Labor Day Statement 1993

Year Published
  • 2012
  • English

Msgr. George Higgins: A "Labor Priest" Challenges Us

Bishop John H. Ricard S.S.J., Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore
Chairman, Committee on Domestic Policy
United States Catholic Conference
September 6, 1993

For many years, this Labor Day Statement was the work of Msgr. George Higgins in his role as Director of the Social Action Department of our Bishops' Conference. This year, we focus our Labor Day statement on the message and ministry, the words and work of this remarkable priest. We focus on Msgr. Higgins not simply to recognize a giant in our midst, but to recommit ourselves to the Catholic tradition of defending the dignity and rights of workers which has been the focus of his life.

For more than half a century, Msgr. Higgins has been the bridge between the Church and the labor movement and a pre-eminent analyst and articulator of Catholic social teaching. In the Conference and across the country, he has challenged our Church to take our social tradition seriously. His powerful intellect, his respectful candor, his refreshing consistency, and his remarkable loyalty to both Church and labor, have made this Chicago priest a symbol of what is best in our social justice tradition.

This year Msgr. Higgins, working with William Bole, has authored Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a Labor Priest. In this Labor Day Statement, we share just a few of the insights contained in this very readable and challenging summary of the wisdom of the best known "labor priest." Not everyone will agree with Msgr. Higgins' analysis or agenda, but no serious student of the Catholic social tradition can dismiss it. No one makes the case for the Church's support for the labor movement more clearly than Msgr. Higgins.

Here are just a few brief excerpts from the book:

"Labor Priest"

Long ago I made up my mind never to turn down an invitation to offer a prayer at a trade union gathering. I felt then, as I do now, that in and through prayer for God's blessing, the Church makes visible its presence in the labor movement. In so doing, the church signals its support for the legitimate aspirations of working people.

Some would say that at this point, prayers are all that the American labor movement has going for it. I take a different view. No doubt the movement finds itself on a downward slide. But I prefer to look upon labor's moment of decline as a period of transition...

Not only labor, but the Catholic Church and other faith groups have arrived at a turning point. During the 1930s and beyond, the American labor movement drew timely support from churches and synagogues. The Catholic Church in particular blessed the struggles of workers to form independent unions and secure a living wage. After labor gained recognition in many industries, religious groups began to lose interest in the labor cause, generally speaking. More recently, with a revival of anti-unionism by employers, religion and labor have slowly begun to renew their ties.

Will the Catholic Church, my church, reclaim its heritage of support for the organization of average working people? I am afraid I cannot say for sure.
(p. 5)

Changing Challenges

Not surprisingly, in the 1950s labor problems began to recede into the background of Catholic social concerns. Once the auto workers, for example, became a highly complex institution with a million and a half members, what was there for the church to do? By the same token, it makes sense that in more recent years, church involvement in the labor causes gravitated toward areas left untouched by the earlier industrial organizing campaigns. In the 1970s it was the agriculture and textile industries that demanded a religious response. With the farm workers, the Catholic Church returned to the first principles. The U.S. Catholic Conference and other church-related organizations became deeply involved in the farm labor problem. But we did not enter the dispute to tell Cesar Chavez or the growers how they should write their contracts. What we did tell the growers (and I think to some extent we helped the farm workers, merely through the respectability that comes with church backing) was that they had to recognize the right of these men and women to organize and bargain collectively. (p. 63)

While Catholics remain more supportive of unions than do Protestants, the gap is narrowing ... This is mainly due, I suspect, to the thinking of many upwardly mobile Catholics. Many of them have bought into the idea that while unions may have served a useful purpose when their fathers, grandfathers, or great-grandfathers struggled to make ends meet, that is no longer the case. They seem to think, in other words, that in a society as affluent as our own, workers can readily fend for themselves in the so called free market; workers have no need to organize. Sad to say, they are wrong about that. Their own relative affluence has blinded them to the fact that, like their immigrant forebears, millions of today's workers struggle to maintain a minimum standard of living. Many of these workers are themselves recent immigrants, but not all by any means. A growing number of second, third and fourth generation American workers, who thought that they, too, were climbing up the economic ladder, now find themselves slipping back into poverty or near-poverty. All this, however, seems to have escaped the notice of many affluent Americans, Catholics included. During the 1980s they made much of the fact that millions of new jobs had appeared every year in the United States. They seem not to know, or at least not to care, that a sizable percentage of these jobs paid poverty-level wages. For too, many workers, economic growth meant twice the jobs at half the pay. (p. 66)

