Msgr. George Higgins: A Reflection by Fr. Clete Kiley

Recently the AFL-CIO and the Catholic Labor Network hosted an event honoring the legacy of “labor priest” Msgr. George Higgins. Fr. Clete Kiley moderated the panel discussion.

Several years ago, a Labor leader lamented to me that with Msgr. Higgins gone, the Labor priests are all dead. But it is clear from our gathering here that the “Mantle of Elijah” has been passed along to a new generation of Labor committed Catholics, and not just of priests, but of theologians, lay Catholic Labor leaders. Catholic workers, and lay ecclesial minsters. Msgr. Higgins would be delighted to see this.

For my part, I am here today as a representative of the Church of Chicago and the Chicago Labor Movement. I bring you greetings from Cardinal Cupich and from President Robert Reiter of the Chicago Federation of Labor, whose generous support got me here today.

George Gilmary Higgins was born on January 21, 1916 in Chicago. Twenty years ago, May 2, 2002 he died there. But Chicago was more than a book-end venue on his life’s journey. It was the city and the church out of which he came. It was in his bones. I believe it will be helpful to reflect on some aspects of his Chicago history.

On December 9, 1915, one month before George Higgins’ birth, Bishop George William Mundelein was appointed the new Archbishop of Chicago. A few years later Mundelein was named the first Cardinal of the West. The Church of Chicago in those days has been described as “the Confident Church”. In 1916 Chicago was the fastest growing city in the country. It was the largest Catholic Archdiocese.

Cardinal Mundelein was decidedly pro-Labor. He urged Chicago priests to be on the “side of the workingman”.  He hailed Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.  He heartily embraced the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ 1919 Program for Social Reconstruction. He created structures to better provide social services, and developed ways to support working people. He built St, Mary of the Lake Seminary- Mundelein Seminary today.  And every brick, wire and toilet was done by union tradesmen. Mundelein believed the Catholic church and American culture were compatible. He chose the seminary’s Georgian architecture to underscore this point. He wanted to inculcate future priests with this openness to America, with a sense of American citizenship, and economic justice and collaboration with all faiths working for the common good.

Among the seminarians who attended Mundelein’s seminary was Msgr. John Hayes. He is a key person in the Higgins story. He was ordained at Mundelein in 1930. He was THE Labor priest before George. In 1931 Quadragesimo Anno was promulgated underscoring the Church’s commitment to social reconstruction.  In 1933 John Hayes was sent to Rome to study for a doctorate in Catholic Social Doctrine. When he returned, he started worker programs and the local Labor schools. From 1940 to 1944 he served at the NCWC and organized the Labor Schools in dioceses around the country.

(a side note: Msgr. Hayes was my first pastor. He hosted a lunch every year that included Msgr. Hillenbrand, Msgr. Higgins, Msgr. Jack Egan, Msgr. Gene Boyle from San Jose, Msgr, Bill Kelly from Brooklyn and some others.  I was a rookie so my job was to get more ice. But what a legacy! Also, Msgr. Hayes had been pastor in another parish where a young parishioner asked him if he could become an altar boy. Msgr Hayes told the lad maybe he might want to become a Catholic first. Shortly after, Msgr. Hayes received Wilton Daniel Gregory into the Church.) This is a piece of the Higgin’s DNA I’m trying to convey. It was never just one individual doing the work, but a whole network of relationships that gives the context out of which we come. They knew each other and were organized back in their day.

In 1933 George Higgins entered Mundelein seminary. In 1936 Cardinal Mundelein appointed Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand as rector. Hillenbrand was a noted social justice advocate and liturgical reformer. Hillenbrand challenged the students to read every daily newspaper they could get their hands on.  They were formed to explore interfaith dialogue, to tackle the implications of economic and racial justice, and were urged to collaborate with Labor unions, the government, and other religious denominations working for the common good.

