Monsignor George Higgins, the great "labor priest," died May 1 in his hometown of LaGrange, Illinois. How appropriate that he died on St. Joseph the Worker Day, or May Day, as it is known around the world.
Higgins was the best known and probably one of the most loved of the labor priests. He directed the social action department of the U.S. Catholic bishops for many years, and routinely preached and taught about economic justice and unions. He wrote articles prodigiously articulating Catholic social teaching on labor. He gave the opening prayer at AFL-CIO conventions for almost 50 years. He stood with workers in hundreds of struggles for justice in the workplace. And he mentored many younger men and women, including me.
The passing of Higgins, as well as that of Monsignor Jack Egan a year previously, marks the turning of an era. Although there are a few solid cohorts of these fine men who are still fighting for worker justice, by and large the generation of religious leaders that grew up during the great labor organizing expansion is dying. In leaders like Higgins and Egan, we lost a wealth of experience, relationships with labor, and wisdom.
In several of the memorial services, friends mourned his death and wondered who would take his place. The good news is that there are hundreds of new leaders emerging who understand the importance of engaging the religious community in economic justice issues and in building partnerships between religion and labor.
In the last five years, the work to involve the religious community in economic justice issues and to partner with the labor movement has increased dramatically. Local religion-labor groups affiliated with the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice have expanded from 12 to 60. A few years ago, few congregations did anything worker-focused over Labor Day weekend. Now, with the "Labor in the Pulpits" program, thousands of congregations hear sermons and distribute bulletin inserts focused on justice for workers.
Denominations are beginning to engage people in worker justice issues. The Catholic peace and justice directors are active leaders in many interfaith committees, as are the United Methodist Taskforce on the Worker, the National Baptist Labor Roundtable, the Minister for Labor Relations of the United Church of Christ, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. So the good news is that Monsignor Higgins' work is continuing and is stronger than it has been in decades.
The bad news is that the economic and political environment for workers is horrible. The number of workers who work full time and still can't get their families out of poverty is growing dramatically. The majority of new jobs created in the society are low-wage jobs. Disparity between rich and poor continues, and the policies of the current administration seem guaranteed to exacerbate the disparity. Unions aren't nearly as strong as they need to be. U.S. labor laws are the weakest in the industrialized world. Sweatshops exist in every city and many rural areas. And union-busting is alive and well.
Monsignor Higgins always reminded us to be long-distance runners. The injustice and inequity in society demand people who can stand with workers today, tomorrow, and 50 years from now. Higgins showed us how. As Mother Jones said, let us mourn his deathand fight like hell for the living.
Kim Bobo is executive director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (www.nationalinterfaith.org), which works to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions for low-wage workers.