Monsignor George Higgins “The Labor Priest” (1916-2002): Worker’s Rights Advocate, Journalist
By: Michael Barga
Introduction: Msgr. George G. Higgins worked in the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (later re-named the United States Catholic Conference) from 1944 until 1980 and served as director for thirteen years starting in 1954. He wrote for the column “Yardstick” from 1945-2001 and was a consultant at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s. He wrote numerous book reviews for Commonweal and America throughout his career, drafted speeches for the bishop’s press releases on social justice, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President William(Bill) Clinton in 2000.
Education and Career: Msgr. Higgins attended seminary at University of St. Mary of the Lake where he was ordained in 1940. After ordination, he obtained a Master’s Degree in Economics in 1942 and a Ph.D in Labor Economics in 1944 at the Catholic University of America. He was honored with the title Monsignor in 1953, was named a Domestic Prelate in 1959, and considered an expert adviser during the Second Vatican Council as a daily member of the U.S. Bishops’ press briefing team.
George Gilmary Higgins was born on January 21, 1916 into a devout Catholic home, and he entered Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago at the age of 13. His father, a postal worker, was a staunch labor supporter who studied Catholic Social Teaching, and his family had a history of pro-union machinists, firemen and engineers. In seminary, he saw priests that vigorously supported workers’ right to collectively bargain and “made the unions their parishes” during the Great Depression.1 After his ordination, he eagerly moved on to the Catholic University of America (CUA) for further studies.
Upon arriving at CUA, he found his interest continued to be drawn by the topic of labor unions, workers’ rights, and Catholic Social Teaching. He frequently found himself in contact with Msgr. John A. Ryan and Bishop Francis Haas, who were happy to have the young Higgins join them in their involvements with unions and activities such as labor arbitration. Both were mentors to Higgins, as was Rev. Raymond McGowan, who invited him to begin writing for “Yardstick” in 1945. The Catholic column was written by the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference. As would be acknowledged by many throughout his career, Higgins was an insightful, dynamic, and objective writer. Within a year, Higgins was the main contributor to the column which was carried by Catholic newspapers across the nation.
His early writing focused on the idea of “economic citizenship” which suggested that having a job was the pathway to having a voice. Fr. Higgins contended that labor unions were a necessary expression of economic citizenship as well as collective bargaining, and he often drew from Catholic Social Teaching documents, especially encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Populorum Progressio, to support his statements.
In the 1960’s, he became a consultant during the Second Vatican Council, selected for his expertise on the application of Catholic Social Teaching and also inter-faith relations, particularly between Catholics and Jews. Fr. Higgins’ relationships with Jewish leaders and communities tied into his social justice work, and his pioneering commitment to inter-faith dialogue throughout his life was highly honored by the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committees in June 2001.
Early in his writings for “Yardstick,” Higgins tackled the problem of racism as indicated by one of his articles entitled “We Can No Longer Tolerate Discrimination.” He found discrimination especially deplorable in labor unions which were supposed to advocate for a just society. Higgins identified the concept now commonly termed oppression in one Yardstick column: “All members of the white community and especially those of us who have benefited most from the system are responsible, in varying degrees, for the tragic plight of black Americans… in more ways than we realize and certainly in more ways than we are willing to admit.”1 In addition to writing critically regardless of the controversial nature of the subject, Higgins connected his writing to personal contact with individuals and communities. When the civil rights movement grew in size and activity, he was a public witness by participating in some marches and attended weddings and funerals of those who were involved in the struggle for racial equality.
In 1957, Higgins joined the Public Review Board of the United Auto Workers (UAW), which helped verify the union’s credibility as a non-Communist organization, an essential step to union development in his opinion. Previously, he had been a strong critic of the “Red Scare” McCarthy attitude at a time when most Catholic writers were in full support. Higgins became chairman of the oversight board in 1966 and remained in the position until retiring in 2000. In addition to his official role, he delivered invocations for the annual convention of the UAW – later renamed the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and the Yardstick highlighted smaller unions of longshoremen, teachers, transport workers, and farm workers also.