George was formed in a Church where the Pope, the Cardinal and the seminary rector were all in alignment around the social mission of the Church. They were clear about the dignity of work, the rights of workers, and the value of unions. This alignment put wind in George Higgins’ sails and allowed his life and ministry, and thus, the Church itself, to become such a beacon for working people. Msgr. Higgins worked his whole life with Catholic bishops and Labor leaders and workers to hold that alignment firm. We need this alignment now more than ever.  We need bishops, and priests, Labor leaders, and working people, really all of us, to safeguard this alignment in every parish and chancery, in every union hall, and on every work site, everywhere. In short, we need solidarity and unity if the Church will “ take the side of the worker” as Cardinal Mundelein urged George and his confreres to do so many decades ago.

Our panelists will now share how Msgr. Higgins’ legacy lays a foundation for what each of them, and all of us, are called to do today.

Fr. Evelio Menjivar, Pastor, Priest-Labor Initiative, Archdiocese of Washington.

Dr. Meghan Clark, St. John’s University- a bright generation of lay Catholic theologians;

Mr. Chuck Hendricks, a Catholic union organizer with UNITEHERE International Union, and the Catholic Labor Network.

George Higgins would love seeing this panel.

I came to the Church because the Church came to the workers

Recently the AFL-CIO and the Catholic Labor Network hosted an event honoring the legacy of “labor priest” Monsignor George Higgins. The Catholic Labor Network’s own Chuck Hendricks shared a remarkable story of his faith journey.

Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Chuck Hendricks, and I work with the Food Service and Hotel Workers Union, UNITE HERE.  I am also a parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Baltimore where my wife is Parish Council President, and I have taught elementary school children Faith Fund and Fellowship. I want to thank you so much for having this gathering, and for inviting me to participate. I have been involved with the labor movement for 24 years and have been part of the Catholic Church for 12 years. For me, the Catholic Church–at least a part of it– has become a place of strength, healing, and justice, which supports me and my family, and holds me firm in my commitment to social justice.

I found my way to the church through my union organizing, learning from the brave workers who led our struggles, and the amazing priests and young Catholics who brought the social teachings of the church to our organizing campaigns. The Church I have joined is one that welcomes the poor, struggles beside them, and stands up to the powerful, bringing the whole Church closer to the image of Christ. We continue to build that church with every action that we take, sometimes finding resistance both outside and inside the doors of the Church.

I was raised Southern Baptist, my grandfather was a Baptist preacher, but when I was fifteen I stopped going to the church of my youth, There was so much fire and brimstone and judgment in that place that I couldn’t see through it to anything else, I could see very little mercy. I did not feel the love of God. So, I left that church behind.

My organizing work became my family and my religion.  I organized my first union at Loyola University of Maryland as a painter and maintenance worker.  While we didn’t try to talk to the priests on campus or the students, they also didn’t try to talk to us. We were isolated and subjected to a horrible antiunion campaign waged by my employer and the anti-union consultants he hired. I was fired for organizing. The experience at Loyola made me more determined to be a union organizer. It certainly didn’t lead me to the Catholic Church.

After joining UNITE HERE, I moved to Palm Springs, California. Our membership was majority Catholic.  They looked to the priest at the largest Catholic Church for solidarity.  Fr. Miquel Ceja could not have been more different than what I had expected from a religious leader. He joined committee meetings to help workers feel strong; conducted blessings when workers spoke publicly, and even engaged in civil disobedience to protest mistreatment. This was the first time I felt myself open up to the Church.

A few years later when I moved to Chicago, I would hear about priests like Fr. Clete Kiley, or Fr. Larry Dowling, who supported housekeepers who lived on the south side. They stood by workers at events, urging them on, or leading in prayer. I saw how moved our members were knowing that these Priest where with them in their moments of weakness and in their moments of strength. My heart was opened even more.

The turning point for me happened during a campaign to organize the subcontracted cafeteria workers at DePaul University who were fighting for a living wage and affordable health care. During the struggle to get a fair contract, I was amazed by the dedication of a community of students who lived at the St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac House. These were young people who committed to living Vincentian Values for a year. These 19- and 20-year-olds were Catholic leaders: they led an Anti-War group, the pro-life group, cooked for people who were homeless and created a movement on campus to end food waste. They embodied the seamless garment of Christ.

