases, a way station to the outside world. James Cardinal Gibbons, having learned from the central role that Irish workers played in the Knights of Labor and protests against the excommunication of the radical New York priest, Edward McGlynn, persuaded the Vatican to take a relatively liberal stance toward the “social question” in the United States. Rerum Novarum, the 1891 papal encyclical, condemned socialism and competitive capitalism, but more significantly asserted the “natural” right of workers to form unions as well as to have a living wage. It was within this religious legitimation of unionism that Irish Catholics came to prominence in the American Federation of Labor, that Monsignor John A. Ryan created a US Catholic social justice intellectual tradition, and that US bishops adopted the 1919 Program for Social Reconstruction. The Catholic labor moment came when the Church, led by the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Social Action Department, midwestern bishops, and labor priests, not only supported the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), but consistently pushed the New Deal to implement the 1919 program. Philip Murray, the CIO’s Catholic president, led the expulsion of the Communist-led unions when the Communist Party, in the Wallace campaign, threatened both the country and everything the CIO had built. On the one hand, this Catholic labor moment dissolved in an overdetermined mixture of complacency, capitalist growth, and anti-Communism. On the other, a direct line can be traced from California’s labor priests to the Spanish Mission Band to Cesar Chavez and the formation of the United Farm Workers. It took time for the official Church to support the farm workers, but once that happened, it was all in: the support the Church, at all levels, gave them far exceeded anything it had done previously to implement Rerum Novarum.
The Haymarket Riot and Conspiracy of 1886 is a landmark in American social and political history. On May 4, 1886, during an open-air meeting near Haymarket Square in Chicago, someone threw a dynamite bomb into a squad of police, sparking a riot that resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four rioters. Eight anarchists were brought to trial. Though the bomb-thrower was never apprehended, the eight radical leaders were charged as accessories before the fact for conspiring to murder the police. After the longest criminal trial in Illinois history up to that time, seven men were convicted and condemned to death and one to a long prison term. After all appeals were exhausted, four were executed, one cheated the hangman with a jail cell suicide, and the death sentences of two others were commuted to life imprisonment (all three incarcerated men were later pardoned by Governor John Peter Altgeld in 1892).
The Haymarket bombing and trial marked a pivotal moment in the history of American social movements. It sparked the nation’s first red scare whose fury disrupted even moderately leftist movements for a generation. It drove the nation’s labor unions onto a more conservative path than they had been heading before the bombing. The worldwide labor campaign for clemency for the convicted men became the foundation for the institution of International Workers’ Day on May 1, a holiday ironically observed in most countries except for the United States. It also began a tradition within the American left of memorializing the Haymarket defendants as the first martyrs to their cause.
Erik Gellman and Margaret Rung
From the late 1920s through the 1930s, countries on every inhabited continent suffered through a dramatic and wrenching economic contraction termed the Great Depression, an economic collapse that has come to represent the nadir of modern economic history. With national unemployment reaching well into double digits for over a decade, productivity levels falling by half, prices severely depressed, and millions of Americans without adequate food, shelter or clothing, the United States experienced some of the Great Depression’s severest consequences. The crisis left deep physical, psychological, political, social, and cultural impressions on the national landscape. It encouraged political reform and reaction, renewed labor activism, spurred migration, unleashed grass-roots movements, inspired cultural experimentation, and challenged family structures and gender roles.
Joshua L. Rosenbloom
The United States economy underwent major transformations between American independence and the Civil War through rapid population growth, the development of manufacturing, the onset of modern economic growth, increasing urbanization, the rapid spread of settlement into the trans-Appalachian west, and the rise of European immigration. These decades were also characterized by an increasing sectional conflict between free and slave states that culminated in 1861 in Southern secession from the Union and a bloody and destructive Civil War. Labor markets were central to each of these developments, directing the reallocation of labor between sectors and regions, channeling a growing population into productive employment, and shaping the growing North–South division within the country. Put differently, labor markets influenced the pace and character of economic development in the antebellum United States. On the one hand, the responsiveness of labor markets to economic shocks helped promote economic growth; on the other, imperfections in labor market responses to these shocks significantly affected the character and development of the national economy.
