The Common Good
June 1994

A Lifetime of Defending the Workers

by Judy Coode | June 1994

George Higgins, labor priest.

In 1970, the truck drivers at Hudgins Moving and Storage, where my father worked as office manager, threatened to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Rather than allow them to organize, Mr. Hudgins, the owner, chose to give the drivers higher salaries. Growing up in a middle-class, conservative Catholic environment in Tennessee, this struggle, which occurred when I was 3, was the closest I ever came to labor unions, their members, or their message.

The subliminal message throughout my childhood was that unions were bad—they sucked money from hard-working businesspeople and swindled their members with high dues and inadequate support. In addition, their appeals for justice sounded suspiciously like evil communist schemes.

Attending a liberal Catholic university (and now working at a consulting firm that caters primarily to the world of unions) changed that subconscious message. The feelings of contempt have been transformed to an informed opinion of support. Not only was I informed about César Chávez and the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott, but I have learned that the labor movement’s ideals are closely connected with the values of social justice.

Organized Labor and the Church, written by Monsignor George Higgins (with free-lance writer William Bole), strongly promotes this philosophy. Subtitled Reflections of a Labor Priest, the book is less Higgins’ memoirs and more a reminder that principles integral to the moral character of the institutional and personal church compel the faithful to actively support organized labor.

Higgins, a 78-year-old diocesan priest, can be described as a veritable zealot when it comes to defending workers. He retired from the U.S. Catholic Conference in 1980 after working 36 years in its social action department. He currently teaches at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

Born into an Irish/German family in suburban Chicago, Higgins’ parents had no formal education themselves but were devoted to teaching their children the finer points of art, music, and politics. They instilled in them a strong allegiance to the Catholic Church.

Higgins continues with the story of his early years as a priest, his formation as a defender of workers, and his eventual position as Catholic Conference emissary between the church and the unions. He tells anecdotes about the labor leaders he worked with: Philip Murray of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and proponent of the Industry Council Plan; Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, "one of the truly progressive labor leaders"; and George Meany of the AFL-CIO.

An entire chapter is devoted to César Chávez, whose remarkable courage inspired the creation of the United Farm Workers and whose widely publicized boycott of the California grape farmers introduced a new generation of social justice activists to the workers’ struggle. Higgins was especially proud of the church’s support of Chávez and his campaign, despite the abuse dished out by rabidly conservative priests like Cletus Healy and Donald Happe. Writing before Chávez’s death in April 1993, Higgins states that "organized labor...has much to learn from [Chávez’s] creative leadership and the example of dedication and solidarity offered by farm workers."

HIGGINS IS SUCH A supporter of the labor movement that it seems difficult for him to approach the touchy subject of union hostility and corruption. The anti-UFW campaign fought by Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters greatly distressed Higgins, and he mourns the tendency of some laborers to yield to management out of greed. He spends one chapter discussing the criticisms aimed at unions—both the salaries of union leaders and the questions about ethical behavior. (He says labor leaders are human and have flaws; support their organizations and challenge the people when they forget their ethics.)

I agree with the book’s theme—that Christians, particularly Catholics (actually, very little is mentioned about mainstream American Protestant churches), have a moral obligation to support labor unions. Higgins quotes liberally from several encyclicals such as Populorum Progressio, Mater et Magistra, and Laborem Exercens. These crucial documents demonstrate the Catholic Church’s defense of labor unions, but the texts are unfamiliar to most laypeople and some of the citations are long and difficult to wade through.

He also refers to 1991 being the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s "ground-breaking encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (‘New Things’), which endorsed the rights of labor and launched the modern tradition of Catholic social teaching....[O]bservances of the centenary of Rerum Novarum were phenomenally widespread. I had never seen anything quite like it in my lifetime."

While the weakness of the book is Higgins’ tendency to overwrite, the book’s strength is its topic: It’s interesting because many people involved with social justice never come into contact with the labor unions, and Higgins is a consummate insider. His total devotion to the cause is refreshing and inspiring, and his story, despite clichés and wordiness, is fascinating.

Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a Labor Priest. By George Higgins and William Bole. Paulist Press, 1993.

JUDY COODE, a former Sojourners intern, lives and works in Washington, D.C.

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