They also made it their mission to stand in solidarity with the workers. They understood that subcontracted workers were still part of their community, and that they had a responsibility for the workers’ well-being.

And it was the young people of faith who pressed the administrators, the professors, and the leaders of the university to follow in their footsteps by standing side by side with the workers.  One special moment I will never forget was when Jillian, who ran the Right-to-Life committee on campus, went with workers to the President of the University to ask for his support for family health care: Because for her, access to affordable health care was a right to life issue. Those workers won, in large part I believe, because of people like her.

That year…. watching students and priests and workers moving together led me to explore my own faith. I felt called to go back to Church, any Church but not Southern Baptist. But I never seriously thought about joining the Catholic Church. I felt so distant from how I was raised. I tried the Episcopalians, the Methodists, and others, but nothing seemed to fit. Until one day I went to the Catholic Church in my neighborhood. It just so happened to be the day one of the DePaul students, Megan, was encouraging people to join the RCIA classes that she was instructing. It felt like a very special invitation. Megan ended up being my sponsor and my RCIA teacher as I joined the church on Easter day ten years ago.

The coalition that was built at DePaul was like a congregation. And that congregation opened the door for my conversion to Catholicism.

But I think that these struggles also open the Church to the world and the world to the Church. They force us to choose between a church that is safe with those in power and one that is challenging to those with privilege. Throughout the years I have seen us rise to this test.  Priests in the administration of Loyola University Chicago intervened to make sure that workers gained the right to organize and achieve a living wage. Here in DC, workers at Trinity University, Catholic University and Georgetown University have been organized through a card check process and have been able to achieve decent wages and benefits.  The campaign at Georgetown university was led by students of all faiths, led by Ignatian values.  Their call of “We are One Georgetown” was a challenge to the professors and the priests and their president to act according to Jesuit principles. And they did.

Priests have worked with us on other campaigns. Recently, Fr. Martin Burnham from the Theological College in DC performed the role of neutral party for Compass Group employees at the US Senate Cafeteria, where he counted cards with workers signatures, certified that workers wanted to have a union and bargain for fair wages and working conditions. Compass, the largest food service company in the world, agreed to this path: to be neutral, to give workers the choice, to agree to bargain in good faith and to have a Priest be the arbiter. The morality, honesty and standards of the priests allowed both sides to see this process as the best path for building a just workplace.

In all of these cases, the Church leaned in and stood with workers and urged the companies to respond to moral imperatives. And I have seen employers respond to this in a way that has led to solutions, allowing workers to organize free from fear, finding paths to life affirming jobs and building positive relationships between Labor and Employers.

When I was in Chicago, before even becoming Catholic I would attend the Rerum Novarum Dinner each year. At that dinner the AFL-CIO and the Church would issue awards to Catholic Labor Leaders and to Catholic Business leaders who exemplified the church’s social teachings. “We are one body,” and “what we do for the least of these”…. These rules applied to the wealthy in our congregations as well. At the time, this blew my mind, but what I have come to understand, through the work of priests, sisters, and lay leaders across this country, is that our faith and our Church can help bring out the best in all of us; together.

We, of course, have more work to do together.  Far too often employers, including those at Catholic institutions, do not meet the spirit of Rerum Novarum.

Some subcontractors at Catholic Institutions have told us they will not agree to a fair and neutral process for worker organization. In some cases, it is because the Company opposes the process and the institution is not urging them to do the moral thing. In others, however, it is the client, the Catholic institution in question, that won’t let them agree to a fair and neutral process. Recently in discussions with Sodexo, the food service employer, we believe, at the Theological College, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Sisters of Maryknoll, I was told by Sodexo that these two of institutions opposed allowing their subcontracted cafeteria workers to have the same process that was used at the US Senate, the World Bank, Georgetown, Loyola, St. Johns and Depaul University to allow the workers to form a union. The third they wouldn’t even discuss with me.

