This Labor Day I recall an episode in both the history of labor in the United States and in the history of the Catholic Church in America. The last half of the nineteenth century was a time of labor strife, as businesses grew larger, the fruit of the ongoing Industrial Revolution, and workers fought for improvement of working conditions that by any standard were frequently abysmal. Prior to the Civil War apologists for slavery often argued that the average slave in the South was better fed, better housed and better clothed than the average industrial worker in the North. This of course overlooked the entire question of liberty, but there were enough terrible examples of wretched working conditions in the North to give the argument facile support.
Unions sprang up to represent workers. One of the largest in its day was the Knights of Labor founded in 1868. Successful in several large strikes, by 1886 the membership totaled 700,000, perhaps a majority of whom were Catholic. In 1886 the Archbishop of Quebec condemned the Knights in Canada based upon the secrecy that attended the meetings of the organization and forbade Catholics to join it.
The American hierarchy voted 10 to 2 against condemning the Knights. Archbishop James Gibbons was going to Rome in 1887 to receive his red hat as Pope Leo XIII had made him a Cardinal. While there he took the opportunity to submit a lengthy letter in support of the Knights. Although the letter bears the name of Gibbons, it was probably written by his friend Bishop John Ireland of Saint Paul, who had long been active in support of the rights of workers. The letter did the trick and the Vatican announced that the Knights were not to be condemned. The arguments made in the letter had an impact on Pope Leo XIII and helped lay the groundwork for his historic encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) in which he defended the rights of workers to organize to seek better working conditions. Ironically the subject matter of the letter, the Knights of Labor, was in decline, too many of its strikes having involved violence which the leadership of the Knights condemned, but which tarnished the Knights in the eyes of the public. The Knights would cease to operate as a labor union in 1900, newer unions taking the place of this pioneering organization.
The letter of Cardinal Gibbons stressed that Catholic workers in America who belonged to labor organizations were not hostile to the Church as often occurred in Europe where Unions were organized by Leftist and Anarchist groups. In America most Americans supported the workers in their struggle to improve their lot, with both major political parties vying to pass legislation aiding workers. In short, the letter explained American labor and political conditions to the Vatican and how these differed substantially from those existing in Europe. The letter and the decision of the Vatican were good examples of effective communication between American ecclesiastics and Rome. Here is the text of the letter: