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The Re-Emergence of the Religion-Labor Tradition: 

The National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice

By: William Bole

 WORKING USA

NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 1998


     In the 1954 film classic, On the Waterfront, Karl Malden acted the part of a rough-and-tumble priest who made the New York waterfront, with all its misery and corruption, "my parish." He didn't deliver the film's most famous line, "I coulda been a contenda, I coulda  been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am," bellowed by Marlon Brando, who starred as a boxer-turned-longshoreman. But Malden's priest did land some of the more staggering punches, spiritually speaking for the most part (and actually when he tried to knock sense into the Brando character).

     The film's crucifixion scene begins with a  loading "accident" that crushes a dissident dockworker named Dugan, who bucked the notorious daily hiring system known as the "shape-up." The Jesuit arrives and administers last rites. "You know what's wrong with the waterfront," he tells a throng of 
workers and bosses. "It's the love of a lousy buck. It's making the love of a cushy job more important than the love of man. It's forgetting that every fellow down here is your brother in Christ. But remember, Christ is always with you. Christ is in the shape-up. He's in the hatch He's kneeling right 
here besides Dugan."

     The priest was not a figment of screenwriter Budd Schulberg's imagination. During his years of work on the screenplay, Schulberg shadowed the Jesuits of Xavier Labor School in New York's Hells Kitchen. The most colorful cleric was the Rev. John "Pete" Corridan, whom Schulberg once 
described as "rangy, ruddy, fast-talking, chain-smoking, tough-minded, sometimes profane." Corridan, who became the model for Malden's character, "Father Barry," navigated a rebellion against racketeering in the maritime industry - against the triple alliance of corrupt union leaders, greedy bosses, and crooked politicians. He emerged as a visible figure in 1948 when longshoremen staged a wildcat strike that capsized the industry for 18 days, up and down the Atlantic Coast.

     Corridan (who died in 1984) ran in the ranks of "labor priests" who made the union halls their parishes. They set up labor schools that marked the industrial map of America and taught the nuts and bolts of trade unionism to mass-production workers. They epitomized a partnership between religion and 
labor that crested not long after On the Waterfront steamed its way to eight Academy Awards (including one for Schulberg's screenplay). That alliance was born of the struggles to organize industrial workers during the 1930s. For all intent and purposes, it died in the 1960s, largely of natural causes and partly from the trauma of Vietnam-era politics.

     Suddenly, this corner of history seems less dim or curious than it did just a few years ago. Around the United States, clergy and laity are planting their flags in the labor field, more than at any time since the 1950s. They are marching with strawberry pickers, poultry workers, and others along the 
dirt roads of American capitalism. They are fighting for a living wage in city councils and against sweatshop abuses in the developing world. They are refuting those who say the labor movement hasn't got a prayer, even if in the most literal sense - by praying on the picket lines.

     In local standoffs especially, an injection of clergy can shake things loose and open doors to settlement. Hundreds of hotel workers learned this recently in Los Angeles, where more than 150 priests, ministers, rabbis, and lay people marched through downtown to support their fight for a new citywide contract. Two of the three hotels along the route signed union contracts in the days just before the April 8 procession, and the third signed just after. 

Union leaders gave credit largely to the interfaith action.
     A spirited ecumenical presence can highlight the moral imperatives and community interests in a skirmish that the company might define as strictly between "labor and management." Yet in this renewed labor of love, many of 
the religious recruits are novices and some are rusty. Their movement has barely begun. And the past offers a glimpse of the snags in religion-labor relations, along with the possibilities of a lively witness to the virtue of social solidarity.

     The clearest sign of a religious revival in labor's arena is the emergence of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. "As God worked to create the world, our religious traditions value those who do the world's work," the committee testifies in its statement of purpose. "We honor 
our Creator by seeking to assure that laborers, particularly low-wage workers, are able to live decent lives as a product of their labor."

