Posts with the tag: Labor Leaders

The Archivist’s Nook: CU’s Labor Chiefs


Catholic University Faculty: Carroll D. Wright, first U.S. Commissioner of Labor (1885-1905), courtesy of the U.S. Labor Department, and Charles P. Neill, second Commissioner of Labor (1905-1913), University Photograph Collection, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Several previous posts from The Archivist’s Nook explore the rich American labor history resources at Catholic University, especially those that have been digitized. Of course, labor history is intertwined with the history of business, economics, and government. One recent post focused on the first U.S. Secretary of Labor, William B. Wilson, who served 1913-1921 in the presidential cabinet of Woodrow Wilson (no relation). While not a Catholic, William B. Wilson was nevertheless closely allied with Catholic labor leaders John Mitchell and T. V. Powderly.  Remarkably, long before Catholic University held the collections of Mitchell and Powderly or was home of the ‘labor priest,’ its founding faculty of Economics were the first two federal labor commissioners, Carroll D Wright (1840-1909) and Charles P. Neill (1865-1942), who headed the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1885-1913, predecessor to Wilson’s U.S. Department of Labor.

Wright and Neill met at Catholic University where Neil was full time Instructor in Economics (later Professor) and department chair, 1896-1905, while Wright was a part-time Lecturer on Social Economics, 1895-1899, then honorary professor of Social Economics until 1904.[i] Among the early courses taught by Neill and Wright were Special Topics in Economics and several related to Statistics and Labor,[ii] many of which are still offered in 2019 in the Economics Department, part of the School of Arts and Sciences. Since 2013, Catholic University has also been the home of the Tim and Steph Busch School of Business and Economics offering a wide range of coursework in Accounting, Business, Entrepreneurship, Finance, Management, and Marketing.

McMahon Hall at Catholic University, home of the Economics Department where Wright and Neill taught classes. Year-Book of the Catholic University of America, 1898-1899. Washington, D.C., 1898, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

After the Civil War, amidst calls for a national labor agency, the first state bureau opened in Massachusetts in 1869. However, accusations that early officials promoted labor activism induced the governor to appoint Wright as new bureau chief in 1873. A war veteran, patent attorney, and former state senator, Wright‘s inexperience with statistics and labor problems was overcome by his renowned impartiality.[iii] In 1884, Congress created and the President approved a federal Bureau of Labor. President Chester Arthur passed over several candidates for commissioner from various labor organizations, most notably Terence V. Powderly of the Knights of Labor, and selected Wright in January 1885. Reappointed by successive presidents over the next twenty years, Wright built a reputation as a famous social scientist by focusing on factual investigation to create innovative reports on such issues as tariffs, unemployment, strikes, and wages as well as the condition of women, children, blacks, and immigrants. In 1893, he was also made Superintendent of the Census. Late in his career Wright taught at Harvard and was President of Clark College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

President Theodore Roosevelt, facing a major coal strike in Pennsylvania in 1902, appointed a commission to investigate, including Carroll D. Wright as Records, Charles P. Neill as Assistant Recorder. Another member was John Lancaster Spalding, Bishop of Peoria and a founder of Catholic University. Photographs courtesy of Raleigh DeGeer Amyx and Wikicommon.

The second Commissioner of Labor, Charles Patrick Neill, a child of Irish immigrants born in Illinois, graduated from Georgetown University in 1891, earned a doctorate in economics and politics from Johns Hopkins University in 1897, and, as mentioned above, was on the CU faculty, 1896-1905. In 1902, Neill was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to serve as assistant recorder (Wright was recorder) of the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission addressing a major strike in eastern Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter, in 1905, Roosevelt selected Neill to succeed Wright as Commissioner of Labor. President William Howard Taft reappointed him in 1909 and Woodrow Wilson appointed Neill Commissioner of Labor Statistics in 1913 when the Bureau of Labor Statistics was established within the new Department of Labor. Neill provided federal mediation services in railroad labor disputes and his investigation of the meat packing industry, prompted by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, resulted in a federal inspection law in 1906. In addition, his detailed report on child labor provided a basis for congressional legislation.

Letter from Wright to Neill about his prospects of becoming next commissioner, December 15, 1904. Charles P. Neill Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

After his departure from the Department of Labor later in 1913, Neill specialized as an arbitrator working for the Southeastern Railways, 1915-1939, and the United States Railroad Board of Adjustments, 1919-1921. He also promoted industrial safety and workmen’s compensation laws. His charitable work included serving as a member of the Board of Charities of the District of Columbia, and was Director of the National Catholic School of Social Service, 1921-1922. He had positions of leadership in professional societies like the American Statistical Association and was honored by Notre Dame with the Laetare Medal in 1922. A small collection of Carroll D. Wright’s Papers can be found at Cornell while the Archives at Catholic University houses the Charles P. Neill Papers while records of the U.S. Department of Labor and predecessor Bureau of Labor are at the National Archives. 


