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Tribute to Cardinal John O'Connor

By Msgr. George G. Higgins

The Yardstick
March 27, 2000
 Twice within the first week of March Cardinal John O'Connor of New York publicly was honored, first by the U.S. Congress, then by the Service Employees International Union. The cardinal received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress awards. One senator said that the lawmakers, who pushed the legislation forward rapidly in light of the cardinal's failing health, wanted him to know how much Congress appreciated the tremendous contribution he has made to the church and to the people of the United States.

A few days after President Clinton signed the congressional resolution, the SEIU sponsored a full-page advertisement in the New York Times honoring the cardinal for his life of commitment to social and economic justice. The SEIU said that the cardinal "has supported workers' rights to organize, opposed the hiring of replacement workers and vigorously defended the collective-bargaining process.... For his understanding of the importance of unions in our society, and for his life of service to the human family, we are deeply grateful."

SEIU's tribute to the cardinal in a leading U.S. newspaper was unprecedented. Few bishops in U.S. history have been as consistently supportive as Cardinal O'Connor of labor's basic rights. In hailing the cardinal as "the patron saint of working people," SEIU was quoting what one of their leaders said about him in 1990 because of his unflagging support of the union's full rights in Catholic health-care facilities.

At the end of a 1990 labor dispute, the Hospital Association of New York, including the Catholic hospitals, announced that workers who had gone on strike would not get their jobs back. In effect, the hospitals were going to fire the strikers. The cardinal stepped in and ordered Catholic hospitals to break rank with the association. He told the church-related institutions to negotiate a separate agreement. They did, and this put pressure on other New York hospitals to follow suit. 

A few years later the cardinal again spoke out in a Senate hearing on legislation to ban the permanent replacement of strikers. The cardinal spoke of the church's traditional support of the right of workers to withhold their labor, without fear of reprisal, and strongly endorsed the legislation. "It is useless," he said, "to speak glowingly in either legal or moral terms about the right to bargain and to strike as a last resort, or even the right to unionize, if either party, management or labor, bargains in bad faith, or, in the case of management, with the foreknowledge of being able to permanently replace workers who strike on the primary basis of the strike itself."

He concluded that "this can make a charade of collective bargaining and a mockery of the right to strike."

I first met the cardinal many years ago when he invited me to give a talk on Catholic social teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy where he was Catholic chaplain. Some years later, when he was chief of Navy chaplains, I traveled to Germany to take part in a conference he had organized promoting the human rights of enlisted men. He consistently has lived up to his episcopal motto, "There can be no love without justice."

Cardinal O'Connor said on a number of occasions over the years that he owed his leadership on labor issues to his father, a strong union man who by word and example taught him that there can be no love without justice.

The SEIU's tribute to the cardinal comes at a time when labor's right to organize is being seriously challenged in a number of Catholic health-care institutions throughout the United States. I hope the SEIU tribute will prompt Catholic hospital administrators to take their lead from the cardinal on labor-management issues.

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