May 20, 2002   #163
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
From a Public Interest Perspective

ADDRESS: PO. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201

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"Writing is like prostitution.
First you do it for the love of it,
then you do it for a few friends,
and finally you do it for money."

While as editor of THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER I don't quite think of myself as cynical as Moliere, the great 17th century French playwright, when it comes to my efforts to monitor corporate agribusiness from a public interest perspective, nevertheless, there is a kernel of truth in his statement for editor and publishers, as well as journalists, do not live by love, friendship, bread and water alone.

Keeping that thought in mind, I find it rather curious that as more and more people from literally around the world request to regularly receive THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER, lavish in their much appreciated praise for the work it seeks to do, fewer and fewer people seem willing to financially contribute to its support.

Those handful of regular contributors who have earned the editor's undying gratitude over the past four years and the few other occasional welcome individual supporters stand in marked contrast to those many who obviously have believed during that time that their aid could be better applied elsewhere, particularly when it comes farm and rural organizations. Such neglect, however, when it comes to rural concerns is recognized from this desk as not uncommon in our modern affluent and well fed society.

Since the AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER first appeared some 162 issues ago it has been the publisher's intent to make the work of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project (CARP) and the monitoring of corporate agribusiness from a public interest perspective available to the widest possible audience, seeing that those few and available publications that still concern themselves with corporate agribusiness are so prohibitively expensive, to say nothing of their pro-corporate bias.

But, because there is a more a need today than ever before to make corporate agribusiness more accountable to the common good, it is the wish and hope of THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER to continue to play a major role in that effort. Your contributions will go far in helping to perpetuate that hope. Such contributions may be sent to the editor at the above address.

As part of a major effort to keep those committed to bringing economic and political democracy to rural America informed, educated and updated the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project is happy to announce that its web site has been updated and streamlined.

Among the sites many features are:

> A complete index of THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER'S  first 162 issues with a "Search" engine to provide easy access to the subject matter of each edition.

> new edition of THE AGBIZ TILLER, the progeny of the one-time printed newsletter, featuring the essay "The Merchants of Greed," an in-depth essay dealing with today's corporate agribusiness. Likewise the "Search" engine is also available for past editions of THE AGBIZ TILLER.

> In "Between the Furrows," besides a modern "Search" engine, there is a wide range of pages designed to inform and educate readers on the inner workings of corporate agribusiness. They include:

* CARP's "Mission Statement," "Overview" and THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER'S Editor\Publisher's "Resume."

*  "Fact Miners," an effort to assist the reader in the necessary art of researching corporations

*  "Quotable Quotes" pertaining to agribusiness and corporate power

*  "Links," a page which allows the reader to survey various useful public interest, government and corporate web sites;

* "Feedback" an opportunity for reader input:

* The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness, a page where readers can order directly the editor's 1992 published book from Essential Books.

The CARP web site was designed and produced by ElectricArrow of Seattle, Washington.

Simply by clicking on the address below all the aforementioned features and information are yours  to enjoy, study, absorb and sow.


ANN RUNDLE, VICTORIA [TEXAS] ADVOCATE: Cargill Turkey Products will not renew any of its contracts with growers in Gonzales County, a decision that will put more than 30 turkey producers out of business and have a tremendous economic impact on the area, producers and county officials said.

"Well, it's devastating because there is no other company that is similar to Cargill that will raise turkeys on a contract basis, so, as a result we're sitting here with specialty houses specifically designed to grow turkeys and no one to use them," said Kenneth Schauer, a turkey producer who lives in the western part of the county. "So our income has gone from a good living to zero overnight."

The impact will also be felt by the city and county, he said. "All that money that is paid to us, we in turn hired hands and we in turn bought our stuff in Gonzales, our supplies and everything. So it is not only an impact on us, but it is an impact on the entire area."

The total impact is expected to be discussed during a public meeting .. . .  at the American Legion Hall. Officials from the area's U.S. and state representative offices are expected to be there, as well as representatives from the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Small Business Development department.

Neither Barbara Hand of the Gonzales Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture nor County Extension Agent Dwight Sexton knew the specific economic impact the non-renewing of the contracts would mean for the county.

"I don't have all the numbers," Hand said. "But when you think of around 40 plus growers that they have, and of those 40 they have probably around 200 houses, it is a big impact." Sexton agreed, "It is pretty devastating .. . .it's a multi-million dollar industry in the county."

