This year marks the tenth anniversary of the last time Msgr. George Higgins, the quintessential labor priest, was an advisor for the United States Bishops' Conference' annual labor day message. George pretty much penned that Labor Day statement, from 1946 to 2001. This year represents also the 120th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII's ground-breaking encyclical, supporting unions and the right to bargain collectively for a just wage. In Leo's time, it was assumed that a living wage was earned by the man and was sufficient to support his family. Today, often enough, even with two-family earners, many parents barely earn sufficient money to support their families.
It is, simultaneously, the 30th anniversary of John Paul II's stunning social encyclical, Laborem Exercens, on the dignity of labor. Written at the time of the Solidarity Movement in Poland (which Higgins strongly supported), John Paul II saw unions as 'indispensable' to protect human dignity. This year, finally, is also the twenty-fifth anniversary of the American Bishops' important pastoral on the economy in which the bishops reinforced Catholic support for unions and what they called "Justice as Participation."
Drawing on a lifetime of service to working men and women, Msgr. Higgins espoused a term, 'economic citizenship' to refer to justice as participation. He phrased it this way: "Economic citizenship requires a voice in the decisions that shape your life and your livelihood--a voice in your job, your community and your country. Economic citizenship requires a sense of recognition and respect for the work you do, the contributions you make and your inherent dignity as a child of God."
In a Labor Day statement written in 1990, Msgr. Higgins cited his predecessor at the Bishops' Conference and his own mentor for his own doctorate in economics, Msgr. John A. Ryan. Ryan had coined that phrase, 'a living wage' and became known as 'The Right Reverend New Dealer.' At the height of the great depression, Ryan noted: "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 employee benevolence, no diffusion of a sympathetic attitude on the part of the public, no increase in beneficial legislation can adequately supply for the lack of organization among the workers themselves."
In that 1990 statement, Higgins cited former Secretary of Labor, Ray Marshall, a distinguished labor economist. Marshall insisted that strong and effective labor unions are necessary not only to protect workers' rights but just as importantly to safeguard political democracy. Marshall stated: "We should be particularly concerned about the weakening of labor organizations, because we are not likely to have a free and democratic society without a free and democratic labor movement. Trying to have economic democracy without unions is like trying to have political democracy without political parties."
Higgins had been a close advisor for the 1986 Bishops' Letter on the Economy. That document stated: "The Church fully supports the rights of workers to form unions, to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions. No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing." What the bishops might say today ( if they ever found again some common voice on anything other than abortion and same sex marriage) as Governors try to break the backs of unions or refuse to accept genuine attempts by unions to compromise on pay or pension costs is anyone's guess. I feel sure I know what Higgins would say.
Higgins noted in that 1990 Labor Day statement: "In stressing the need for strong and effective labor unions and opposing efforts to thwart labor's right to organize, the Pastoral is not suggesting that unions in the United States are above criticism. Moreover, the Pastoral is not siding against management, much less pitting labor against management. To the contrary, it explicitly states that workers have obligations to their employers and that trade unions and their management counterparts jointly ' have duties to society as a whole.' The Pastoral, calling for 'an imaginative vision of the future that can help shape economic arrangements in critical new ways' strongly emphasizes the representative and coordinating role of organixed labor and management, jointly assisted by government, in developing new forms of bona fide partnership for the public good." In fact, given new challenges to American productivity from globalization, argued Higgins, such a new sense of partnerhsip between workers and management may be crucial to remain competitive. It is a mistake, he argued, to see labor and management as, necessarily, always at arms' length or inherently always adversarial.
Higgins never missed an opportunity to pray a benediction at a union gathering. He also, almost single-handedly, kept the AFL-CIO from endorsing a pro-abortion policy stance. Higgins who had marched with Caesar Chavez and documented the unfair wages and working conditions of the braceros, also took on Catholic hospitals who tried to break unions. As an elder statesman, he showed up at a Catholic hospital in Sacramento, California to support the right of its workers to organize a union.
I was wondering what George Higgins ( whom I greatly admired. I dedicated my 1982 book, An American Strategic Theology, to him) might have remarked about the recent report in the Atlantic from the Institute of Policy Studies. That report shows how 25 CEO's of large corporations earned more than their companies paid in taxes! Many of their companies ( through corporate lobbying and tax loopholes) actually got tax refunds. A generation ago, CEO's earned roughly 25 times what an average worker earned. Today it is 325 times! The Atlantic article noted how 40,000 Verizon workers returned to work, after a losing strike, without new contracts. They were being asked to pay $3,000 more for their health care. All the while, the company's top five executives walked off with a quarter of a billion dollars in pay over a four year period. Verizon received a tax refund in 2010.
Those who want to know more about Higgins can consult the book by John J. O' Brien, George G. Higgins and The Quest for Worker Justice: The Evolution of Catholic Social Thought in America (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005). People often mused, in Higgins' later years, whether our church would ever again produce such a scholarly, thoughtful and insightful labor priest. It does not seem that we have. Throughout his years, Higgins remained committed to unionization, fought for structural changes which would remove poverty and unemployment as well as racial discrimination and challenged both big business and organized labor to be accountable to the public good. Not a bad reminder to all of us on Labor Day. No bona fide Catholic, on Labor Day, can ever, in good conscience, nurture, in principle, anti-union sentiments.
John A. Coleman, S.J.