"The laborer's right to a decent livelihood": Catholic social thought and activism and the United States minimum wage, 1879--1938
My dissertation explores the development of Catholic social thought and activism in the United States from the 1870s to the 1930s. I argue that Irish-Catholic laypeople and clergy helped to shape minimum wage policy from its origins in state laws for women, to the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. Irish-Catholic minimum wage advocates derived their views of economic justice from Catholic traditions of anti-individualism and moral control over economic practice that challenged economic liberalism. These activists understood these Catholic traditions in the context of American democratic and republican ideals; Catholic minimum wage advocates developed a view of social justice that drew on both Catholic and American ideals.
I also argue that working-class Catholic activism prompted the Catholic Church to interpret its own traditions to support the worker's right to a living wage. Because the American Catholic Church was overwhelmingly working-class in the late nineteenth century, Catholic labor activism influenced the American Catholic hierarchy's position on labor issues, and with European labor protest, led to Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, or On the Condition of the Working Classes.
Rerum Novarum provided a doctrinal basis for Father John Ryan and Father Edwin O'Hara's critiques of the injustices of American capitalism in the early twentieth century. While the encyclical condemned socialism and affirmed private property, it also declared that workers had a natural right to a living wage, and advocated state intervention to protect this right. Emphasizing the Catholic Church's moral critique of economic liberalism, these priests actively challenged the most central tenet of liberal economics: the market-driven wage. Irish-Catholic laywomen, especially prominent among women labor leaders, understood this ethno-religious social justice tradition through a gendered lens. Their ethnic “industrial feminism” informed their activism in minimum wage campaigns for women workers.
Catholic traditions of anti-individualism provided a cultural basis for Irish-Catholic minimum wage advocates' critiques of economic liberalism. Catholic minimum wage advocacy demonstrates that Catholics and Catholic culture helped to shape American labor activism and wage policy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Fair Labor Standards Act 1938-US;
0629: Labor relations
0510: Labor economics