Patricia May, director of public relations for Cargill Turkey Products in Minneapolis, Minnesota, said the numbers she has show there were 37 growers and 47 turkey houses that would be affected by the non-renewal of the contracts in Gonzales County. She said the company's decision to not renew contracts had to do with supply and demand.

"We have too much turkey meat. We have too much supply and not enough demand," May said. "We had to look at decreasing the amount of turkey and when we looked across the board at where it is costing us the most, we saw that it was in places that are really, really far from the plant and the feed mill."

The processing plant and feed mill is in Waco. "If you have a farm base that is 50 miles away and one that is round trip 300 miles, logistically it makes sense to reduce those areas that are farther away," explained Peter Brown, general manager of the Waco complex. He said there was no timeline as to when the company would quit providing turkeys and feed for the producers.

"Each individual grower has a unique contract. Whatever the contract is, Cargill is to honor the time frame," Brown said.

Schauer said he could be considered "one of the lucky ones that's going to get one more run of little ones and one more run of big ones." He will have the brooders for six weeks through July and the grow-out turkeys through October. "It depends on where you are in the cycle," Schauer said. "You might get one more run and you might not."


KATHY CHEN, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: The Labor Department settled a lawsuit against Perdue Farms Inc. for failing to pay workers for the time spent putting on and taking off work clothes and protective gear. Similar charges were filed . . . against Tyson Foods Inc.

In a consent judgment filed in U.S. District Court in Tennessee, Perdue agreed to pay more than $10 million in back wages to 25,000 former and current poultry workers. The company also agreed to pay workers at all of its poultry-processing plants in the U.S. for "donning and doffing" time in future.

Cutting up and processing poultry is an often dirty, dangerous job and requires work clothes and some protective gear. Nevertheless, most poultry companies don't compensate workers for the dressing time they have to spend before and after their shift. Perdue is the first to agree to change its practice. Labor Department officials said they hoped the settlement would be a model for the industry to compensate workers, and said they would be contacting other companies to seek their compliance.

"This is a major victory for workers who will get paid what they're entitled to," Labor Secretary Elaine Chao told reporters. "We believe this is work time and must be compensated."

Under the agreement, Perdue, a closely held company based in Salisbury, Maryland will retroactively pay processing workers on its production lines an additional eight minutes each workday for time spent putting on and taking off work clothing and equipment -- or about $500 a worker a year. The pact extends back two years, which is the standard limitation period under the law.

"This agreement makes clear our associates will continue to be paid accurately for all work activities," Perdue Chairman Jim Perdue said.

Separately, the Labor Department filed a lawsuit against Tyson Foods on behalf of workers at its Blountsville, Alabama poultry-processing plant over the same issue. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Alabama, seeks back wages and damages for current and former workers, and seeks to stop Tyson from failing to pay "donning and doffing" time wages in the future. Labor Department Solicitor Eugene Scalia said he expects the back wages owed by Tyson Foods to total a "large amount," but declined to provide specific numbers.

Tyson Foods said that "we are in full compliance with all wage and hour laws, and are disappointed by the government's decision to litigate." The Labor Department had been in talks with Perdue for three years before reaching the settlement. Agency officials said they had initially responded to complaints from employees, but felt a need for urgent action after several courts issued decisions with which the agency disagreed.


BILL HORD, OMAHA WORLD-HERALD BUREAU:  A group of Midlands cattlemen filed class-action lawsuits [last] Friday claiming that the meatpacking divisions of ConAgra Inc. and Cargill Inc. have used contracts and ownership of livestock to depress the cash cattle market.

The lawsuits, filed in U.S. District Court in Lincoln, allege that the nation's second and third-largest beef packers have violated the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 by engaging in monopolistic practices. "I finally decided it was time to draw a line in the sand," said Jack Boehler, 70, who operates Harlan Feeders Inc., a feedlot near Orleans in south-central Nebraska. Boehler is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against ConAgra.

Said Gordon Reisinger of Red Oak, Iowa, one of the plaintiffs against Excel, a division of Cargill: "We are not doing this for financial gain. We are trying to preserve a fair way to do business." Spokesmen for the two packing companies said they had not been informed of the lawsuits.

"Until we've seen the document," ConAgra spokesman Jim Herlihy said, "it would be premature for us to comment on it." Mark Klein, communications director for Excel, said there have been numerous studies on the effect of captive supplies. "None have shown captive supplies to be tools for market manipulation," Klein said.

The lawsuits address one of the most contentious issues in agriculture today: whether contracting in advance to sell cattle squeezes profits from the cash sellers. A hotly debated proposal to ban packer ownership of livestock prior to slaughter was ultimately rejected before Congress adopted a new farm bill this week.