[i] Hooker, John J. ‘Seven Decades of Economics,’ The Catholic University of America Bulletin (33: 4), April 1966, pp. 11.

[ii] Annual Report of the Rector of The Catholic University of America, March 1896, p. 35; Year-Book of the Catholic University of America, 1896-1897, pp. 52-53.

[iii] Goodberg, Joseph P. and Moye, William T. The First Hundred Years of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985, p. 7, 11.


The Archivist’s Nook: Philip Murray – A Pennsylvania Scot in Big Labor’s Court

Murray adorns the cover of Time magazine, a symbol of his national stature, on August 4, 1952. Time Magazine Online.

In 1904, a young coal miner in western Pennsylvania, terminated for fighting with his boss over fraudulent practices, was also evicted from his home and forced to leave town. He sadly observed the workingman “is alone. He has no organization to defend him. He has nowhere to go.”¹ Thereafter, this Catholic immigrant from Scotland, Philip Murray (1886-1952), devoted his life to unionism, becoming one of the most important labor leaders in twentieth century America. He served as Vice President of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), 1920-1942; second President of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), 1940-1952; and first President of the United Steel Workers of America (USWA), 1942-1952. He worked to form an alliance between industrial unions and the Democratic Party as well as smoothing relations with the older American Federation of Labor (AFL) leading to the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955. He was also active in supporting civil rights and standing against Communism.

Resolution from a steel workers local in Monessen, PA, September 14, 1942, decrying the internecine Lewis-Murray conflict. Murray Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Murray was born May 25, 1886 in Blantyre, Scotland, to Irish immigrants William Murray and Rose Ann Layden. His father was a coal miner and his mother a weaver in a cotton mill who died when Murray was only aged two. His father soon remarried, to a Scottish woman, having eight children with her. Young Murray joined his father in the Scottish mines at age ten and went to union meetings with him. In 1902, they immigrated to the mining town of Irwin, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Following the travails mentioned above, Murray was elected President of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) local in Horning in 1905, becoming a member of the UMWA’s International Board in 1912, President of District 5 covering western Pennsylvania in 1916, and International Vice President in 1920. An effective negotiator, he worked closely and loyally with UMWA President John L. Lewis through two difficult decades.

After the New Deal began in 1933, Murray successfully reorganized the UMWA and increased membership under federal legislation enabling collective bargaining. His vision of social justice derived from his family union tradition and Catholic faith, in line with papal encyclicals on the rights and responsibilities of both employers and workers. Murray was also Chairman of the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee (SWOC), 1936-1942, and its successor, the United Steelworkers of America (USA), 1942-1952. After repudiating Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election, Lewis retired as President of the CIO, replaced by Murray, who promoted labor cooperation during the Second World War and supported Roosevelt’s reelection in 1944. In retaliation and after a bitter struggle, Lewis removed Murray as UMWA Vice President in 1942.

United Steelworkers of America, District #33 (Minnesota), Murray with members and officers, September 1943. Murray Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Murray was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and directed the CIO to establish a Committee to Abolish Racial Discrimination. After the war, he opposed the Taft-Hartley Act that eliminated the closed shop and controversially expelled Communists from the CIO He married Elizabeth Lavery in 1910 and they had an adopted son. A naturalized American citizen since 1911 Murray nevertheless spoke with a Scottish accent and often wore a kilt. He died November 9, 1952 in San Francisco and is buried in Saint Anne’s Cemetery in the Pittsburgh suburb of Castle Shannon. A biographer observed Murray never “sought the spotlight and yet his contribution to the welfare of the unionized workers was great.”³ Catholic University houses the Philip Murray Papers, which includes a digitized photograph series, along with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) Records, while additional related collections are at Pennsylvania State University (PSU) and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP).


¹Ronald W. Schatz. ‘Philip Murray and the Subordination of the Industrial Unions to the United States Government,’ Labor Leaders in America. Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine (eds) Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987, p. 236.

²Steven Rosswurm (ed.) The CIO’s Left-Led Unions. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

³Juanita Ollie Duffay Tate. The Forgotten Labor Leader and Long Time Civil-Rights Advocate-Philip Murray. Greensboro, North Carolina: North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University Press, 1974, p. xi.

