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  • From the Parish Hall to the Union HallCatholic Labor Education in Cleveland
  • Paul Lubienecki (bio)

In the early decades of the twentieth century, many American Catholics searched for a way to implement social reform programs like those of the Progressive or Social Gospel movements. Consequently, after the pronouncement of the papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno [Forty Years] in 1931, America’s Catholics determined that the solution was worker education. There was a prevalent need for labor leaders who were trained in the application of morality and ethics in the workplace. They would not divorce daily life from religion but invariably seek principled solutions. An educated lay Catholic worker epitomized a developed worker who recognized sane corrective actions to labor challenges. Implemented by committed members of the laity and activist parish priests, the formation of Catholic labor education became a unique method to advance Catholic social and labor reform.

During the period of the Great Depression and the New Deal of the 1930s, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement transformed Catholic social action into the formation of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU).1 From this developed the Catholic labor schools, which consisted of [End Page 49] curriculums and policies developed mutually by the laity and clergy to educate workers (both Catholic and non-Catholic) about their rights and duties and how to apply Christian social teachings in the workplace. Legitimized by the papal encyclicals and operated by the laity, the labor schools expanded to become a fundamental part of organized labor, which endeavored to build a Christian partnership of labor and management to ensure industrial democracy.2 As the Cold War developed in the early 1950s, Catholic lay labor education became a bulwark against Communist infiltration of organized labor. One of the oldest and most prominent of the labor schools was located in Cleveland, Ohio.

The purpose of this study is to illuminate a neglected and underappreciated segment in the narrative of Cleveland’s labor history and local Catholicism: the role of the American Catholic church in labor education. This is more than a linear recitation of facts and archival research. These activities demonstrated the efforts of the bourgeoning influence and power of a developing American Catholic laity and their impact on local organized labor. Cleveland’s history had a sense of a moral mission: a characteristic of reform and reformers who were primarily Protestant and wealthy.3 The establishment of a lay Catholic labor school in Cleveland illustrated that these new reformers were now Catholic laborers and immigrants. The necessity of lay-inspired labor education was vital in educating workers about their rights, to uplift the laborer, to train leaders, and ultimately provide a labor-management forum.

labor and religion

Many labor historians often ignored religion as an integral component of labor and the working class as apparent in the historiography. Historians James P. McCartin and Joseph A. McCartin argued that despite the significant role contributed by Catholics in American working-class history, labor historians have evinced surprisingly negligible interest in America’s Catholic working class.4 A general reading of labor history from authors such as Mary Beard, Irving [End Page 50] Bernstein, Anthony Bimba, David Montgomery, and others did not speak of the importance and function of religion in organized labor. These labor historians did not consider Catholic social encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum (Of New Things), Quadragesimo Anno (Forty Years), or the American bishop’s pronouncements as a potent factor in the support of America’s unions.5

Conversely, some labor historians have examined the positive role of religion in labor. John R. Commons argued that religion was a solution to the problems of labor, poverty, and monopolies.6 Philip Taft’s Organized Labor in American History addressed the relationship of the Catholic church and the Knights of Labor. He asserted that by allowing Catholic workers to freely join unions, membership in organized labor increased and the church gained prominence. The church then was able to position itself to champion workers’ rights, better working conditions, and a living wage. Labor historian David Saposs offered that “the significant and predominant role of the Catholic Church in shaping the thought and aspirations of labor is a...


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