"That was not the end of the controversy," Iowa State University economist Neil Harl said. "It is clear that the issue is important and resonates with producers throughout the country. It is clear there is going to be continued pressure, legally and legislatively."

If accepted by the court, the "class" involved in the two Nebraska cases would include only cattlemen who sell the traditional way, by taking bids from buyers on a weekly or even daily basis. Many of these sellers contend that as packers control more of the slaughter supply, they bid less aggressively on the remaining cattle.

Eight university economists reported earlier this year that more than 35% of cattle are sold to packers through some kind of advance arrangement. But the economists said the negative impact was minimal. Another group of university economists, including Harl, followed with its own reports concluding that captive supplies were cutting into the profits of independent sellers. "Even academics can disagree," Harl said.

Studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have concluded that the impact captive supplies have on market prices is not enough to trigger government intervention. The Lincoln lawsuits are similar to one filed in Alabama against IBP Inc., the nation's largest packer. Class-action status was granted in that case over the objections of IBP.

IBP, headquartered in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota.; Omaha-based Con-Agra and Excel of Wichita, Kansas, slaughtered about 72% of the nation's fed steers and heifers in 2000, according to Cattle Buyers Weekly, an industry newsletter. Beef slaughtering plants operated by the defendants in the Nebraska lawsuits include ConAgra's plants in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Omaha; and Excel's plant in Schuyler, Nebraska. Neither company operates beef packing plants in Iowa.

If the lawsuits are successful, they could lead to compensation for alleged losses going back four years for about 15,000 independent cattle producers. "Actual damages would depend upon what proof they have and can develop as to pricing that was discriminatory," Harl said. "This is difficult to do."

The cattlemen also asked for an injunction to stop the packing companies from owning cattle or contracting for them in advance. Domina said the IBP lawsuit in Alabama is the first class-action suit to go forward in the 81-year-history of the Packers and Stockyards Act.


DARREN YOURK, TORONTO GLOBE AND MAIL:Almost 30,000 farms went out of business across Canada in five years, a report released Wednesday says. The 2001 Census of Agriculture counted 246,923 farms in Canada on May 15, 2001, down almost 11% since 1996. This represents the fastest percentage decline between censuses since 1971. All provinces shared the decline, with eight of the 10 showing decreases of greater than 10%
Highlights of the census:

* Number of farms down 10.7% to 246,923, from 276,548 in 1996.
* Farms grow in size --- 273 hectares from 246 --- and earning power.
* More diversification as wheat declines 12.6%
* Livestock numbers hit new high with hogs nearing cattle.
* Expenses climb to 87 cents for every dollar earned from 83 cents.
* Environmentally friendly tilling hits new high of 60%.
* Greenhouse industry increases 42.1% Ontario dominates.
* Wine industry booms as grape acreage increases 41.9%.
* Blueberries top apples again for fruit growers.

The new statistics continue a trend that has seen farm numbers continue to drop for the past five decades.

"We still have a fair number of smaller farms," said David Culver, chief of farm data and analysis for Agriculture and Agrifood Canada. "I think you could see a bipolar distribution situation happening, where you'll have massive farms and a lot of hobby farms where people live for lifestyle reasons rather than trying to make a living out of it."

"Farmers on medium-sized farms have the most difficulty. The farms aren't large enough to make a living off of, but they're large enough to interfere with getting other employment." The census includes farms of all economic sizes, from hobby farms to large corporations.

For every 10 Canadian farm operations that "counted themselves in" in 1996, seven still existed in 2001, while three had left the agriculture sector. On the positive side, 50,000 operations started up during the period. One of the main reasons for the drop in farm numbers is the challenge that farmers face in trying to manage their expenditures to remain competitive.

The portion of a dollar represented by expenses is growing. In 2000, farmers spent an average of 87 cents on operating expenses (not including depreciation) for every dollar of gross farm receipts. In 1996, the ratio was 83 cents in expenses for each dollar in receipts.

The smallest farms, those that brought in less than $25,000, spent $1.68 in operating expenses for every dollar in receipts. Many farms in this category are hobby farms.

"The ability for the small family farm to generate a full family income is getting less and less," said George Brinkman, an professor in agricultural economics at the University of Guelph. "We're getting more farmers who run small operations and have other jobs. This census is saying the margins are continuing to decline and it's not likely to reverse itself."