Working women and their issues played a central role in the women’s movement in the decades following World War II. Feminists lobbied, litigated, and engaged in direct action for workplace fairness. Working women, especially those in unions, joined feminist organizations and established their own organizations as well. There were fault lines within the women’s movement over the issues, strategies, and level of commitment to the causes of working women. In the first two decades after 1945, the unionists and liberal reformers who constituted the so-called Women’s Bureau Coalition (named after the U.S. Women’s Bureau) opposed the mostly affluent and conservative members of the National Woman’s Party for their support of the Equal Rights Amendment, supporting instead protective laws and policies that treated women differently from men in the workplace. With the arrival of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, “labor feminists” clashed with the middle-class professional women at the helm of newly formed feminist organizations. As support for gender equality transformed employment practices, some labor feminists sought to retain (or extend to men) selected protective measures introduced in the early 20th century to shield women workers from the worst aspects of wage labor. In the face of harsh economic conditions in the 1970s, labor feminists again opposed other feminists for their efforts to modify the union practice of “last hired, first fired” as a way of retaining affirmative-action hiring gains.
In recent decades feminists have focused on equity measures such as comparable worth and pregnancy leave as means of addressing the unique challenges women face. In addition they have expanded their concern to lesbian and transgender workers, and, increasingly, to the needs of immigrant workers who make up an increasingly percentage of the working population.
America’s tremendous diversities of faith, region, and ethnicity complicate efforts to generalize relationships between religious groups and the labor movement. Americans’ historic and widely shared commitment to Christianity masks deep divisions: between white Christians and black Christians, between Catholics and Protestants, between northern Protestants and southern Protestants, and between “modernist” Protestants (who view the Bible in metaphorical terms as a source of ethical guidance and emphasize social justice) and “fundamentalist” Protestants (who view the Bible literally and eschew social activism in favor of individual evangelizing). Work, class, and the role of the labor movement add extra dimensions to these complexities, which are multiplied when considering non-Christian traditions such as Judaism or the other world religious communities that have grown in the United States since the immigration reforms of 1965.
Nevertheless, scholars accept a general narrative that delineates key periods, themes, and players over the course of the twentieth century. From the turn of the 19th century until the 1930s, the relationship between religion and labor was shaped by the centrality of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the labor movement, the development of a “social gospel” among northern mainline Protestants, and the massive immigration from southern and eastern Europe that brought millions of Catholic and Jewish workers into the United States before it largely ended in the 1920s. These developments were sometimes in tension. The AFL favored craft unionism and placed a premium on organizing skilled male workers; it therefore left out many of the unskilled new arrivals (as well as African Americans and most women). Consequently, the shape of “religion and labor” formed primarily around the dynamic between the AFL and Protestant social reformers, without much regard to the large masses of unorganized Catholic, Jewish, and African American workers.
These dynamics shifted in the Great Depression. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), begun as a committee within the AFL in 1934, sought the organization of entire industries—skilled and unskilled alike, and ethnic Catholics and Jews became unionized in large numbers. Even traditional racial barriers in the labor movement began crumbling in some industries. And, the labor movement expanded its geographical ambition, pushing aggressively into the South. In turn, the religious voices associated with the labor movement broadened and deepened. Labor’s new alliances with Catholics, Jews, African Americans, and southern evangelicals helped to push the ranks of organized workers to historic highs in the 1950s.
This coalition has faced divisive, even disastrous headwinds since the 1960s. The strength of anticommunism, especially within religious groups, caused some religious workers to retreat from the reformist ambitions of the labor movement and sparked a conservative religious movement deeply opposed to labor and liberalism. Race became an ever-hotter flashpoint. Although religiously affiliated civil rights reformers often forged alliances with unions, the backlash and resistance to civil rights among portions of the white working class undermined the efficacy of labor unions as sources of social cohesion. Perhaps most profoundly, the economy as a whole transformed from an urban-industrial to a post-urban service model. Organized labor has floundered in the wake of these changes, and the concomitant resurgence of a traditionalist, individualistic, and therapeutic religious culture has offered the remains of the labor movement little to partner with.
Employers began organizing with one another to reduce the power of organized labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Irritated by strikes, boycotts, and unions’ desire to achieve exclusive bargaining rights, employers demanded the right to establish open shops, workplaces that promoted individualism over collectivism. Rather than recognize closed or union shops, employers demanded the right to hire and fire whomever they wanted, irrespective of union status. They established an open-shop movement, which was led by local, national, and trade-based employers. Some formed more inclusive “citizens’ associations,” which included clergymen, lawyers, judges, academics, and employers. Throughout the 20th century’s first three decades, this movement succeeded in busting unions, breaking strikes, and blacklisting labor activists. It united large numbers of employers and was mostly successful. The movement faced its biggest challenges in the 1930s, when a liberal political climate legitimized unions and collective bargaining. But employers never stopped organizing and fighting, and they continued to undermine the labor movement in the following decades by invoking the phrase “right-to-work,” insisting that individual laborers must enjoy freedom from so-called union bosses and compulsory unionism. Numerous states, responding to pressure from organized employers, begin passing “right-to-work” laws, which made union organizing more difficult because workers were not obligated to join unions or pay their “fair share” of dues to them. The multi-decade employer-led anti-union movement succeeded in fighting organized labor at the point of production, in politics, and in public relations.
