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.