The Archivist’s Nook: John Mitchell – Apostle of Labor

Contemporary newspaper depicting the people and events of the Anthracite Coal Strike, 1902. John Mitchell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Contemporary newspaper depicting the people and events of the Anthracite Coal Strike, 1902. John Mitchell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

May First is a date full of meaning as ‘May Day’, a traditional European spring festival, the Feast Day of St. Joseph the Worker for Roman Catholics, and International Workers’ Day for leftists. However one marks this day it is certainly an appropriate time to note one of the most important figures in American labor history, John Mitchell, whose archival papers, including an online digital collection of his photographs, are housed at Catholic University. If Terence V. Powderly can be called ‘Labor’s American Idol,’ Mitchell was widely recognized as The Apostle of Labor after he led the fledgling United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union through one of history’s most significant strikes, the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902. He also wrote two books, Organized Labor (1903) and The Wage Earner (1913), arguing capital and labor could work together if both were linked in prosperity.

Mitchell was born 4 February 1870 in the coal mining village of Braidwood, Illinois, to poor Irish immigrants. Orphaned at a young age, he had little opportunity for education, and by age 12 was working in the coal mines. He joined the Knights of Labor in 1885 and in 1890 was a founding member of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). He became an international union organizer in 1897, working alongside the celebrated “Mother” Mary Harris Jones, before being elected UMWA Vice President that same year, and President in 1899. Union activity in this era was a risky business as coal operators controlled the mines, coal towns, and coal miners who were forced to endure horrible conditions and long hours. Miners were often paid with coupons that could only be redeemed at company stores at inflated prices and had to buy tools and supplies such as dynamite for blasting and oil for lamps. As UMWA president, Mitchell, with his priestly mien, worked to incorporate new workers from various immigrant groups, mostly Catholic, who showed their affection by nicknaming him ‘Johnnie da Mitch.’   Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: John Mitchell – Apostle of Labor”

The Archivist’s Nook: T.V. Powderly – Labor’s ‘American Idol’

Group portrait of leaders of the Knights of Labor, with Powderly prominent. T.V. Powderly Papers, The Catholic University of America (CUA).

January 22 is the birthday of Terence Vincent Powderly (1849-1924), a man not widely remembered in the twenty-first century, but a national celebrity, an ‘American Idol’ if you will, in the tumultuous era of the late nineteenth century. Born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, to Irish-Catholic immigrants, Powderly was a reform minded Mayor of Scranton (1878-1884), head of the national Knights of Labor union (1879-1893), and federal bureaucrat (1897-1924).  He was also a supporter of Irish nationalism, serving in Clan na Gael, a secret Irish independence society, and the Irish Land League, a political organization supporting tenant farmers.

Labor friends and celebrities in old age: T.V. Powderly, Nineteenth-Century ‘American Idol’ with ‘Mother’ Mary Harris Jones, ‘The Miner’s Angel.’ Washington, D.C., 1909. T.V. Powderly Papers, The Catholic University of America (CUA).

A railroad worker, Powderly joined the Scranton Local Assembly of the Knights of Labor in 1876, assuming the national leadership as Grand (later General) Master Workman, 1879-1893. The Knights came into national prominence during his tenure, in part due to his rousing public oratory, peaking in national membership and influence in 1886. At this point, Powderly was so popular there were babies named for him. However, failures in several labor disputes and a divisive power struggle saw the Knights rapidly decline and Powderly removed by a cabal involving John William Hayes, whose papers are also at CUA. Perhaps Powderly’s greatest achievement, greatly aided by Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, was to bring about reconciliation between the labor movement and the Roman Catholic Church that distrusted and disapproved of labor organizations due to their secretive and ritualistic activities.

Immigrants, both detailed aliens and regular employees, working in an Ellis Island kitchen, Dec. 18, 1901. T.V. Powderly Papers, The Catholic University of America (CUA).

Campaigning for the Republicans in the 1896 presidential campaign, Powderly was rewarded by President William McKinley with appointment as Commissioner General of Immigration. Powderly’s efforts to reform conditions at Ellis Island prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to dismiss him in 1902, though he was reinstated in 1906 as a Special Immigration Inspector.  Powderly next served as Chief of the Division of Information, U.S. Bureau of Immigration, 1907-1921, and as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Commissioner of Conciliation, 1921-1924. He was also author of Thirty Years a/Labor (1889) and his posthumous memoirs, The Path I Trod (1940). In 1999 was honored as an inductee into the U.S. Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor, joining figures such as rival Samuel Gompers and friend Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: T.V. Powderly – Labor’s ‘American Idol’”