As we near the final laps of a century that made great strides in the labor field, the labor movement is clearly on the defensive, and the right to organize is, once again, a live issue. The right itself is seldom explicitly or directly challenged as a matter of principle or theory. But in everyday practice, the right to organize faces a huge assault. Hundreds of thousands of workers struggle against great odds to achieve or hold on to the basic protection and benefits of collective bargaining shared by their fellow workers in other industries and other countries.

In their efforts to form new unions or hold on to ones that exist, workers have met with widespread and increasing employer opposition -- which frequently violates the spirit and all too often the letter of the law. This led the American bishops in their 1986 pastoral letter on Catholic social teaching and the American economy to state that they "firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in our country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing." (p. 71)

New Labor - Church Cooperation

A revival of church-labor cooperation will require effort and determination on the part of many people. For those interested in forging this solidarity, I offer a handful of tentative but pointed suggestions on how and how not to go about it.

  • Both labor and the churches and synagogues have much to learn about each other's organizational structure, mode of operation, chain of command, and so forth... I would suggest, therefore, that both sides start off by getting to know one another in our local and regional communities and by listening to one another before we plunge precipitously into programmatic cooperation: Find out what each side can and cannot do, and at what level.
  • Labor and religion, no matter how united, are two very different institutions...
  • Avoid like the plague anything that smacks of a quid-pro-quo approach...
  • Beware of stereotypes. Church and labor people come in all shapes and sizes, and so do their organizations...
  • Go slow in dreaming about a national religion-labor organization...
  • Build relationships, and the issues will follow...
    (pp. 73-77)
It seems that the time is long overdue for church-related groups interested in the labor field to begin concentrating heavily on women in the workplace. Women make up nearly half of all workers, yet only a minuscule percentage of them are organized into unions. In all honesty, I must say -- speaking only of my own tradition -- that relatively few Catholic women take part in the Coalition of Labor Union Women and in other associations dedicated to the organization of women workers and protection of their economic rights. Similarly, any working coalition of religion and labor will have to pay significant attention to the problems of immigrant workers, the lowest paid of our increasingly low-paid workforce. Without female and immigrant workers, the labor movement has no future in this country. (p. 77)

The labor problem is not a matter of ancient history. It is an ongoing problem that calls for active involvement on the part of those who believe in social justice. While organized labor is undoubtedly far from perfect -- I even have intimations at times that my own church is far from perfect -- no other movement in sight would enable American workers to protect their legitimate economic interests. No other movement would enable American workers to play an effective and responsible role in helping to promote the general economic welfare both at home and abroad. (p. 78)

Labor and Church Institutions

[T]he men and women who mop the floors of our Catholic schools, work in the kitchens of our Catholic hospitals, and perform other tasks in these and other institutions ... have not volunteered to serve the church for "less than proportionate compensation." They are very much like rank-and-file workers in any other large-scale operation. They must punch a time-clock and submit to other personnel policies established -- unilaterally as a general rule -- by management. Their pay scale is also set by management. Theoretically, of course, they are free either to take it or leave it. But many of them cannot afford to leave it. They have to work to make ends meet. Finally,
if the truth must be told, their standard of living, in many cases, is considerably lower than that of church professionals who act out of these values of "generosity and self-sacrifice."

