CLN presents to seminarians at CUA Theological College

This March, the Catholic Labor Network was invited to present on Catholic Social Teaching to the Social Justice Committee at the CUA Theological College. CLN Executive Director Clayton Sinyai reviewed the history of Catholic Social Teaching on labor and work, the historic impact of Catholic thought on American public policy, and the ABC’s of labor unions with the seminarians (pictured, with Fr. Martin Burnham).

The seminarians were intrigued to learn the role that Monsignor John Ryan played in the movement for minimum wage laws in the United States. Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Rerum Novarum argued that every worker was entitled to a living wage, and that if the labor market failed to provide for this, society should intervene. Msgr. Ryan, the bishops’ first Social Action Director, popularized the principles in Rerum Novarum by promoting public policies consistent with them. These included minimum wage laws (first at the state and later at the federal level) and laws protecting the right of workers to organize (the Wagner Act of 1935).

The College draws seminarians from across the country, and the seminarians had a rich discussion, combining what they learned in their theology classes with the economic and historical data in the presentation. Seminarian Michael Marincel later observed,

To integrate what I have learned about Thomistic Natural Law with what you discussed with us in your talk, because all the material goods of the world (things) are ultimately intended to meet the needs of people, if some people’s needs are not being met, and other people have far more than they need, we need to find ways to assure that the material goods of the world (things) get to those who are in legitimate need. It seems that unionization is one of the best ways to do this, because it allows more equal wages to come out of a conversation between employers and employees that is conducive to management and labor learning to relate to one another as real people with legitimate needs rather than just another cog in the system.

Social Justice committee leader Jack Kristensen saw a practical application for the discussion.

The talk helped me be aware of how Catholic Social Teaching on labor and work applies to people who work in a parish: that they need a healthy salary and enough time to be with their families and for rest. Also, I will probably be more aware of the services I use as a future pastor, making sure they are from companies that treat their employees and the environment according to Catholic Social Teaching principles.

The Catholic Labor Network was pleased to engage these future priests and looks forward to similar discussions at other seminaries.

Senate Cafeteria Workers Deserve Living Wage, Health Care

Will the Senate Act?

Last November, in a “card check” election validated by Fr. Martin Burnham, some 150 cooks, cashiers and utility workers in the Senate Cafeteria formed a union by joining UNITE HERE Local 23. Now these workers are fighting for a living wage and affordable health care – but will the Senate act to make it happen?

The workers in the Senate cafeteria serve Senators, their staff, and guests visiting the Capitol. They love their work, but many struggle to get by in the expensive Washington DC area. Many are paid the DC minimum wage or scarcely more, and premiums for the bare-bones health insurance are so costly that fewer than one in five workers participate in the employer-provided plan.

“I recently broke my hand and need hand surgery,” explained Anthony Thomas, a utility worker in the cafeteria kitchen. “But I don’t have health insurance because the company’s plan is expensive.”

The workers are employed by Restaurant Associates, the vendor that operates the Senate Cafeteria under contract with the Capitol building’s administration, known as “the Architect of the Capitol.” But their issue isn’t with the company – union research has established that the root problem is the contract itself. The cafeteria is no cash cow, and under terms of its current agreement Restaurant Associates simply can’t afford just wages. To fix this, the Senate needs to act.

The cafeteria workers have been rallying outside the Capitol, calling on the Architect of the Capitol to reissue the contract with terms that provide for just wages and benefits for workers. “At my current salary, I cannot afford the cost of everything going up this year—or even the cost of health insurance,” said cafeteria cook Ludwing Torres. “I want to stay in this job and earn enough to pay for gas, food, and rent in the DC area. We are waiting on the Senators to take action so we can afford to live a better, healthier life.”

The legislators ultimately run their own house. Recently a Catholic Labor Network delegation met with staff for Senator Amy Klobuchar, whose Rules and Administration Committee supervises the work of the Architect of the Capitol. We were told that the committee had directed Capitol staff to draw up alternatives for addressing the issue. That’s good news, but we aren’t there yet.

You can help. CLICK HERE to tell your Senator that the US Government should be a model employer, and that Senate Cafeteria workers deserve just wages and affordable health coverage.

