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Higgins Labor Program prepares for year of combining programming and research

| Wednesday, August 29, 2018

While the Higgins Labor Program has been around in various forms since the early 1990s, current director Daniel Graff, who has a joint appointment in the history department, is focused on bringing together the research and student engagement sides of the program.

Graff, who was appointed director in 2014, said Higgins was originally founded by labor economists in the economics department as a small, independent research center called the Higgins Research Center. It was named after Monsignor George Higgins, a Catholic priest who argued for workers’ rights and wrote documents for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, writing some of them on social work and justice.

“It was folded into the Center for Social Concerns about a decade ago as a way to integrate the Higgins Labor Program’s research on labor questions to add an engaged learning component that we think of the Center for Social Concerns when we think about engaged learning or service learning,” he said. “ … As director, my hope has been to reinvigorate the research side of the things while continuing this programming work.”

The Higgins Labor Program has three main components, Graff said. The first of these is event programming that is open to everyone but meant to inform and engage students. One such event is the Labor Cafe, the first of which for the year will take place Friday. The Labor Cafes are informal events on certain Friday afternoons to talk about work-related issues.

“That always brings people from campus to it — students, faculty, staff, visitors who are on campus for another reason and see it and come in and people from the community,” Graff said.

Other event programming includes the Research, Advocacy and Policy series (RAP), which includes lunchtime talks with subject matter experts; the Higgins Alumni Network, which brings back students who are working in labor in some capacity; and relevant film screenings.

Anna Scartz, a junior and student assistant for the Higgins Labor Program, said she became involved after attending one of the events freshman year.

“I really liked it because it’s just really casual conversation where I felt comfortable speaking even though I didn’t feel like I had a large amount of knowledge at that time, so that kept me coming back to learn about these important issues,” she said.

The second component of the program is the research component, which includes the Just Wage Working Group. The group has been working for a year and a half to develop a just wage framework, which was first presented at the Program’s symposium in Washington D.C. this summer.

“We’re trying to develop an online tool right now that people can use to ask a question about whether a particular wage is just or not,” Graff said. “ … We’re now in a space where we have the framework and the tool created, and now it’s operationalizing it online. We’ll be spending a lot of time presenting … to new audiences.”

Graff said the group is intentional in how it is framing the conversation in order to “invite more discussion.”

“We’re hoping to do it in a way by using this framework of a just wage that might slip out of some of the partisan debates over things like a living wage and a minimum wage,” he said.

Scartz was able to participate in the symposium for the Just Wage Working Group this summer. At the event, she said she heard from labor unions, interested students across the country and people who deal with the issues regularly.

“It gave me more context as to this being a national or even international movement as opposed to something that happens on Notre Dame’s campus or in the Notre Dame bubble,” she said.

Original online conversation is the final component of the Program, which features a blog that is open to contributors.

“The heart of it is trying to give students an opportunity,” Graff said.

Graff said the Program is operating at the right time where people are interested in labor questions.

“I think more and more Americans are concerned about what appears to be increasing economic inequality and the stubbornly flat wages even in spite of the super tight labor market with low unemployment,” he said. “ … The Higgins Labor Program is really interested in getting people together to address those questions, and I think the timing is really pressing right now.”

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About Alexandra Muck

Alexandra Muck is a Notre Dame senior majoring in business and economics. Originally from Dallas, she currently lives in Howard Hall.

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