I came to the Church because the Church came to the workers. Every day we continue to take a stand, against the injustice out in the world, and for our Church: The Church that is allied with the workers and has a preferential option for the poor. The Church in which the shepherds smell of their sheep. The Church that prays at rallies, walks on picket lines, asks their subcontractors to support neutral processes for workers’ organizations, and creates life affirming jobs.

I hope to see the Church I was called to join continue this path.  I look forward to walking it with all of you.

Green Jobs for Justice, Labor Organizing, and the Catholic Faith

A guest post from CLN Member Milka Kiriaku

The work that I do within the environmental climate justice movement, seeing as it is deeply informed by the organized labor movement, has been deeply influenced by faith. As a working Catholic, I strongly believe in helping those who are most marginalized, particularly through their vocation in the world. I have devoted my career to advocacy- whether that be through fair housing organizing or food justice. In recent years, I have begun working on labor organizing around the green job sector for Black and Indigenous People of Color. This work is but an extension of my original belief in a basic dignity of all workers, particularly those in emerging manufacturing occupations.

I do this work through a small nonprofit: Sustainable Georgia Futures. Sustainable Georgia Futures is a grassroots environmental education and labor organizing nonprofit stationed in Atlanta, Georgia. SGF serves people in DeKalb County, Clayton County, and Fulton County. As a part of the Justice40 coalition, SGF received direct funding to target green economic growth in communities of color. SGF approaches this work through the lens of relational organizing and federal climate financing. Sustainable Georgia Futures connects low-income to middle-class workers of color to job and internship opportunities in the green sector. Additionally, SGF hires professional organizers and consultants to facilitate group meetings, or “House Meetings,” and to run the Green Fellowship Program. In both the House Meetings and the Fellowship program, recruited partners and hired fellows to engage deeply in workshops about the green sector, environmental climate justice, environmental racism, and climate gentrification in the city of Atlanta.

The Labor Movement and the Catholic Church, Then and Now

The Labor Movement and the Catholic Church, Then and Now: The Legacy of Monsignor George Higgins

Monday, May 2 @ 3pm ET

For decades, legendary “labor priest” Monsignor George Higgins was a living link between the American labor movement and the Catholic Church. Higgins passed away 20 years ago this May 1. To commemorate the occasion, the AFL-CIO and the Catholic Labor Network are hosting a panel discussion on Higgins’s legacy and the relationship between organized labor and the Catholic Church, then and now. This event will be livestreamed from the AFL-CIO in Washington DC.

Hosts: President Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO, and Patti Edwards Devlin, Catholic Labor Network

Moderator: Fr. Clete Kiley, UNITE HERE and the Archdiocese of Chicago


  • Fr. Evelio Menjivar, Archdiocese of Washington
  • Dr. Meghan Clark, St. John’s University
  • Chuck Hendricks, UNITE HERE and Catholic Labor Network
  • Ingrid Delgado, US Conference of Catholic Bishops

 CLICK HERE to register to view the livestream

Mass in Memory of “Labor Priest” Monsignor George Higgins

Sunday, May 1 @ 11am

Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle

1725 Rhode Island Ave. NW, Washington DC

For decades, legendary “labor priest” Monsignor George Higgins was a living link between the American labor movement and the Catholic Church. Higgins passed away 20 years ago this May 1. To commemorate Monsignor Higgins’ legacy, Cardinal Wilton Gregory will celebrate a special Mass at the Cathedral of St Matthew in Washington DC. Fr. Evelio Menjivar, an Archdiocese of Washington pastor and labor priest, will be the homilist. All are welcome to attend. The Mass will also be livestreamed on the Cathedral’s YouTube Channel. Questions? Contact