Pope Francis continues this tradition of voicing strong support for organized labor

Ingrid Delgado of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops was scheduled to participate in a recent panel at the AFL-CIO on the legacy of Monsignor Higgins, but contracted covid. However, she shared her prepared remarks with the Catholic Labor Network:

Thank you so much for the opportunity to be here with you today. I am honored to join you at this event to honor Monsignor Higgins’ life and legacy. It is not lost on me that it is an incredible privilege for me to have the labor portfolio and be a small part of continuing his work at the USCCB.

The importance and effectiveness of unions personally touched my life through one of my closest friends, my son’s godmother, who is a teacher. I remember her going through a really difficult time with a situation that came up at work which caused her a great deal of anxiety and many sleepless nights. But I remember her calling me, feeling very thankful and relieved after a meeting during which her union rep accompanied her and advocated for her throughout a process that ultimately resulted in her favor. Because of her positive experience, I later joined the teachers’ union myself.

The Catholic Church has a long history of calling for workers’ rights and supporting union organizing. As many of you know, Catholic Social Teaching drives the Church’s advocacy efforts and, from its beginning, from its foundation, it has been rooted in workers’ rights. Catholics recognize Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum – or On the Condition of Labor – as the birth of Catholic Social Teaching, the first in a long and continuing series of papal documents on socio-economic problems. This letter to the Church throughout the world was published in 1891, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, and strongly reaffirmed the Church’s support of the right to organize and emphasized the need for a strong and effective labor movement. Since then and to this day, his successor popes have continued to echo this message.

Pope Francis continues this tradition of voicing strong support for organized labor. He called the right to unionize, “a fundamental right” when, in a message to the International Labour Organization last year, he said, “It is fundamental that the Church…support measures that correct unjust or incorrect situations that condition labour relations, completely subjugating them to the idea of ‘exclusion’, or violating the fundamental rights of workers.”

He compared trade unions to prophets when he stated that they are, “an expression of the prophetic profile of society.” He said, “Unions born and reborn every time that, like the biblical prophets, they give voice to those who do not have one, denouncing those who would ‘buy the poor … for a pair of sandals’ as the prophet (Amos) says, exposing the powerful who trample on the rights of the most vulnerable workers, defending the cause of foreigners, the least and the rejected.”

He said there is no good society without good unions.

And he wrote that, “people’s movements…are sowers of a new future, promoters of the change we need: to put the economy at the service of the people…”

But beyond continuing to reiterate the Catholic Church’s message of support for unionizing, Pope Francis has called Catholics to action. Just this past January, reflecting on Jesus and St. Joseph as carpenters, he said, “Today, we should ask ourselves what we can do to recover the value of work; and what contribution we can make, as the Church, so that work can be redeemed from the logic of mere profit and can be experienced as a fundamental right and duty of the person, which expresses and increases his or her dignity.”

Pope Francis regularly reminds us of the Church’s vision for a just economy that prioritizes people over profits. But, rather than speaking of it as an unattainable ideal, he has challenged us to reimagine how we can make it a reality. He has gone so far as to identify ideas from two economists, Mariana Mazzucato and Kate Raworth, as “prescient and relevant,” giving us hope that economies that work for all without leaving anyone at the periphery are no longer dismissible as idealistic or unrealistic.

Pope Francis also convoked young economists, entrepreneurs, and changemakers from around the world entrusting them to “change the current economy and give soul to the economy of tomorrow.” For two years, young professionals from the five continents have been gathering in small group dialogue as part of the Economy of Francesco – Francesco being St. Francis of Assisi, after whom Pope Francis chose his papal name. And when I say young, I mean young. I considered applying to join the culminating event in Assisi this upcoming September, and I am seriously too old. But what an exciting opportunity for the world to listen to the voices of young professionals, uplifted by the Pope, in their recommendations of how to genuinely and deeply reform the economic system.

For those of us who work at the USCCB, especially in the office of Domestic Social Development (or DSD), the Church’s support of organized labor is a significant part of our history. The National Catholic Welfare Conference, which was the USCCB’s predecessor, founded the Department on Social Action in 1919 as one of its original departments. While the name and scope changed a bit through time, it developed to what is now DSD. It is such a humble honor and privilege for us to continue Monsignor Higgins’ commitment to the rights of workers in today’s legislative context.