Msgr. Higgins had a lifetime of involvement in the latest events in the labor movement, meeting with Kentucky coal mine strikers in 1974 and challenging administrators at a Sacramento Catholic Hospital in 1999 from his wheelchair. He corresponded personally with a variety of labor, Catholic, and political figures including George Meaney, Dorothy Day, James Carey, Joseph Califano, and Hubert Humphrey. One letter to Humphrey, who was Vice President of the United States at the time, illustrates Higgins’ style of personal warmth, tact, willingness to share his opinion, and acknowledgement of others:
“I was very pleased to find you looking so hale and hearty after the strain of the past few weeks, but concerned to hear you say that you were afraid you might have picked up that germ which sent President Johnson to the hospital last week. Take it easy, Hubert. Don’t overdo it, and be sure to get your sleep. We need you.
You were so swamped with well-wishers and autograph hounds at the Plans for Progress Dinner last evening that I felt it would have been an imposition on my part to take up any serious business with you. This will explain why I am resorting to the formality of a letter to recommend Mr. Percy Williams as a possible member of the staff which you are now organizing to help you coordinate the various programs of the Federal Government in the field of race relations… Father John Cronin and I have known him intimately for a number of years, and we have the highest possible admiration for his professional competence and personal integrity. I am also pleased to be able to tell you that Monsignor Cantwell and many of our other mutual friends who worked very closely with Mr. Williams in Chicago before he moved to Washington share our favorable opinion of his qualifications as a specialist in the field of race relations.”2
In 1966, Cesar Chavez made national news as the strike leader of a grassroots farm workers’ rights movement, the National Farm Worker’s Association (NFWA). Fr. Higgins recalls considering it an obligation for the church to be involved lest the workers think to themselves “Where was the church?” when all was said and done. Chavez accepted the proposed role of Higgins and Bishop Joseph A. Donnelly to set up negotiations, a task they pursued relentlessly. At times, the clergy facilitators found themselves waiting outside as the two sides talked for long periods of time, and one session lasted eighteen hours over a half-cent disagreement in wages. Chavez noted in 1980, “I doubt that anybody has done as much for us as Msgr. Higgins has.”1 His presence and personality was a ministry of peace, especially since he was friendly and welcomed by both managers and workers alike.
In 1980, he left the Social Action Department and the United States Catholic Conference. His interest focused on the Polish Solidarity movement, yet he continued to write for the “Yardstick” and speak out on issues of labor. As the neo-conservative movement grew during the 1990’s, he challenged anti-labor union sentiment, even among fellow Catholics like Fr. Neuhaus. He continued to maintain his insightful, dynamic, yet always respectful writing style until he retired from the Yardstick column in 2001.
In 2000, Msgr. Higgins received the Medal of Freedom lifetime achievement award from President Bill Clinton for his tireless support of worker’s rights and advocacy of social justice. He also was given the “Pacem in Terris” award which recognizes a Catholic who brings peace and justice to their country and the world. George G. Higgins died on May 1, 2002. He is remembered warmly by many as the “labor priest,” and John J. O’Brien, Catholic Historian, describes Higgins’ work in putting Catholic Social Teaching into action as medicine for the “wounds of racism, poverty, and the plight of farm workers.”1 Upon learning of his death, AFL-CIO expressed that “Working people from all over will remember him and miss him” and that “three generations of workers have been very lucky to have him by our side.”3
Sources: 1. U.S. Catholic Historian Vol. 19, No. 4, Fall, 2001 “Social Catholicism: Essays in Honor of Monsignor George Higgins,” 2. George Higgins, letter to Hubert Humphrey, January 27, 1965. Accessed at The Archives of the Catholic University of America on January 26, 2012. 3. AFL-CIO website. Also, “Higgins dies at 85”New York Times January 10, 2002, Sacred Heart University website, George G. Higgins and the Quest for Worker Justice by John J. O’Brien, and The Archives of the Catholic University of America.
The AFL-CIO website: http://www.aflcio.org/
For More Information: Contact the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives at firstname.lastname@example.org or Phone: 202-319-5065
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Barga, M. (2012). Monsignor George Higgins “The Labor Priest” (1916-2012): Worker’s rights advocate, journalist. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/organizations/labor/higgins-monsignor-george/