Letter from Msgr. Higgins to Gerald Costello


Msgr. George Higgins, AFL-CIO president George Meany, and Cesar Chavez at the granting of the UFW's charter with the AFL-CIO in 1972

Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

From the time it began its intervention in the union struggles in California in 1970, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Farm Labor had intended to act as a mediator between unions and growers. As mentioned previously, the committee had an obvious fondness for the United Farm Workers (the organization changed its name from UFWOC in 1972 after its alliance with the AFL-CIO), but also sought common ground between the UFW and the Teamsters Union, which also sought to unionize workers (often through less than ethical means, the UFW contended).

However, all pretense of being unbiased in such work seemed to disappear by 1973, as the committee and the UFW argued that on numerous occasions the Teamsters violated agreements between the two that allowed the UFW to have priority with farm workers while the Teamsters organized mechanical workers in agribusiness. Some clergy within the Church wrote scathing articles about the Teamsters, including Higgins and Father James L. Vizzard. These actions, coupled with the continued support of the UFW, seemed to make the committee firmly pro-Chavez and anti-Teamster.

Higgins wrote as such in a letter to Gerald Costello, editor of The Beacon, the newspaper for the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., in April 1973. In the letter, Higgins commends Costello for a series on Chavez the paper had published, and then comments that the committee “is no longer thought of as being a neutral third party in the lettuce dispute and, for this reason, is not likely to be called upon to mediate the dispute.” Conceding that his writings and those of others on the Teamsters and the UFW had not helped this situation, Higgins wrote that it was difficult to remain neutral in this situation where a large and wealthy union was fighting a smaller and poorer one.


Higgins to Costello
Courtesy of ACUA

If he regretted such a turn, Higgins did not make it known. “Only time will tell whether or not Bishop Donnelly and I have made the right decision in this regard. For my part, I am convinced that we have landed on the side of the angels.”



1. Why does Higgins believe that the farm workers will eventually have to come under the NRLB’s purview?

2. Why does Higgins believe that the bishops could no longer remain neutral in the debate between growers and farm workers?

3. According to Higgins, why should the Church back the workers?