Our office takes the lead for the Conference on a long list of federal policy issues, including labor policy, before the three branches of government. Before the US Supreme Court, we filed an amicus brief in the Janus case in 2018. Before the legislative branch, the bishops are currently strong supporters of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. During infrastructure negotiations last year, the Conference called for long term job creation with a focus on adequate pay and decent working conditions, including a right to organize and resources for job training and apprenticeship programs. We encouraged members to avoid rewarding companies that engage in anti-competitive behavior and, instead, to favor various forms of employee ownership and profit sharing. We called attention to proposals such as quality and affordable childcare options, paid sick leave, and parental leave as ways to support working families.

While dignity of work might seem like only one of many issues our office monitors, there is great synthesis among all of our priorities. For example, our advocacy in favor of accessible and affordable housing and healthcare, including mental health care, greatly impacts workers. We also actively advocate in favor of strengthening child nutrition programs, consumer protection, reentry programs, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit.

As our office takes the lead on behalf of the bishops to advocate at the federal level, State Catholic Conferences take the lead on state policy. Up until last summer, I had the privilege of working for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops where we were very active on state legislation regarding wage theft, immigrant justice, predatory lending, human trafficking, and farmworker conditions.

The USCCB also supports the labor movement through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development which helps fund organizations advancing community building, organizing, and worker owned cooperatives. Additionally, Catholic Charities partners with unions for job placement, job training, and have collaborated with them for food distribution efforts during COVID.

The Catholic Church and the Catholic Bishops continue to be firmly committed to workers’ rights. It has now been over 130 years since Pope Leo XIII penned the open letter to the Church that cemented the Church’s alliance with the worker movement. And as long as there continue to be economic and labor injustices, the Church and those of us who work for her will continue to walk in Monsignor Higgins’ example, supporting organized labor and working towards a just economy. We look forward to continuing to do that alongside all of you. Thank you.


Shareholder Showdown at Wendy’s

Sisters’ supply chain resolution leads to call for no vote on Chairman Peltz

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and their campaign to compel Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program. On May 12 the CIW brought activists to the doors of Wendy’s Board Chair Nelson Peltz on Park Avenue in NYC, calling once again for Wendy’s to do the right thing for farmworkers (pictured). And tomorrow we will witness a shareholder showdown as social justice-minded investors call for a no vote against Peltz and his team at Wendy’s HQ.

The story began in 2021 when the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany filed a shareholder resolution urging Wendy’s to look into possible labor abuses in its supply chain. McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast food chains participate in the Fair Food Program, under which they purchase tomatoes only from growers that have signed on to a fair labor code of conduct. Wendy’s, the lone holdout, refuses to participate in the Fair Food Program. Given the abuses rampant in farm labor, it was fair for the Sisters to ask Wendy’s management: What are you doing to prevent forced labor and exploitation in your supply chain? Fully 95% of shareholders voted for the resolution.

But Wendy’s corporate leadership, dominated by Nelson Peltz and his investment firm Trian Partners, did not seriously address the questions in the shareholder resolution – tough questions about whether and how Wendy’s employed third-party monitoring and enforcement of labor standards. Instead it ignored input from shareholder activists and produced a feel-good “corporate social responsibility” report.

In response, activist investors are calling for a vote against Nelson Peltz and his team at tomorrow’s annual shareholder meeting. Stay tuned!

Blessing of new Teamsters officers in Washington DC

We all need God’s blessing in our work – especially those of us who serve in elected office, including union office. On May 11, in a beautiful ceremony at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington DC, the newly elected leaders of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters sought God’s blessing as they took up their responsibilities. At the Cathedral’s midday Mass rector Monsignor Ronald Jameson was joined by area labor priest Fr. Brian Jordan as he blessed recently sworn in General President Sean O’Brien and General Secretary-Treasurer Fred Zuckerman. O’Brien, who comes to Washington from Teamsters Local 25, is a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi in Boston; Zuckerman, from Local 89 in Louisville, is a parishioner at St. Timothy in Hebron, Kentucky.