     When it surfaced in early 1996, the Chicago-based organization counted a dozen local and regional interfaith coalitions dedicated to labor and workplace justice. Now there are more than three times as many, all affiliated with the national committee. One of the latest arrivals is the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, which has already rattled industry's coop in the peninsula that forms Maryland's Eastern Shore and includes most of Delaware and part of Virginia. The interfaith group is challenging industry to abide by a "social compact" that respects the economic rights of poultry 
workers as well as contract growers. 

Over the past decade, national poultry industry profits have soared by more than 250 percent, while real wages for poultry workers have fallen, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers.    The National Interfaith Committee has scored a hit with its Labor Day Speak Out, which puts labor leaders in the pulpits with messages about faith, work, and justice. Last year, hundreds of congregations around the country held Labor Day worship services with the help of an organizing and liturgical kit assembled by the committee. The Chicago Federation of Labor jumped in 
with both feet. Instead of running its annual Labor Day parade, the federation saved its energy for the roughly 150 religious services offered on that day in Chicago area churches, synagogues, and mosques. National 
organizers (at this writing) expected to amplify this year's Labor Day Speak Out, a joint venture with the AFL-CIO's Field Mobilization Department, to congregations in 30 cities.

     As part of its teaching mission, the interfaith committee also circulates a handy newsletter, Faith Works. Published six times a year, it features a blend of solid news reporting and tips on weaving the word on labor justice into sermons and services. The June edition led with a story on the interfaith march in support of hotel workers in Los Angeles. Staged a few days before Passover, the procession paused at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, upon which the clergy bestowed a gift basket of milk and honey to signify the sweetness of the contract signed by the hotel. The general manager apparently 
played along with the ceremonial offering; Faith Works reported his reaction as one of "surprise and appreciation." 

Maria Elena Durazo, president of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees' hard-hitting Local 11, had the final 
word. "This truly was a historic event Without question, this procession played a key role in pushing hotel management over that final hurdle and 'helped' them to decide to treat their workers with respect " (The groups behind the faith demonstration were Clergy and Laity Concerned for Economic Justice, the Jewish Labor Committee, and the Westside Interfaith Council.)

     What has ushered in this renewed alliance of the meek and the militant?

The labor question, in a sense, has become easier for religious contemplation. Political and economic forces have pushed the labor movement toward the margins of society, where religious social-justice advocates normally dwell. The modern assault on trade unionism has triggered a question 
of obvious moral content: Does labor have a right to exist? Under such pressure, labor's national leadership has reset its focus on organizing the unorganized. That is what galvanized churches and synagogues during the 1930s and '40s, and that is the invitation today to a religion-labor resurgence.

      The simple right to organize and bargain collectively has traditionally served as the main entrance for religious ruminations on organized labor. Most of the mainstream denominations have inserted into their social professions of faith a mention of support for trade union rights. The Catholic Church has perhaps the most distinct heritage of support for labor, dating formally to an 1891 papal encyclical on the condition of workers. In a declaration of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the bishops of the world stated: "Among the basic rights of the human person must be counted the right 
of freely founding labor unions. These unions should be truly able to represent the workers and contribute to the proper arrangement of economic life." In their 1983 pastoral letter on Catholic social teaching and the U.S. economy, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops spelled out this teaching for the American audience. "No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself," the bishops affirmed. "Therefore we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably seen in this country, to break existing unions or prevent workers from organizing."

      What these words could use is a bit more flesh. Seven leaders of the interfaith committee said so much in a statement marking the June 24 national "day of action" this year that called attention to the withering right to organize. (Interfaith coalitions held rallies, hearings, and other events in a dozen major cities.) "Those in the religious community who are serious about economic justice must begin to put their principles into action," the leadership insisted. "People of faith must support workers who seek to organize and seek to get contracts. We must challenge companies that fire workers who organize, intimidate workers in the workplace by holding 
mandatory anti-union meetings or badgering workers about voting against unions, stall or refuse to negotiate contracts, permanently replace or lock out workers."

