Christian Trade Unionists Conference

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Christian Trade Unionists Conference

Switzerland 1908


Beginning in the 1880s, Christian trade unions formed in the industrial areas of the Rhine region. At the beginning of the twentieth century, national federations came into being. Delegates of the existing national federations convened in Zurich, Switzerland, on 2-5 August 1908, at the invitation of the Cologne office of the German confederation of Christian unions. They founded an international secretariat housed in Cologne, Germany, under the direction of Adam Stegerwald. Members included all national federations of Christian unions: German, Belgian, Dutch, Austrian, Italian, Swiss, and Polish. France was not represented because the Christian unions there were not yet brought together in such a national federation. Dutch Catholic unions did not join at this time, but the separate Protestant union federation did. A Swedish group was represented initially but dropped out. The make-up of the member federations was predominantly Roman Catholic but with an important Protestant contingent. While textile and agricultural unions formed the largest contingents, an array of other industries also participated Facing their doubly minoritarian position as vindicators of the rights and demands of labor in the church world, while defending Christian ways of life and thought in the world of labor, the delegates sought to strengthen their cause by mutual support and international ties. Delegates elected an international continuation committee consisting of union representatives from Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. A follow-up meeting convened in Cologne in 1911, but little else transpired in the run-up to World War I. Shortly after the war, however, the International Confederation of Christian Trade Unions took shape.


  • 1888: Serbian-born American electrical engineer Nikola Tesla develops a practical system for generating and transmitting alternating current (AC), which will ultimately—and after an extremely acrimonious battle—replace Thomas Edison's direct current (DC) in most homes and businesses.
  • 1893: New Zealand is the first nation in the world to grant the vote to women.
  • 1901: Guglielmo Marconi makes the first successful transmission and reception of a radio signal.
  • 1904: The ten-hour workday is established in France.
  • 1908: An earthquake in southern Italy and Sicily kills some 150,000 people.
  • 1908: The U.S. Supreme Court, in the Danbury Hatters' case, rules that secondary union boycotts (i.e., boycotts of non-union manufacturers' products, organized by a union) are unlawful.
  • 1908: Ford Motor Company introduces the Model T.
  • 1908: Robert S. S. Baden-Powell founds the Boy Scouts in England.
  • 1908: The Tunguska region of Siberia experiences a strange explosion, comparable to the detonation of a hydrogen bomb, whose causes will long be a subject of debate. Today, many scientists believe that a comet caused the Tunguska event.
  • 1911: Turkish-Italian War sees the first use of aircraft as an offensive weapon. Italian victory results in the annexation of Libya.
  • 1915: A German submarine sinks the Lusitania, killing 1,195, including 128 U.S. citizens. Theretofore, many Americans had been sympathetic toward Germany, but the incident begins to turn the tide of U.S. sentiment toward the Allies.
  • 1918: The Second Battle of the Marne in July and August is the last major conflict on the Western Front. In November, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, bringing an end to the war.

Event and Its Context

The World of European Labor

The spur to the conference of Christian trade unionists was the clear head start that socialist labor had attained in organizing the industrial workforce in Europe. Christian unionists found it impossible to join socialist unions as long as the latter denigrated religion and pursued class enmity or the dictatorship of the proletariat as their policy. The Christian unions that they founded from the 1880s on appealed to those workers who were not out to identify Christianity with bourgeoisie or capitalism nor to dispossess the owners of productive property. All the same, the confederation's members harbored deep distrust of the economic liberalism (i.e., actually existing capitalism) that erected into natural law the workings of markets and led to drastically unequal benefits for capital and labor. They were deaf, for example, to the blandishments of paternalist employers' associations that promised charity in return for docility. As far as strikes were concerned, Christian unions considered them a last resort but engaged in them often enough to retain the loyalty of their members and to arouse the ire of employers and a good part of respectable churchdom.