The blessing read:

God of power and might, wisdom and justice,

through you, authority is rightly administered,

laws are enacted and judgment is decreed.


Assist with your spirit of counsel and fortitude

the President and Secretary-Treasurer of the

International Brotherhood of Teamsters,

that their administration may be conducted in righteousness,

and be eminently useful to their members

over whom they preside.

May they encourage due respect for virtue and religion.

May they execute the union laws and regulations

with justice and mercy.


And may we all be preserved in union and in that peace

which the world cannot give,

and after enjoying the blessings of this life,

be admitted to those which are eternal.


We pray to you, who are Lord and God, for ever and ever.



Higgins Legacy Events Now Available on Video

In the first days of May, the Catholic Labor Network teamed up with the Archdiocese of Washington and the AFL-CIO to mark 20 years since the passing of legendary “labor priest” Monsignor George Higgins. Higgins, who hailed from Chicago, came to Washington DC to serve as Social Action Director for the nation’s bishops in the late 20th century and became a fixture on picket lines and at union halls. He was the living link between the American Church and the American labor movement in those years, regularly instructing the faithful in Catholic Social Teaching through his “Yardstick” columns in the Catholic press.

The first event was a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Wilton Gregory. Higgins passed away on May 1, 2002 – 20 years ago on the international labor holiday recognized by the Church as the Feast of St Joseph the Worker. On Sunday May 1, 2022 Cardinal Gregory recalled Higgins’ memory and greeted California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski, leading a delegation representing the labor movement. Fr. Evelio Menjivar, a DC-area “labor priest”, served as homilist, noting Jesus’ ministry to workers and how this informed more than a century of Catholic Social Teaching. CLICK HERE to view the video of the Mass.

The next day AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler and CLN Board member Patti Devlin welcomed a panel that explored Monsignor Higgins’ legacy at the AFL-CIO. Fr. Clete Kiley, as moderator, introduced the topic with reflections on Higgins and the Chicago environment that produced him and other “labor priests” of his era. He then introduced the three panelists: Fr. Evelio, Dr. Meghan Clark of St. John’s University, and Chuck Hendricks of UNITE HERE. Fr. Menjivar spoke of the pastoral role that priests play in accompanying workers in their pursuit of justice, while Dr. Clark pointed out how unions protected the dignity of all workers and fostered their participation in the workplace. And in a moving testimony, Hendricks related how his organizing career informed his faith journey to lead him into the Catholic Church. (Ingrid Delgado of the USCCB was scheduled to participate – although she had to stay home due to illness, but shared her prepared remarks.)  CLICK HERE to view the video of the panel presentation.

A memory to be honored and a legacy to be continued

On May 2, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler introduced a panel exploring the career and legacy of “labor priest” Monsignor George Higgins. She told the assembled:

Hello everyone! I’m Liz Shuler, President of the AFL-CIO, and it’s my privilege to welcome you to the House of Labor. We are honored to have you with us as we mark the 20th anniversary of Monsignor George Higgins passing and celebrate his legacy with today’s panel, “The Labor Movement and the Catholic Church Then and Now.”

On behalf of the AFL-CIO, I want to thank the Catholic Labor Network … for making this event possible.

Looking at everyone who has come together today – and I see a lot of familiar faces out there, like AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Elissa McBride – we can see the true impact Monsignor Higgins had on our movement.

He really was “Labor’s Priest.” He dedicated his life to bringing the labor and faith communities together. And … wherever working people were lifting their voices…from the vineyards of California to the coal fields of Harlan, Kentucky… Monsignor Higgins was there.

He brought his ministry to local union halls, to picket lines, and even right here to the House of Labor. And everywhere he went he fought for policies people now take for granted: workers’ compensation, overtime pay, health and safety laws, our rights to organize and so much more.

And his impact is still felt whenever working people find the courage to proclaim our dignity and worth as human beings and children of God, from athletic fields to production shops and from Mexcio’s auto plants to Starbucks coffee shops.

As we mark this anniversary, I’d like to read from the AFL-CIO Executive Council statement issued shortly after his passing:

Msgr. George Higgins was the unsurpassed standard-bearer of his Church’s solidarity with underprivileged and average working families … the 20th Century’s leading advocate of a religion/labor alliance on their behalf … and the inspiration for a new generation of faith champions of worker rights.