Daily Grind

The Working Catholic: Routine by Bill Droel

Clocks are everywhere because our modern economy needs to know the time.
     Our “regular measurement of time and the new mechanical conception of time arose in part out of the routine of the monastery,” writes Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) in Technics and Civilization (University of Chicago Press, 1934). It was long ago that Pope Sabinianus (d. 606) ordered bells to be rung seven times per day to alert the faithful to the liturgy of the hours.
     As an urban economy eventually emerged, merchants demanded more precision. A public mechanical clock appeared in Belgium in 1188; more places followed in the 1200s. By 1345 the measurement of 60 minutes to an hour and 24 hours to a day became standard. By 1370 Paris had a well-designed modern clock suitable for urban life. In the 1600s many families in Holland and England acquired a mechanical clock for their homes.
     Yet the monasteries came first, according to Mumford. They “helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine; for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.” As the years went by, however, some began to think that a “completely timed and scheduled and regulated” machine civilization “does not necessarily guarantee maximum efficiency,” Mumford concludes. Sticking to the clock is not best for human development.
     Meghan O’Gieblyn, drawing upon Mumford, provides a reflection on routine for Harper’s Magazine (1/22). Have people become machines, she asks? Is the routine imposed by our economy dehumanizing? Or “is it possible in our age of advanced technology to recall the spiritual dimension of repetition”? Does a spiritual motivation lurk “in the gears of modern routine”?
     High tech and advanced automation enhance work and life, say its cheerleaders. Computers and robots free us to set aside drudgery and bring forth our agility, flexibility, creativity and spontaneity. However, “the rhetoric of flexibility…despite its existential promise to make us more human frequently undergirds policies that make the lives of workers more precarious,” O’Gieblyn writes. For example, online retail and the apps on our mobile device decrease variety by conditioning our choice of products and services.
     The goal cannot be the elimination of clocks. Covid-19 previews an unstructured existence within a total computer economy, a total gig economy and a total do-it-yourself, round-the-clock life. What is the result of decreased regimentation? Maybe too many naps. Excessive internet surfing. Heightened anxiety about childcare and schooling. Unpredictable and/or lower wages. Spiritual exhaustion.
     Humane work and a fuller life is not liberation from repetition. The old analysis still applies: Despite talk about teamwork and participation, workers are estranged from one another, from the process and outcome of their labor and eventually from themselves. That’s because too few workers—from warehouse workers to floor managers to computer programmers to middle executives—are insufficiently taught the process and the product of their labor. There just isn’t enough time to do so, we’ve assumed.
     As for O’Gieblyn, she believes “there is [still] something transcendent in the pleasures of repetition.” Tranquility is not simply the absence of structure. She cites St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in saying that a full life requires habits aimed toward the common good. A good habit is not slavery; it is a form of grace. And freedom, O’Gieblyn concludes, is not “eliminating necessity from our daily lives.” Freedom is “the ability to consistently choose the good.”
     For more from O’Gieblyn, get God, Human, Animal, Machine (Knopf Doubleday, 2021).

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a printed newsletter on faith and work.

Wage Theft Still Rampant in DC Construction

Readers of this blog will recall how a Catholic Labor Network organizer visiting DC construction sites documented an extensive underground economy in the District’s construction market, one marked by substantial wage theft. We found that a system of labor brokers had emerged as middlemen between construction workers and contractors in several trades. These brokers would supply labor to drywall, plumbing, HVAC and electrical contractors, but pay the workers as if they were independent contractors – denying them overtime pay and failing to pay their social security taxes or workers’ compensation premiums. The Catholic Labor Network generated a major report on the phenomenon. It won’t surprise readers to hear that the victims of these scams are usually recent immigrants, often undocumented ones.

Unfortunately, industry conditions remain fraught. Organizers for the area’s construction labor unions regularly leaflet nonunion construction sites with handbills in English and Spanish counseling workers about their rights. Attention is currently focused on a major redevelopment project in the District of Columbia building once occupied by Fannie Mae, where a wage theft scandal drew coverage in the Washington Hispanic.

On this project, dozens of plumbers and sheet metal workers working for WG Welch through a labor broker told organizers they hadn’t been paid in over a month. Union organizers helped the workers prepare a collective demand for payment from WG Welch and the site’s general contractor, Whiting-Turner. (Under DC law, both are liable when a subcontractor or labor broker fails to pay their workers in a timely manner.) This secured some relief – some workers were paid straight time for the hours owed, but none received either the overtime pay or damages they are entitled to under the law. Construction union representatives are consulting with the workers about possible further legal action.