This means, at the very least, that church leaders and administrators of church-related institutions must unequivocally recognize the right of their employees to organize, if the workers so desire, for the purpose of collective bargaining. Any attempts, direct or indirect, to circumvent or interfere with the free exercise of this right will predictably lead to serious trouble. Such interference could divide the Catholic community for many years to come and neutralize the effectiveness of our programs for social justice both at home and abroad. This is simply another way of saying, in the words of the synod of bishops, that "anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes." (p. 115)

Furthermore, as I have told union leaders, dealing with hospitals and other church-related institutions is not the same as dealing with major corporations. By their own design, corporations exist in large part to maximize profits. Catholic hospitals, on the other hand, exist to perform the works of mercy. Unions should always keep in mind that these institutions are, after all, religious. Unions need to appreciate the sensitive nature of certain tactics, particularly strikes, in the context of a ministry such as health care. The nature of the institution calls for a somewhat more tactful approach than when taking on, say, a textile mill in South Carolina. I am probably saying no more than any good unionist would know intuitively -- that organizing a religious institution requires a finer touch. The point is worth underlining nonetheless. (p. 128)

A Visit to Disneyland

Several years ago I stayed in a hotel in Disneyland for a two-week conference. Anyone who knows anything about Disneyland hotels knows that the rooms are almost always booked, and so the owners make lots of money. I got to know some of the hotel workers, including the woman who cleaned my room. I asked her how long she had worked there. "Twenty years," she said. I asked if she would mind telling me how much she earned. "Minimum wage," was her reply.

I am often asked: Why are unions needed in this day and age? People should not ask me. They should ask the maid at Disneyland and other low-wage workers. If her situation was like that of other minimum-wage workers, she probably had no health insurance, in addition to no living wage. Health insurance, which originated at the bargaining table, represents one of organized labor's great contributions to the American worker. Without this coverage, people can run up bills for health care that would otherwise land them in the poorhouse. And yet, millions of non-union workers have no health insurance; as a result, more than thirty million Americans are not covered and several times as many are under-insured. (pp. 181-182)

The Lay Vocation

The over-whelming majority of lay people will never serve as "lay ministers" in the ecclesiastical sense of the word. They will exercise their ministry, their calling or vocation, not behind the altar rail or within the sanctuary but in and through their respective occupations, be they workers, employers, bankers, professionals, or what have you. Some may think this is much ado about nothing. I do not agree. At a time when the church puts so much emphasis on the work of catechetical, liturgical and other ministries within the church -- and rightly so -- we must pay attention also to those who work as Christians in what are sometimes denigrated as purely "secular" tasks --for example, organizing workers into democratic trade unions. (p. 210)

I am persuaded that, proportionately speaking, the justice and peace work of the church has tended to be a bit too clerical, too institutional, or, if you will, too "churchy," for lack of a better word. Before Vatican II, paradoxically, the Catholic social action movement in the United States, though somewhat limited in scope and burdened with an inadequate, top-down type ecclesiology, tended to emphasize more than we do today the laity's independent role, as citizens and members of secular organizations, in helping to solve social problems. At present, despite our greater theological awareness of the church as the "people of God," we tend to emphasize the role of church professionals -- be they clerical or lay -- in promoting justice and defending human rights. (p. 213)

The Higgins' Credo

At the height of the Great Depression, in one of his many books on industrial ethics, Msgr. John A. Ryan wrote two sentences that sum up his views on labor. This is my credo, as well as his:

"Effective labor unions are still by far the most powerful force in society for the protection of the laborer's rights and the improvement of his or her condition. No amount of employer benevolence, no diffusion of a sympathetic attitude on the part of the public, no increase of beneficial legislation, can adequately supply for the lack of organization among the workers themselves." I have spent my life saying this, in one way or another. (p. 78)


The agenda articulated in this book is unfulfilled. It is still our task to insure that people can find decent work, that the rights and dignity of workers are respected, that workers are not "replaced" for exercising their rights, that our Church practices what it preaches on participation and economic justice. These are our challenges this Labor Day.

Sometimes people ask "Who will replace Msgr. Higgins?" The answer is no one can replace Msgr. Higgins because he's still carrying this mission forward; because he's still the indispensable bridge between Church and labor; and because no individual can fill his shoes. But all of us can work with him to strengthen the ties between Church and labor; all of us are called to take up the task of defending the dignity and rights of workers. And on this Labor Day we should begin by committing ourselves to reading Msgr. Higgins' book and accepting his challenge to renew and strengthen the traditional ties between our Church and the working people of our land.
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