View Full Version : Christian Trade Unions in Europe

Taras Bulba
Monday, June 26th, 2006, 07:32 PM

The following is a brief background for those less familiar with the
European trade union historical situation, as some Americans may be confused
by references to christian or Catholic trade unions.

In many nations of Europe, as trade unionism developed in the 19th and early
20th century, multiple trade union centres (or federations, equivalent
to the AFL-CIO) developed. Some were anti-clerical and even atheistic, in
part responding to the general association of organized religion with the
establishment and its hostility to worker organization and the most
unfortunate lack of pastoral care for the new industrial working class by
the Christian churches.(*) This, of course, spiraled up further opposition
by religious leaders to trade unionism. By God's grace, certain Christian
leaders -- Father Gapon among the Orthodox, the Methodist Movement among
Protestants, and, in our own Catholic tradition, Father Kolping and Bishop
Emmanuel von Ketteler -- refused to be forced into a false choice between
anti-clerical unions and opposition to the worker movement. Starting in
Germany, Catholics organized their own trade unions, styled "Christian
Unions" (i.e. structurally independent of the Church and often open to

Despite the division this caused in the labor movement (other splits also
existed -- "yellow" unions, and in Switzerland and Netherlands, separate
Protestant and Catholic unions. Anti-clerical unions eventually split
between Communist and social democratic centres), this initiative clearly
was needed at its time. This provided workers with an opportunity to remain
loyal to their faith while supporting the labor movement. Leo XIII's letter
was an affirmation of this initiative which, until then, often saw
conservative prelates opposing even Christian unions.

However, as history progressed, the various labor unions turned more to the
business of meat and potatoes unionism rather than ideological and religious
issues. (You can be sure that if in a region the bricklayers union was
Christian and the stonemasons union socialistic, then every Catholic church,
hospital and school was built of brick!)

In America, it was Cardinal Gibbons who opposed the call by some to set up
Catholic unions. He instead supported the right of Catholics to join unions
that were neither sectarian nor anti-clerical and affirmed that American
unions followed that model. Gibbons went to Rome to argue for an American

The experience of fascism brought christian and socialist trade unionist
together as their unions were forced underground and leaders imprisoned. It
was thought that the division in the labor movement weakened its ability to
respond to fascism. After WW2, the Vatican took a change in course and
wanted to get out of the business of sponsoring confessionally based labor
unions, while encouraging the promotion of social-christian thought. Local
bishops did not always agree with the Vatican but in Germany, Austria and
other countries, a single labor federation was created neither hostile to
the church nor an arm of it. In the Low countries, divisions were too
strongly in place to achieve this objective.

In France, the Christian Labor Federation (CFCT -- founded in 1919) was
re-created after liberation, but with an internal discussion as to which
direction to turn. In 1964, by a large majority, it voted to change its
name to the French Federation of Democratic Workers (CFDT), to acknowledge
that its members came from both Christian and humanist traditions, and
declare itself independent of any outside institution. It grew
substantially, attracting many French workers who did not wish to be a
member of the Communist CGT nor of the relatively weak social democratic FO
but also did not wish to be part of a sectarian union. A small minority
broke away, adopted the former name and continues the social-christian

The modern day CFCT is a small yet honorable union that stands proudly in
the social-christian tradition. The CFDT is also an honorable union, in no
way anti-clerical nor anti-Catholic and which includes large elements
animated by a social-christian philosophy.

Internationally, these distinctions have been reflected in the three postwar
world labor organizations. The historically Christian unions have been
affiliated with the World Confederation of Labour (WCL), orginally named the
"International Federation of Christian Trade Unions.� However, the majority
of the present day WCL members are from Third World countries, and this
expansion was made possible by its 1968 Declaration of Principles which
stated that the WCL was guided by "either a spiritual concept based on the
conviction that man and universe are created by God, or other concepts that
lead together with it to a common effort to build a human community united
in freedom, dignity, justice and brotherhood".

Social democratic unions formed the International Confederation of Free
Trade Unions (ICFTU) in 1949 after a bitter split from the World Federation
of Trade Unions (WFTU) which had come under Communist domination. George
Meany affilated the AFL-CIO with the ICFTU and many other Catholic figures
cooperated with the ICFTU because of it perceived stronger role in
anti-communist efforts during the Cold War period. WCL and ICFTU are now
moving towards a merger while the WFTU has rapidly declined since the fall
of Soviet Communism.

Kurt Vorndran

* This is a matter for its own essay. The behavior of the state churches in
particular towards the pastoral care of industrial workers was shameful. Whole
new industrial communities developed without any means to provide the
sacraments or with a single church being constructed due to indifference by
religious authorities. It is better said that workers were abandoned by the
church than to say they left it. The admirable exceptions to this are the
Methodist chapels in England and Wales and the Kolping Clubs in the German

Taras Bulba
Monday, June 26th, 2006, 07:36 PM
Im sure it may interest some here to know that Bishop Emmanuel von Ketteler was also a Pan-German nationalist, but felt that a greater German national state could only emerge under the leadership of the Austrian monarchy; not Prussia. ;)