Only 25% of farms in the lowest income group had greater receipts than expenses. Those in the largest receipts category ($250,000 and over) spent 85 cents for every dollar they received. In each of the receipts categories, however, farmers spent more to earn a dollar in 2000 than they did in 1995.

The only category of farms to show growth over the five years was those operations with $250,000 or more in receipts. They represented 34,139 farms, an increase of 32.0% from 1995. While they accounted for only 13.8 % of all farms in Canada, they had 68.1% of all gross receipts reported for 2000.

"If you look at what size a farm you have to be before your profit numbers increase, it's about $125,000 in sales in most provinces," said Wilson Freeman, a project manager for Statistics Canada. "Under that figure, we've lost a lot of farms since the last census. The numbers show smaller farms have poor cost structures."

Over the five-year period between 1995 and 2000, the prices that farmers received for their products declined by 4.6%, while prices they paid for expenses such as fertilizer and fuel increased by 10%. "Agriculture operates with narrower margins than most industries," Mr. Freeman said. "They also have to deal with weather factors that other industries don't have to take into account."

While the report says the number of farms has declined, the average farm is getting bigger. Nationally, farmers reported that they had 89.9 million acres in crops in 2001, up 4.2% from the previous census. The average Canadian farm grew 11.2%, increasing from 608 acres to 676 acres. "I would expect that we will continue to see farms getting larger and more specialized," Mr. Brinkman said. "These changes will continue in the farming sector into the next decade."

Where the farms are [Numbers of Farms Lost 2001-1996] [Percentage of Farms]:

Canada, [-29,625] -[10.7 %]
Newfoundland and Labrador, [-99]   [-13.3%]
Prince Edward Island, [-372]   [-16.8%]
Nova Scotia, [-530]   [-11.9%]
New Brunswick, [-371]   [-10.9%]
Quebec  [ -3,852]   [-10.7%]
Ontario, [-7,792]   [-11.5%]
Manitoba,  [-3,312]   [-13.6%]
Saskatchewan, [-6,397]   [-11.2%]
Alberta, [-5,355]   [-9.1%]
British Columbia, [ -1,545]   [-7.1%]


Japan [last] Thursday defended its policy of keeping agriculture products off limits during negotiations to set up free trade agreements, saying the country needs to boost its food self-sufficiency and protect its farmers. Tokyo has recently shifted focus from reaching trade deals under the umbrella of the World Trade Organization to seeking pacts with individual nations.

Last year, Japan established its first free trade agreement with Singapore, and plans to start talks soon with Mexico and South Korea. There is just one obstacle: Tokyo's habit of coddling its farmers. "Our producers are working hard," Tatsuya Kajishima, a senior Agriculture Ministry Official told a news conference [last] Thursday. "We need to provide consumers with cheap, safe, fresh products grown at home. That's our policy."

The free trade agreement with Singapore was relatively easy, as the tiny island city-state has no major agricultural products of its own. Still, Japan refused to close on the deal until Singapore agreed that its goldfish and cut flower exports would not benefit from the free trade deal.

Kajishima said Japan could not afford to set precedents that would go against its farming policy. "If we give in to one country, others will say `why don't you do the same for us?'" he said. Japan wants to boost the nation's food self-sufficiency from 40% to 45%, a key rationale for its high agricultural tariffs.

The government also says it needs to keep a cap on imports as it implements an agricultural restructuring program aimed at weaning farmers off small plots and bringing in modern and efficient big farming.

Despite skepticism that Mexico and South Korea would agree to a free trade agreement that excluded agriculture, Kajishima remained optimistic. "If they say OK then we have a deal," he said. If not, "we have to see what they say and overcome their objections."


JANE KAY, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: For the first time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is saying that California can no longer exempt its $29 billion agricultural industry --- the biggest in the nation --- from air quality regulations.

In settling three lawsuits Tuesday with a coalition of community, health and environmental groups, the EPA said it will deem part of California's air program "deficient" under the federal Clean Air Act. That could result in the state losing billions of dollars in federal highway funds. The California Farm Bureau, worried about the effect of the settlement on farmers, is arming for a battle to delay or at least more clearly define which activities will fall under new regulations.

California --- the nation's largest producer of fruits, vegetables and nuts --- is the only state that explicitly allows major agricultural sources of air pollution to escape the provisions of the Clean Air Act. Those sources range from diesel engines that run irrigation pumps to livestock manure piles and even ponds.

EPA representatives said Tuesday that they decided to settle the lawsuits that challenged the decades' old exemption after reviewing pollution data from diesel engines.