Watch this space for additional developments.

Wins for Maryland Workers

Bills for Paid Family Leave, public defender union rights pass over governor’s veto

Readers of this newsletter know that the Maryland Catholic Labor Network has focused on two bills this year in the Maryland legislature. Attorneys and staff of the public defenders’ office in Maryland lack the right to organize, emphatically supported in Catholic Social Teaching, so Maryland CLN members testified in support of a bill that would let them do so. And in support of workers and families, the MD CLN joined Baltimore Catholic Charities to host a webinar on The Catholic Church and Paid Family Leave, to foster support for the Time to Care Act, guaranteeing all Maryland workers 12 weeks of paid family or medical leave. We are pleased to report that both bills have passed — over the governor’s veto!

Catholic Labor Network Marches with Immokalee Workers in Palm Beach

On Saturday, April 2 the Catholic Labor Network joined the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and hundreds of their community supporters in a march through wealthy Palm Beach, Florida. The farmworker organization was calling on Wendy’s board chair Nelson Peltz to enroll the fast-food chain in its Fair Food Program.

The CIW is a farm workers’ organization based in Immokalee, Florida. Immokalee tomatoes end up on many fast-food hamburgers and sandwiches, and the CIW has successfully persuaded industry giants like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell to source their tomatoes to growers committed to a fair labor code of conduct as part of the Fair Food Program. Wendy’s remains a holdout.

Focusing attention on recent cases of human trafficking in U.S. agriculture, CIW leaders challenged Wendy’s: how can you guarantee your food isn’t the product of forced labor? As CIW leader Nely Rodriguez argued,

It is appalling that Wendy’s has refused to commit the fast-food chain to the Fair Food Program’s best-in-class protections for nearly a decade, and especially now, given the horrific rise of modern slavery cases in North American agriculture. On April 2, we marched with a simple question for Wendy’s Board Chair Nelson Peltz: Can Wendy’s guarantee there is no slavery in its supply chain?

The sad fact is that they can’t. U.S. agriculture depends on the backbreaking labor of immigrant workers. In the absence of a union or a worker-driven certification effort like CIW’s Fair Food Program, labor abuses – ranging from unpaid wages to actual violence – proliferate.

Student organizations, faith groups, community organizations and workers’ centers turned out hundreds of sympathizers to march in solidarity with the CIW members. Beyond the Catholic Labor Network, the Catholic community was represented by a delegation from Palm Beach Catholic Charities led by Sandra Perez, and by Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who blessed the workers after the march.

“Farmworkers are essential workers,” Wenski told Channel 5 after the march. “They work hard, they work in dangerous conditions, they work in inclement weather. They give an honest day’s work, they want an honest day’s pay, and they want to be treated with respect and dignity.”

The workers are calling upon the community to boycott Wendy’s until the chain agrees to participate in the Fair Food Program.

FemCatholic: Church can do better on paid family leave

Of all employment benefits, you would think that the Church would be leading the way on family leave. After all, what’s more pro-life and pro-family than giving paid time off to workers to bond with a newborn child or care for a sick family member? And in fact some are. In 2016, the Archdiocese of Chicago drew national attention when it announced 3 months of paid parental leave for employees with a newborn. But website FemCatholic investigated nationwide and found that the situation in the Church nationwide was decidedly mixed.

FemCatholic reached out to the 176 dioceses across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., to confirm their family leave policies. Through telephone interviews with current and former diocesan employees, FemCatholic ascertained that 31 dioceses offer fully paid maternity leave policies, 32 provide some percentage of employee salaries through either short-term disability or state paid leave laws, and 44 do not offer any paid leave.

Catholic institutions in the United States – Churches, schools, hospitals, and other organizations – employ upwards of one million workers. We have a wonderful opportunity to evangelize the world through our labor relations and employment policies. When Church institutions implement policies like paid parental leave, they send an important signal to lay Catholics in business leadership. The FemCatholic report should be a wake-up call for Catholic institutions across the United States.