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Thread: Christian Trade Unions in Europe

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    Christian Trade Unions in Europe


    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

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    Re: Christian Trade Unions in Europe

    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.

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