"We thought the information submitted by the litigants was very compelling, and that's why we entered into a settlement establishing a permitting process for the diesel engines," said Jack Broadbent, director of the EPA western region's air division. "The nitrogen oxides contribute not only to ozone but also to the particulate problems in the San Joaquin Valley," he said.

The San Joaquin Valley has three of the top five cities with the worst smog in the United States --- Bakersfield, Fresno and Visalia, according to the American Lung Association. There promises to be a fight in the Legislature over removing the exemption. Lawmakers generally have been sympathetic to agricultural interests.

Now, the federal government is forcing the Legislature to remove agriculture's exemption or California could face sanctions.

Unless the Legislature acts, in six months the EPA would initiate a regulatory program for farms, then in 18 months place heavy restrictions on new major sources of pollution such as factories or power plants. Within two years, the state could lose several billion dollars in federal highway funds.

Growers have argued that the EPA needs several years to gather data on sources of pollution from animal feeding and other operations before it regulates those activities. The California Farm Bureau intends to object to the settlement. "We still think we have some legal options, and we're evaluating them," said Brenda Southwick, a Farm Bureau lawyer.

"But we don't think there's enough data to support the rules and the time lines that are proposed," Southwick said.

The EPA's action settles three consolidated lawsuits, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco, that challenge the exemption for agriculture. Plaintiffs include the Association of Irritated Residents in Delano (Kern County), the Medical Alliance for Healthy Air in Fresno, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club.

Merced native Coleen Trieweiler, president of Communities for Land, Air and Water, said San Joaquin Valley residents want controls on the large farms and dairies. "We felt they do pollute like factories, and they should have the same regulations as other factories," she said.


MARIAN BURROS, THE NEW YORK TIMES: In Food Politics, Marion Nestle's telling book on the food industry's influence on nutrition and health, she asserts that one of the ways the industry intimidates its critics is by suing them. As if on cue, the Sugar Association has threatened to sue Dr. Nestle, professor and chairwoman of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University.

Dr. Nestle is in very good company: a group of Texas cattlemen sued Oprah Winfrey for making disparaging statements about hamburgers. They lost. This threat is central to the theme of Food Politics (University of California Press, 2002). "Many of the nutritional problems of Americans, not the least of them obesity, can be traced to the food industry's imperative to encourage people to eat more in order to generate sales and increase income," Dr. Nestle says.

Something is certainly making Americans fatter. From the late 1970's to the early 1990's the prevalence of obesity nearly doubled, according to a study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in 1995. That study showed that 14% of children were overweight, as were 12% of adolescents and 35% of adults.

Levels continue to rise. Though not in the muckraking genre of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, Dr. Nestle examines what she sees as the industry's manipulation of America's eating habits while enumerating many conflicts of interest among nutritional authorities. Combining the scientific background of a researcher and the skills of a teacher, she has made a complex subject easy to understand. And she has succeeded in making a number of people who believe the food industry is only giving people what they want quite angry. (And while intimidating as threats of legal action may be, the Sugar Association, which is upset about being lumped together with corn sweeteners, has not yet gone further than a lawyer's letter.)

It's hard to argue with Dr. Nestle's point that food is above all political and that with all its money the food industry can influence what we eat and how much information we are given about it. It spends $33 billion a year for advertising and promotion and countless millions more on lobbying.

Food Politics provides a road map of food and politics since just after World War II, when scientists discovered that chronic diseases caused by overeating and lack of exercise were becoming a bigger problem than undernutrition.

It comes as no surprise that the food industry lobbies Congress and regulatory agencies. But Dr. Nestle has substantial evidence to show how wide its influence is, and how the people the public turns to for unbiased information are no longer in a position to provide it. The food industry, she says, has bought a lot of scientists, nutritionists, dietitians and
universities, as well as having co-opted the government. People may argue about whether they have been bought, but the amount of money that has changed hands is well documented.

The companies, Dr. Nestle says, "routinely provide information and funds to academic departments, research institutes and professional societies, and they support meetings, conferences, journals and other such activities. Most nutrition professionals depend on such support, and some actively seek it."

Among the companies that sponsor nutrition journals are Coca-Cola, Monsanto, Procter & Gamble and Slim-Fast. Dr. Nestle points out that fact sheets produced by the American Dietetic Association are also sponsored by the companies: one financed by Monsanto discusses the importance of biotechnology, one financed by NutraSweet discusses the value of aspartame and one financed by Campbell's Soup says the link between sodium and high blood pressure is unclear.