 [He] was consistently at the side of workers, be they farm workers, auto workers or hospital workers, when they needed a clear, strong, strategic voice calling for respect and dignity on the job…

We need to remember this lifetime carefully, not simply as a memory to be honored, but a legacy to be continued.

So today, we gather to recommit to carrying on his legacy – one that recognizes that solidarity is the core value of our movement and the root of Catholic scripture.

We are unified through not just an economic vision, but also a moral vision of justice for the greater good.

I am proud to say that here at the AFL-CIO, where we represent more than 12.5 million people in 57 unions, we are recommitting to our coalition between faith and labor by forging new partnerships in communities across the country.

We are going to follow First Thessalonians, and “encourage one another and build each other up.”

That is, in fact, what unions do. It’s what both of our movements do.

Together, the labor movement and our faith partners can be the most powerful forces for progress in the United States… not just for union members, but for everyone. And we’re going to talk all about how we can continue to join forces today.

We have a great line up for you, including our panel moderator  Father Clete Kiley of UNITE HERE and the Archdiocese of Chicago, and our panelists:

  • Father Evelio Menjivar from the Archdiocese of Washington
  • Meghan Clark, from St. John’s University
  • Chuck Hendricks of UNITE HERE and the Catholic Labor Network…and last but not least
  • Ingrid Delgado from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Thank you all for being here.

I am also honored to share the stage with my beloved sister Patti Devlin from the Laborers International Union of North America, who will speak on behalf of the Catholic Labor Network.

Patti, the floor is yours.

Unions have always been a crucial part of participation by workers

The Catholic Labor Network and the AFL-CIO recently hosted a panel on the legacy of “labor priest” Monsignor George Higgins. Theologian Meghan Clark of St. John’s University reflected on the dignity of labor and the role of unions in fostering worker participation.

Thank you, Fr. Clete – and thank you to both the Catholic Labor Network and the AFL-CIO for inviting me to be part of this moment of reflection and celebration of Msgr Higgins and the relationship between the Labor Movement and the Catholic Church.

It is a personal pleasure to be here – my grandmother, a librarian, became a union organizer. The director at her library had become increasingly erratic and dictatorial. A welcoming community center had been transformed into a hostile work environment. Teaming up with the local teacher’s union, she began to organize the librarians to seek justice and participation. On the day that I was born, they held the official vote to unionize. In the same day, she became a union leader and a grandmother.  (She waited the day to come see me in the hospital to be at and work the vote, they voted for a union and she became president).

For my grandmother, as for many of you here, her work with the union was deeply connected to her faith. This connection was obvious to Msgr Higgins, for whom working with labor unions was his ministry (and it is an honor to be on this dais with two labor priests who carry on that legacy). Msgr Higgins would often talk about the “unbroken” support for workers’ rights to unionize in Catholic social teaching and the Church’s understanding that if we look at the historical record, workers can’t defend their rights without unions.

During the Industrial Revolution, Catholic social teaching as we now know it began precisely because the Church needed to address the worker question – it needed to take a stand on unions. The rise of factories and industrial labor radically changed the way in which men, women, and then – children “worked” and this fundamental change brought with it new forms of exploitation, inequality, and inadequate social protection. Here in the United States – archbishop Gibbons in Baltimore and others found themselves asking what to do about Catholics who wanted to join unions –- – Rerum Novarum was the answer and in it Leo XIII firmly and unequivocally put the moral weight of the Roman Catholic Church behind the worker’s right to unionize.

The Church and the Labor Movement have collaborated and strengthened each other through many ups and downs in the ensuing hundred and thirty-two years. This collaboration has been seen in the legacy of Msgr Higgins and countless Labor priests, in the deep faith of labor leaders like Cesar Chavez, John Sweeney, and Richard Trumpka.

As a Theologian, I’d like to propose in my brief time left – continued collaboration in the future is important for the Labor movement and is essential for the Church – and I want to highlight two elements of this relationship – the dignity of work and the centrality of participation to justice.

