Presbyterians and Labor: A Partnership Across Decades

1880s  As industrialization intensifies, many urban churches create neighborhood houses to minister to rural and immigrant people moving to cities for work.

1903  The Rev. Charles Stelzle is appointed to lead the Presbyterian church’s Workingman’s Department. The task is to minister to working people during the nation’s industrial transformation. It eventually become the Department of Church and Labor.

1910  As part of the department’s work, Stelzle founds the Labor Temple in New York City, taking a dying congregation and focusing its attention on working-class people. The church grows and becomes a model for social-service congregations serving multi-ethnic neighborhoods daily. For more than forty years, the Labor Temple is known globally for reaching immigrant working people.

1945  The Labor Temple proves the need to educate pastors for modern working-class realities. The result: the Presbyterian Institute of Industrial Relations (PIIR), which becomes a key ministry of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

1950s  Presbyterian interest in international missions grows, coinciding with a surge of industrial economies in Asia. Missionaries assist Asian churches that minister to industrial workers. The urban industrial mission model is born.

1966  The urban industrial mission model is adapted by the World Council of Churches and called the Urban Industrial Mission Office, led by Presbyterian pastor George Todd.

1968  As part of the WCC’s ministry, the Institute of the Church in an Urban Industrial Society (ICUIS) is formed at McCormick Seminary to train pastors for urban industrial ministry globally. in 1970, McCormick’s PIIR merges into ICUIS.

2000  McCormick Seminary, the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, and the AFLCIO start Seminary Summer, a ten-week internship for ministry students who work with labor unions and low-wage workers on economic justice.

The new century  Church initiatives for labor reform include coalitions to mobilize consumer power, organize boycotts, and engage corporations to save lives and improve working conditions in the name of the gospel. One example: the Campaign for Fair Food, an effort of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other organizations that partner with farmworkers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to establish practices within the fast-food and grocery industries that ensure fair wages and human rights of tomato pickers who labor at the base of corporate supply chains.

Source: Presbyterian Resources for Worker Justice