Internationally, the new German emperor, Wilhelm II, hosted an international conference on labor legislation in 1890 in Berlin, with little in the way of results. A social Catholic in Switzerland, Kaspar Decurtins, took up the cause and proposed a nongovernmental international conference on the same subject in Zurich in 1897. At this meeting some Christian labor leaders, along with interested socialist and bourgeois participants, met and endorsed certain minimum standards. In the framework of the Second International (founded 1889), the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centers came into existence in 1901-1902. This was an alliance that Adam Stegerwald in particular wished to emulate and rival.

Roman Catholicism

An internal controversy periodically erupted into public view over the correct interpretation of Rerum Novarum, the 1891 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII "on the condition of labor." This authoritative pronouncement, which would attain the status of a veritable "charter" of Catholic social teaching, contained a severe denunciation of materialistic socialism. The encyclical defended private property, including ownership of the means of production, but gave precedence to the human dignity of workers and owners alike, which ownership must serve, making employment and goods available to those who need them. Leo XIII blamed the oppressive conditions that gave rise to socialism on the prevailing economic materialism and individualism of the leading classes.

In a critical clause, the pope allowed that Catholic associations could be formed with a workers-only membership. Taken together with his encouragement for labor legislation to curb the worst abuses, such as child labor and an excessively long work week, and his condoning of strikes when all else failed, Catholic workers took the encyclical as opening the gate to unionism. There had been precedents: of particular note was the endorsement of British-style unionism in 1869 by Bishop Emmanuel Ketteler of Mainz (1811-1877). Rerum Novarum came at the right time to spur the development of trade unions in the 1890s. Some institutional support and personal commitment on the part of Catholic politicians, intellectuals, and clergy came to the aid of struggling labor leaders.

Rerum Novarum, however, did not address the details of organizing to vindicate workers' rights. It spelled out the pope's vision to some extent: it depicted a harmonious Catholic utopia. Under the guidance of the church, workers and employers would cooperate to form trade associations that themselves would set standards of humane treatment of labor. The members would then uphold the standards with the backing of state authority, if necessary. Militant trade unions were not really what the pope had in mind, at least not as a part of an ideal Catholic social order. The exception just noted was a concession to prevailing circumstances. In 1903, with the accession of a more reactionary pope, Pius X, the Catholic opponents of trade unions painted all unions, Christian ones included, as enemies of civil peace and destroyers of the social order.

Thus the delegates to the International Conference of 1908 had an additional motive for cohesion: to oppose trends in Catholicism that were hostile to unions. The issue of interconfessionality (Protestants and Catholics in the same labor organization) thus consumed much energy at the conference and explained the Dutch Catholic union's refusal to join. The controversy was a sign of the unresolved issue of the autonomy of labor from the control of the bishops. Catholic trade unionists in general, and the German ones in particular, insisted on their autonomy vis-à-vis church authority, although a positive relationship was important. For purposes of retaining that autonomy, the Protestant component of the German and the international federations was prized by the mostly Catholic leaders. Dutch bishops, however, though recognizing that their nascent unions were to be run by the laity, insisted on separation from parallel Protestant organizations. For Christian trade union activists, the intertwined issues of interconfessionality and relative autonomy from church authority were life-and-death concerns.

The Christian unions had influential backers who made representations to the Vatican that enabled them to escape condemnation, but just barely (encyclical Singulari Quadam of 1912). Nevertheless, the matter was extremely controversial, with bishops split for and against unions in general and interconfessional ones in particular. During this crucial period before World War I, when industrialized manufacture became dominant throughout Europe, this Catholic antiunion campaign made it more difficult for the national unions to reach their full potential and hampered organizational efforts at the international level as well.

Subsequent Developments

The period of the greatest growth of the Christian labor movement commenced after 1918. It would lead to the establishment of the International Federation of Christian Trade Unions (IFCTU) with seat in Utrecht (not to be confused with the much more important International Federation of Trade Unions or IFTU). The International Labor Organization (ILO) recognized the Christian union members of the IFCTU. The role of P. J. S. Serrarens was emblematic of the importance of Dutch and Belgian Christian unions, and the French Conféderation Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens (CFTC) under Jules Zirnheld assumed a weightier role, especially after 1936. The Italian, German, and Austrian Christian unions fell victim to undemocratic regimes long before World War II.

