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The legacy of a workers’ champion


Msgr. George Gilmary Higgins died May 1 at the age of 86 after more than half a century as a leading advocate for workers rights, economic and social justice and better interfaith relations.

He was hospitalized with a severe infection Jan. 19 just hours after he gave a lively talk in a social justice workshop in his boyhood parish of St. Francis Xavier in LaGrange, Ill.

Higgins built a 58-year-long ministry based in Washington that was unique, beginning with his appointment in 1944 as a social action official for the U.S. Catholic bishops through his most recent role as professor emeritus of The Catholic University of America.

He worked tirelessly to elevate the dignity and better the economic status of working people through their right to form trade unions. He championed civil rights and sought to improve the relationship between Catholics and Jews.

A confidant and adviser to leaders in labor, church and state, Higgins exercised a behind-the-scenes role as an advocate of social justice. Over the years he sided with the causes of migrant farm workers, steelworkers, miners, janitors, maids, teachers, nurses and others. He occasionally joined a picket line but more often accomplished his goal by talking and listening to all sides in a dispute.

He was honored with a string of awards in recent years, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, conferred by President Clinton in 2000.

Applied church teaching

“For more than 60 years now, he has organized, marched, prayed and bled for the social and economic justice of working Americans,” the president said as he presented the award.

At graduation ceremonies last May, the University of Notre Dame awarded him the 2001 Laetare Medal, given annually to a Catholic for contributions to society.

Higgins made his views widely known through “The Yardstick,” a weekly column he wrote for 56 years that appeared in many diocesan newspapers. While frequently devoted to labor issues, the column also commented on the application of church teaching to a wide range of peace and justice issues, including human rights, racism and anti-Semitism. Only when he was afflicted with macular degeneration, an incurable eye disease, did he give up the column last year.

In his last column written for Labor Day in September, he said with typical modesty that a review of his topics “reminded me that on many issues I was more or less on target, but that on others I was wide of the mark, if not completely wrong.”

But Higgins never lost faith that the best way workers’ rights could be advanced was through organizing, even as the manufacturing base of the nation narrowed and union membership declined.

His position led him into confrontations with Catholic hospitals and other institutions that have been resistant, as unions in recent years turned to nonprofit organizations to organize.

“A Christian community that fails to respect the dignity of its own employees is a contradiction in terms -- or, in any event, will be perceived as such by its disaffected workers. This is not to say workers must belong to a union to have a sense of their own dignity. It is to say, however, that their right to organize must be respected,” Higgins wrote in “The Yardstick” in 2000.

He often reminded American Catholics that they should not forget their immigrant roots and that new immigrants who are mostly low-wage workers need the support of the church.

Time to change course

He said at Notre Dame when he received the Laetare Medal that the argument that church efforts to help the poor should be only spiritual “finds no support anywhere in the entire corpus of Catholic social teaching, least of all in the social teaching of Pope John Paul II.”

In the same address he chided conservative Catholics, saying, “It remains to be seen when, if ever, American conservatives and neo-conservatives will respond in practice, as opposed to pure theory, to the pope’s strong endorsement of trade unions. In recent years, too many of our leading conservatives and neo-conservatives have been thunderously silent on this issue. ... The time has come to change course and belatedly come out loud and clear in support of the legitimate goals of organized labor.”

The son of a Chicago postal worker who was a staunch labor supporter and student of papal social encyclicals, Higgins was born in La Grange on Jan. 21, 1916. He entered Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago when he was 13. He took the confirmation name Gilmary in tribute, he explained, to John Gilmary Shea, a preeminent historian of the American Catholic church, who was Notre Dame’s first recipient of the Laetare Medal in 1883.

Ordained in 1940, the young priest studied at The Catholic University of America, where he was awarded a doctorate in labor economics in 1944. He was invited to serve as a summer replacement for a sick staff member of the National Catholic Welfare Conference but stayed for 36 years, going through the body’s reorganization in the late 1960s as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference.

He was made papal chamberlain with the title of monsignor in 1953 and a domestic prelate in 1959 and was a consultant at the Second Vatican Council.

He played a key role in the U.S. bishops’ 1969 decision to form a special committee to mediate the bitter dispute between grape growers and the fledgling United Farm Workers union. As a consultant to the committee, he played a central role in bringing the growers and workers to the negotiating table in the early 1970s.

Ministry of presence

The committee’s field representative, who spent countless days crisscrossing the state with Higgins, was a young California priest named Roger Mahony, now the cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles. Upon Higgins’ death, Mahony said that his “legacy as the champion of workers, especially the poorest of workers, will be recorded in history as nothing but phenomenal -- and, I am certain, never to be duplicated.”

In 1980 Higgins was invited by Catholic University to lecture for both the School of Social Science and the Department of Theology. He taught there as a lecturer on labor and social ethics until 1994 and as a professor emeritus until 2000, when he moved to a nearby retirement home for priests.

But he continued his support for the labor movement. Often in a wheelchair because of hip problems in recent years, he continued to attend major union conventions and give his advice when asked.

He often referred to his work in the labor movement as simply a “ministry of presence.” When he was asked in a 1994 interview to list two or three of his greatest accomplishments with labor, he said, “I tend not to think in those terms. I’ve always felt that my role, a limited role, was ... just to be there, to be present, to give them support.”

He particularly took heart at the stepped up activity of the Chicago-based National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, which in recent years has revitalized links between religion and labor, as unions moved into the nonprofit field.

In November, the committee honored him as the “labor movement’s parish priest” at a testimonial dinner at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington (NCR, Nov. 23, 2001).

Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, then president of the bishops’ conference, told the assemblage of bishops, labor leaders and friends, “If there is a more respected priest in this country than George Higgins, I have not heard of him. ... Msgr. Higgins has no peers in this country today who can match his contribution to the Catholic church’s involvement in social justice for workers.”

AFL-CIO President John F. Sweeney said, “He has been an irresistible force in bringing labor and church together. ... We respect him for his strength, we revere him for his conscience, we stand in awe of his intellect and we thank him for his love.”

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

Gerald Renner, a former religion writer for The Hartford Courant, is a freelance writer living in Connecticut.

National Catholic Reporter, May 10, 2002