Dr. Nestle also makes these points:
* Corporate funding underwrites entire departments at universities. Papers presented at conferences sponsored by food companies are sometimes published as supplements to journals, with the companies underwriting the cost.
* Nutrition societies routinely seek corporate sponsorship of meetings. At one meeting of the American Society for Nutritional Sciences, Dr. Nestle recounts, heads of university nutrition departments were invited to a Kellogg breakfast that featured samples of psyllium fiber-supplemented foods, which the company was test-marketing.
* No matter how careful the research, corporate sponsorship casts doubt on the results.
"This impression is reinforced when sponsors use the results to advertise or publicize their products," she says.

Dr. Nestle concludes that while most people can understand advertising, "it is far more difficult to know about the industry's behind-the-scenes efforts in Congress, federal agencies, courts, universities and professional organizations to make diets seem a matter of personal choice rather than of deliberate manipulation." Her advice sounds like common sense: ignore the food industry's messages to eat more; instead, eat less.


E.J. DIONNE, WASHINGTON POST: There is no such thing as a timely death. But just when you thought all the stories on American priests were destined to be about evil committed and covered up, one of the truly great priests was called to his eternal reward.

Monsignor George G. Higgins was the sort of Catholic clergyman regularly cast as a hero in movies of the 1940s and '50s. He was an uncompromising pro-labor priest who walked picket lines, fought anti-Semitism, supported civil rights and wrote and wrote and wrote in the hope that some of his arguments about social justice might penetrate somewhere.

He got attached to causes before they became fashionable, and stuck with them after the fashionable people moved on. Cesar Chavez once said that no one had done more for American farmworkers than Monsignor Higgins. In the 1980s, he traveled regularly to Poland in support of Solidarity's struggle against communism and became an important link between American union leaders and their Polish brethren.

As it happens, even the day of Monsignor Higgins' death, at the age of 86, was appropriate. He passed from this world on May 1, the day that many countries set aside to honor labor and that the Catholic Church designates as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.

If Higgins had been there when that famous carpenter was looking for a place to spend the night with his pregnant wife, the monsignor would certainly have taken the family in. He would also have handed Joseph a union card, told him he deserved better pay and benefits, and insisted that no working person should ever have to beg for shelter.

Yes, Higgins sounds so old-fashioned --- and in every good sense he was --- that you might wonder about his relevance to our moment. Let us count the ways.

One of the most astonishing and disturbing aspects of the Catholic Church's current scandal is the profound disjunction --- that's a charitable word --- between what the church preaches about sexuality and compassion toward the young, and how its leaders reacted to the flagrant violation of these norms by priests.

Higgins, who spent decades as the Catholic Church's point man on labor and social-justice issues, hated the idea of preachers exhorting people to do one thing and then doing the opposite. And so he made himself into a true pain for any administrator of any Catholic institution who resisted the demands of workers for fair pay and union representation.

"These men and women mop the floors of Catholic schools, work in Catholic hospital kitchens and perform other sometimes menial tasks in various institutions," he once wrote. "They have not volunteered to serve the church for less than proportionate compensation."

"The church has a long history of speaking out on justice and peace issues," he said. "Yet only in more recent times has the church made it clear that these teachings apply as well to the workings of its own institutions."

Where some religious leaders complain that they get caught up in scandal because they are unfairly held to higher standards, Higgins believed that higher standards were exactly the calling of those who claim the authority to tell others what to do.

It bothered Higgins to the end of his life that the cause of trade unionism had become so unfashionable, especially among well-educated and well-paid elites. For 56 years, he wrote a column for the Catholic press, and he returned to union issues so often that he once felt obligated to headline one of his offerings: "Why There's So Much Ado About Labor in My Column."

His answer was simple: "I am convinced that we are not likely to have a fully free or democratic society over the long haul without a strong and effective labor movement."

To those who saw collective bargaining as outdated in a new economy involving choice, mobility and entrepreneurship, Higgins would thunder back about the rights of those for whom such a glittering world was still, at best, a distant possibility: hospital workers, farmworkers, fast-food workers and others who need higher wages to help their children reach their dreams.

He could not abide well-paid intellectuals who regularly derided unions as dinosaurs, and he told them so, over and over.

It is one of the highest callings of spiritual leaders to force those who live happy and comfortable lives to consider their obligations to those heavily burdened by injustice and deprivation. It is a great loss when such prophetic voices are stilled by scandal and the cynicism it breeds.

Fortunately, that never happened to Higgins. He never had to shut up about injustice and, God bless him, he never did.