Remembering Msgr. Higgins on Labor Day

America magazine, the Jesuit journal, published an essay yesterday by Jesuit Father John A. Coleman on Msgr. George G. Higgins, the “labor priest” who had been an adviser to the U.S. bishops on domestic policy matters — and the principal drafter of more than a half-century of annual Labor Day statements.

Msgr. Higgins (CNS file photo)

“People often mused, in Higgins’ later years, whether our church would ever again produce such a scholarly, thoughtful and insightful labor priest,” Father Coleman wrote. “It does not seem that we have.”

So Father Coleman took the occasion to dust off one of those Labor Day statements, from 1990, which referenced the U.S. bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All,” for which Msgr. Higgins was also an adviser. (This year marks the silver anniversary of the pastoral letter, and also, as Father Coleman noted, the 10th anniversary of Msgr. Higgins’ last contribution to a Labor Day statement, the 30th anniversary of Blessed John Paul II’s encyclical “Laborem Exercens” and the 120th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum.”)

That 1990 statement noted that “Economic Justice for All” “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,'” calling for labor and management to join with government “in developing new forms of bona fide partnership for the public good” in light of the increased competition wrought by globalization.

Msgr. 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,” Father Coleman wrote. Further, Msgr. Higgins “marched with Cesar Chavez and documented the unfair wages and working conditions of the braceros” and “also took on Catholic hospitals who tried to break unions.”

Father Coleman also acknowledged two of Msgr. Higgins’ compatriots: Msgr. John A. Ryan, dubbed “The Right Reverend New Dealer” for his economic stands in the throes of the Great Depression, and former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, who saw unions as vital to economic democracy. But the priest also wondered what Msgr. Higgins would have thought of the recent Institute for Policy Studies report that showed that the CEOs of 25 U.S. companies made more money than their companies paid in taxes. “A generation ago, CEOs earned roughtly 25 times what an average worker earned. Today it is 325 times!” said Father Coleman, who concluded, “No bona fide Catholic, on Labor Day, can ever, in good conscience, nurture, in principle, anti-union sentiments.”

To read Father Coleman’s essay in full, go to

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