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Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a Labor Priest.

Unions vital to economic democracy

I was raised on stories of the "golden age" of American labor. My grandfather, a World War II veteran and assembly line worker, was a proud card-carrying member of the AFL-CIO local. He firmly believed the right to strike was as sacred as free speech and the flag. But, two generations later, this pro-union sentiment is largely an abstraction to my family, a vague recollection of someone else's history.

In Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a Labor Priest, longtime labor activist Msgr. George G. Higgins explores the church's role in shaping this history and offers a convincing argument for bringing the union back into the mainstream of American life.

Higgins served for 36 years in the Social Action Department of the U.S. Catholic Conference (25 years as director), and, not surprisingly, he has rubbed elbows with some of the most influential people in the American labor movement. The jacket mentions John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, George Meany and Lane Kirkland among others, but Higgins' minibios of labor leaders are the least impressive features of this book. The expanded section on United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez is a notable exception.

Because the book relies heavily on anecdotal information, there are large gaps in the overview of the church's encounter with labor, most notably in its coverage of the Catholic Worker movement. Also, those who expect a view from the trenches or the picket line might be disappointed. Much of the action takes place at conferences and meetings.

This will happens dispel the myth created by Hollywood that labor priests regularly offered up their skulls for a good crushing. (See the section on John "Pete" Corridan, the Jesuit priest whose exploits inspired the 1953 film, "On the Waterfront"). If anything, Higgins portrays the labor priest as a teacher and mediator rather than a martyr for the cause.

Higgins is most successful in revealing the critical role of the church in supporting organized labor in its infancy, thus providing a moral buttress for the movement, and in arguing that unions are a critical ingredient in any recipe for social justice.

The book sometimes suffers from stylistic incongruity: anecdotes about George Meany and excerpts from Higgins' speeches get equal treatment with a list of tips for better relations between religion and labor. But in the chapter on the church's dealings with unions in its own institutions, his message comes through loud and clear.

These days, American Catholics are inundated with social justice issues from nuclear war to the economy, but this book recalls an era when the right to unionize was the issue for progressive Catholics.

Higgins insists the death of organized labor has been prematurely pronounced in the past, but he offers little evidence to support his hopeful conviction that a renaissance is on the horizon. He does, however, provide a convincing diagnosis of the problem. Acknowledging the obvious signs of crisis -- declining union membership, fewer union victories, an increase in successful attempts to "bust" unions -- Higgins nevertheless disputes popular notions that bloated bureaucracies, corrupt "fat cat" labor leaders and overly aggressive tactics are to blame.

Instead, he points an accusing finger at American business. He marshals some surprising statistics to support his thesis:

* The United States and South Africa are the only two industrialized countries to allow companies to fire striking workers;

* The salary of an average American CEO is 10 to 20 times that of the average union leader;

* There were roughly 10,000 union busters employed in the United States in 1990, who engaged in a wide variety of illegal "dirty tricks" to discredit pro-union employees and union organizers.

Unions have traditionally suffered in the United States, argues Higgins, because American business has never accepted their right to exist. "Trying to have economic democracy without unions is like trying to have political democracy without political parties," he writes. "Will we keep on trying?"

Higgins might also have included this recent tidbit: Manpower, the nation's largest temporary-employment agency, is now the second-largest U.S. employer, second only to the federal government. Most of these workers, like many of their blue-collar counterparts, are uninsured or underinsured. (Higgins quotes the total figure at 30 million Americans without adequate health insurance.) Employers often prefer to hire them because they do not have to pay benefits and they can be easily terminated.

Workers, even the white-collar variety, are as expendable as ever these days.

Dan Vollaro is a writer and a graduate student in the department of Jewish-Christian studies at Seton Hall University.
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Author:Vollaro, Daniel R.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 3, 1993
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