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 (Updated: June 18, 2006)

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The Development of Catholic Trade Unions in Europe

By Kurt  Vorndran
June 18, 2006
Just a few words for background for those less familiar with the European trade union historical situation, as some Americans may be confused by the references.
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 anti-worker establishment and the most unfortunate lack of pastoral care for workers by the Christian churches.  This, of course, resulted in increased 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 anti-unionism.  Starting in Germany, Catholics organized our own trade unions, styled "Christian Unions"  (i.e. structurally independent of the Church and often open to Protestants).
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 Christian unions. 
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), this initiative clearly was needed at its time.  However, as history progressed, the various federations 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 nstead supported the right of Catholics to join unions that were neither sectarian nor anti-clerical and affirmed that American unions followed that model.
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.  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 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 neither wished to be part of a sectarian union. A small minority broke away, adopted the former name and continues the social-Christian tradition. 
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. 
Kurt Vorndran

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