At the same time, within Catholicism, the official attitude toward trade unions underwent a decisive turn. Since the time of Pope Pius XI (1923-1939), the right of workers to organize for the vindication of their interests and for the common good has been incontrovertibly anchored in Catholic social teaching, as evidenced in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno of 1931. The issue of autonomy vis-à-vis church authority remained problematic, however. Eventually it led, with other trends, to what may be called the secularization of Christian unions and their international confederation in the 1960s and 1970s. As World War II ended, labor leaders in both the Christian and the socialist camps wished to bury the ideological hatchet for the sake of strong unitary structures. Where this took place, as in Germany, Austria, and Italy, the unions' international allegiances went to the successor organization of the IFTU, which was refounded in 1949 as the ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions), rather than to the Christian union federation. The further history of the latter organization, with its roots in the 1908 Zurich conference, tended toward meeting the problems of workers in underdeveloped countries and continents. In 1968 the IFCTU became the World Confederation of Labor (WCL), with headquarters in Brussels.

Key Players

Debruyne, René (1868-1941): Debruyne, in his youth a bakery worker, became the first paid staff member of the Christian union association in Ghent in 1896. He was a Belgian delegate to the 1908 conference. From 1904 to 1914 he established the forerunner of the national Confederation of Christian Unions, which he headed from 1920 to 1931. Elected to the chamber of deputies, he retained his seat until 1939.

Eylenbosch, Gustaaf (1856-1939): Eylenbosch, a typesetter and cofounder of the Cotton Workers Union (Ghent, 1886), was a delegate to the 1908 conference. He was secretary of the (Catholic) Democratic League of Belgium, editor of the daily Het Volk, the first president of the national Confederation of Christian Unions (1913-1914), and senator after World War I.

Giesberts, Johannes (1865-1938): Giesberts, originally a mechanic and then a labor journalist on the staff of the German Catholic Volksverein, gave the keynote address at the 1908 conference; although he gave credit to social democrats for taking the lead in the labor question, he offered a rationale for the need for an alternative to their unions on the Continent. He chaired the continuation committee of the international secretariat. After World War I he became postal minister in the Weimar government.

Pauwels, Henri (1890-1946): Pauwels started work as a mechanic at the age of 14. In 1912 he began Christian trade union organizing among French-speaking (Walloon) Belgians for the Confederation of Christian Unions. As secretary general of this confederation starting in 1921 until he became its president in 1932, he was also much involved at the international level. After World War II Pauwels became president of the International Federation of Christian Trade Unions (IFCTU) and died at age 56 in an airplane accident in Canada.

Serrarens, Petrus Josephus Servatius (1888-1963): Serrarens was head of the Dutch Catholic labor federation and secretary general of the IFCTU (1920-1952) in Utrecht. He served as delegate and technical adviser to ILO conferences starting with the Washington conference in 1919, as member of Parliament (1929-1952), and from 1952 to 1958 was judge on the court of the European Coal and Steel Community.

Stegerwald, Adam (1874-1945): Stegerwald, a cabinetmaker and founder of a Christian woodworkers' union in Bavaria, helped establish the League of Christian Unions in Germany on a national basis and became its secretary general in 1903. He was the prime mover behind the 1908 conference and headed the office of the international secretariat in Cologne (1909-1914). Though favoring a realignment of parties after World War I, he remained in the Center Party while heading the large federation of factory and office worker unions known as the German Labor Federation until the Nazi takeover.

Zirnheld, Jules (1876-1940): Head of a French Christian office workers' union since the turn of the century, Zirnheld returned from German imprisonment to found the national Conféderation Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens (CFTC) in 1920, which then joined the IFCTU; he was president of the IFCTU from 1936 until his death.

See also: International Confederation of Free Trade Unions; International Labor Organization; Second International.



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—Paul Misner

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