Dignity of Work

American society has a complicated relationship to “work.” When I ask my students to describe what comes to mind when they hear the words work, labor, or job…their immediate response is tied to wages, struggle, and a career. Good work and good jobs are often limited to the question of salaries – and salaries often bear no correlation to contribution to the common good.   The pandemic has revealed something the Labor movement has long understood – – some of the most essential jobs for our common life together are those that receive inadequate wages, protections, and fail to be understood as “good work.”  Here perhaps Catholic social teaching can redirect our public discourse towards an appreciation of the dignity of work. Work is not just how we “earn our bread” but it is how we are co-creators with God. In 2017, Pope Francis referred to work as a form of “civil love.”

John Paul II drew this out in his encyclical Laborem Exercens/On Human Work — work is for the human person, not the human person for work, for this reason, Catholic theology strongly maintains the priority of labor over capital. Similarly, over the last decade, Pope Francis has repeatedly called our attention to the problem of youth unemployment around the world –even in places with strong social protection – the lack of dignified work is a problem because it is through work we inhabit and develop our dignity.

In his January 2022 Angelus series on St. Joseph, Pope Francis noted that “Work is an essential component of human life, and even of the path of sanctification. Work is not only a means of earning a living, it is also a place where we express ourselves, feel useful and learn the great lesson of concreteness, which helps keep the spiritual life from becoming spiritualism.” (Jan 12).

This broader vision of the person  – the who and why of the dignity of work that Catholic social teaching offers to the Labor Movement. It is a vision that does not shy away from examining the changing nature of work in the twenty first century, does not only pull from the past but looking to a future and world that does not yet exist — as Leo XIII called for in Rerum Novarum (and as evidenced in Msgr Higgin’s ministry) – seeks to look @ the world as it truly is, and look beyond for solutions to its most pressing social problems. (RN14)

One place where the Church and the Labor movement can work together more is in developing a greater sense of global solidarity within our living out the dignity of work. In response to the Financial Crisis, Benedict XVI called on labor unions to think more globally: “the global context in which work takes place also demands that national labor unions, which tend to limit themselves to defending the interests of their registered members, should turn their attention to those outside their membership, and in particular to workers in developing countries where social rights are often violated.” (64)   This is something the AFL-CIO is committed to through its participation host of global union federations as well as the ILO.

 Justice as Participation

The last 20 years have been dominated in the US by significant anti-union legislation scattered around the country – these impact wages, benefits, and worker protections BUT it also manifests in lack of a voice for workers – Effective participation in shaping one’s working conditions and culture only happens when workers are able to come together. participation is about the inclusion of each, yes, but this only happens by coming together – participation is always relational and it is central not only to democracy but economic justice.

Unions have always been a crucial part of participation by workers…and the US Bishop’s 1986 pastoral, Economic justice for all goes so far as to define justice as participation, highlighting the importance of unions not just in securing fair wages and benefits but about having a voice, participation in decision making.

 It is this positive role of participation – which led my own grandmother to become a union organizer – out of concern not merely for their working conditions but the importance of a library as a welcoming and inclusive community space. It was a participation in the common good of the whole community. Unionization should not be reduced simply to a utilitarian calculus about wages and benefits (despite their deep importance) but also about this sense of that part of the dignity of work is participation in the bigger questions of the institutions within which we labor.

It is my contention that on this point the Church needs the Labor Movement to help it remember this particular aspect of justice and the dignity of work. I am a university professor in a unionized faculty (a member of the American Academy of University Professors – AAUP) – which is rare. It is deeply disturbing how often we see examples of Catholic schools fighting their worker’s attempts to unionize, whether they be contingent faculty or food service workers – time and time again we are seeing Catholic institutions seemingly forgetting our own teaching on worker’s rights.  Here is one place where for me, as a theologian, the relationship between the labor movement and the Catholic church is so crucial – – and can hopefully continue to call members of the church to embrace its own theological commitments more fully.


I conclude today with gratitude for all the work Msgr Higgins did in his ministry, for the work that continued over the last twenty years, and in hope for what the next decades might bring. I hope that it will be one in which both the Catholic Church and the Labor Movement will continue to be partners in the commitment to the dignity of work and for the common good of all. Thank you.

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.