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‘The Labor Priest’: Hope in the union movement


The casual cruelties of the new economy defy common sense and common decency.” So believes Msgr. George Higgins, who for 45 years at the U.S. Catholic Conference, was the bishops’ conscience on just wage and labor issues.

“In too many ways, our economy is sending the message that working people and the work they do are being demeaned, not dignified,” Higgins has repeatedly declared. “When profitable companies downsize, dedicated employees are told their years of conscientious service don’t count for much.”

They do with Higgins, who is 83 and has replacement hips that have slowed but not ended his peripatetic crusading for U.S. workers — blue collar and white collar.

The Chicago-born priest -- often referred to as “The Labor Priest,” recently said, “I want to live in hope. You live in hope because unless you are in hope you don’t act, you don’t think, you don’t involve yourself. So I’m involved. I belong to all kinds of organizations. I act. So I think, yes, I live in hope.”

And on platforms. He has been to Las Vegas many times in recent years, including earlier this year. One of Higgins’ lifelong hopes is in the U.S. labor movement. Today he stands by the economic state of the nation summary he gave at Georgetown University Law Center a couple of years back.

Despite the booming economy and Wall Street records, the situation, Higgins said last month, has not changed except to worsen.

“When their wages stagnate while their companies prosper, working people are told that their effort and skill aren’t valued. And, when health care and pensions are cut back, working people are told that nobody cares what happens when they get sick or grow old.

“From 1979 through 1995 more than 43 millions jobs were eliminated in corporate downsizing at GM, IBM, AT&T, Boeing, the Chemical and Chase Manhattan banks, and other leading companies. And, when they found new jobs, two-thirds of these workers were paid less than in their old ones.

“Fringe benefits and pension plans are vanishing. From 1989 to 1994, a million people a year lost their health coverage. And companies are cutting back employees’ pension benefits, or even trying to raid their pension funds.

“In order to stay even, working women and men are working longer hours than ever before. They are taking second jobs and even third jobs. And, as they spend more time at work, they are spending less time with their families, their children, their neighbors, their churches and synagogues, and community organizations from parent-teacher associations to little leagues.

“No wonder they worry that they no longer have the time to build strong families and teach their children the difference between right and wrong.

“No wonder — and this is as important as the loss of purchasing power — they feel a loss of the sense of community and common purpose that define our nation at its best.

“For most of us, work is an important way in which we exercise our humanity. We make a product or provide a service that is useful. And in return, society offers us not only our daily bread, but a sense that we ourselves are honored for the contributions we make.

“The wisest leaders understand that working people must have the right to exercise economic citizenship by organizing unions, bargaining with their employers, and making their voices heard throughout the society. This lesson has been underscored by the history of this century, as dictatorships on both the left and the right undermined democracy by destroying free and independent unions...

“That is why, in John Paul II’s 1981 letter, ‘On Human Labor,’ he declares that unions are ‘indispensable’ in today’s world, an argument that was elaborated by the U.S. bishops in ‘Economic Justice for All,’ their 1983 pastoral letter.

“In my own lifetime I have seen how the labor movement lifted millions of working people into the middle class; how it won the minimum wage, the paid vacation, health coverage and pension plans; and how it widened the circle of human dignity beyond skilled craft workers to industrial workers, public employees and teachers, health care workers, and many, many other workers who were once consigned to a lifetime of labor for low wages.

“And, even more important, I saw how the labor movement pioneered and pushed for every advance in social justice in our times: for civil rights and women’s rights; for educational opportunities for the young and Social Security and Medicare for the old...”

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999