Since the turn of the 20th century, teachers have tried to find a balance between bettering their own career prospects as workers and educating their students as public servants. To reach a workable combination, teachers have utilized methods drawn from union movements, the militant and labor-conscious approach favored by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), as well as to professional organizations, the tradition from which the National Education Association (NEA) arose. Because teachers lacked the federally guaranteed labor rights that private-sector workers enjoyed after Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, teachers’ fortunes—in terms of collective bargaining rights, control over classroom conditions, pay, and benefits—often remained tied to the broader public-sector labor movement and to state rather than federal law.
Opponents of teacher unionization consistently charged that as public servants paid by tax revenues, teachers and other public employees should not be allowed to form unions. Further, because women constituted the vast majority of teachers and union organizing often represented a “manly” domain, the opposition’s approach worked quite well, successfully preventing teachers from gaining widespread union recognition. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, thanks to an improved economic climate and invigoration from the women’s movement, civil rights struggles, and the New Left, both AFT and NEA teacher unionism surged forward, infused with a powerful militancy devoted to strikes and other political action, and appeared poised to capture federal collective bargaining rights. Their newfound assertiveness proved ill-timed, however.
After the economic problems of the mid-1970s, opponents of teacher unions once again seized the opportunity to portray teacher unions and other public-sector unions as greedy and privileged interest groups functioning at the public’s expense. President Ronald Reagan accentuated this point when he fired all of the more than 10,000 striking air traffic controllers during the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike. Facing such opposition, teacher unions—and public-sector unions in general—shifted their efforts away from strikes and toward endorsing political candidates and lobbying governments to pass favorable legislation.
Given these constraints, public-sector unions enjoyed a large degree of success in the 1990s through the early 2000s, even as private-sector union membership plunged to less than 10 percent of the workforce. After the Great Recession of 2008, however, austerity politics targeted teachers and other public-sector workers and renewed political confrontations surrounding the legitimacy of teacher unions.
James R. Barrett
The largest and most important revolutionary socialist organization in US history, the Communist Party USA was always a minority influence. It reached considerable size and influence, however, during the Great Depression and World War II years when it followed the more open line associated with the term “Popular Front.” In these years communists were much more flexible in their strategies and relations with other groups, though the party remained a hierarchical vanguard organization. It grew from a largely isolated sect dominated by unskilled and unemployed immigrant men in the 1920s to a socially diverse movement of nearly 100,000 based heavily on American born men and women from the working and professional classes by the late 1930s and during World War II, exerting considerable influence in the labor movement and American cultural life. In these years, the Communist Party helped to build the industrial union movement, advanced the cause of African American civil rights, and laid the foundation for the postwar feminist movement. But the party was always prone to abrupt changes in line and vulnerable to attack as a sinister outside force because of its close adherence to Soviet policies and goals. Several factors contributed to its catastrophic decline in the 1950s: the increasingly antagonistic Cold War struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States; an unprecedented attack from employers and government at various levels—criminal cases and imprisonment, deportation, and blacklisting; and within the party itself, a turn back toward a more dogmatic version of Marxism-Leninism and a heightened atmosphere of factional conflict and purges.
The relationship between organized labor and the civil rights movement proceeded along two tracks. At work, the two groups were adversaries, as civil rights groups criticized employment discrimination by the unions. But in politics, they allied. Unions and civil rights organizations partnered to support liberal legislation and to oppose conservative southern Democrats, who were as militant in opposing unions as they were fervent in supporting white supremacy.
At work, unions dithered in their efforts to root out employment discrimination. Their initial enthusiasm for Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed employment discrimination, waned the more the new law violated foundational union practices by infringing on the principle of seniority, emphasizing the rights of the individual over the group, and inserting the courts into the workplace. The two souls of postwar liberalism— labor solidarity represented by unions and racial justice represented by the civil rights movement—were in conflict at work.
Although the unions and civil rights activists were adversaries over employment discrimination, they united in trying to register southern blacks to vote. Black enfranchisement would end the South’s exceptionalism and the veto it exercised over liberal legislation in Congress. But the two souls of liberalism that were at odds over the meaning of fairness at work would also diverge at the ballot box. As white workers began to defect from the Democratic Party, the political coalition of black and white workers that union leaders had hoped to build was undermined from below. The divergence between the two souls of liberalism in the 1960s—economic justice represented by unions and racial justice represented by civil rights—helps explain the resurgence of conservatism that followed.