     Churches and synagogues are also arriving at house of labor through side entrances, namely the realities of economic insecurity at home and miserable labor standards abroad. Two examples illustrate the different openings to religion-labor cooperation.

     In Baltimore, ministers and priests began to see longer lines outside the food pantries of their downtown churches. Many of those waiting were full-time wage earners - working for companies that do business with the city - but they didn't make enough to lift themselves and their families out of 
poverty. Instead of simply restocking the pantry shelves, the clergy did something radical. Through a church-based organization called BUILD (Baltimorans United in Leadership Development), they pushed for a law requiring companies with city contracts to pay their workers a living wage, above the federally mandated minimum.

     In an alliance with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, BUILD sent organizers into the streets, recruiting volunteers at bus stops, serving hot coffee outside office buildings where low-paid workers empty out waste baskets and sweep floors. They prevailed, and thus gave rise to the new living-wage movement, which has yielded above-minimum pay laws in at least a dozen cities. The moral precept of the struggle is that no one who works for a living should have to live in poverty, and employers who receive public money have a particular obligation to pay livable wages. 

In Washington, Senator Edward Kennedy has invoked the language of the movement in his call for a federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Baltimore's living wage will reach $7.70 an hour next year, under the four-year-old ordinance.

In New Jersey, Roman Catholic Archbishop Theodore McCarrick had a nagging conscience about his considerable buying power as head of the 1.5-million-member Archdiocese of Newark. Within his realm, parochial-school children could be found frolicking in school yards just blocks from back alley 
factories where immigrants labor for sub-minimum wages. They also wear uniforms that - for all the archbishops knows - might be produced in some of those factories. Seeing something wrong with this picture, McCarrick marched 
into a media spotlight a year ago with a pledge to make the 
1.5-million-member archdiocese free of sweatshop-made goods, either in northern New Jersey or anywhere else.

     He has started by investigating companies that supply uniforms to the archdiocese's 60,000 Catholic school children - in a close partnership with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), which is 
helping to monitor the suppliers. "We want to look at everything we buy, to make sure we're not contributing to injustice and indignity in the workplace," McCarrick told the national Catholic weekly Our Sunday Visitor late last year. "We're trying to make it less profitable for [companies] to 
exploit people who work for them." For its part, UNITE is pushing the archbishop's "No Sweat" campaign as a model for both private and public institutions that purchase millions of dollars worth of apparel.

    In the living-wage feat, BUILD hammered out with AFSCME an ongoing coalition that has fought off attempts by state government to convert union jobs into "workfare" jobs held by welfare recipients. In the anti-sweatshop initiative, the archdiocese has built industriously on a relationship with 
labor that already existed. Years of dialogue with the region's textile unions produced the material for a religion-labor initiative that has highlighted global working conditions. (The archdiocese has also worked with trade unions on a labor education effort in the seminaries.)

     Clearly, some quarters of the clergy are getting religion on labor. As National Interfaith Committee founder and director Kim Bobo observes, "It feels very much like a movement. This stuff is happening faster than anybody can organize it. Almost everywhere we go, there's a core group of folks who 
are interested in renewing these relationships." That is a remarkable turn in the religion-labor convergence. It is also remarkably late, considering that the de-industrialization of American began roughly two decades ago and 
workers have been losing ground ever since. What accounts for this lag in the pursuit of workplace justice? What would it take for labor to become a choice item on the religious social action agenda? History points to a few answers.

     The tapering off of ties between religion and labor began in the 1950s, largely as a byproduct of success. With the great organizing campaigns behind them, there was simply less for religion and labor to do as a coalition. They went separate ways. Unions turned inward to build up their institutions; 
religious activists gravitated toward new arenas of social action, notably civil rights and community organizing.
     There was not only a tapering off but also a falling out. During the 1960s, the Vietnam War was a harbinger of clashes to come, between mainstream labor's hard-hat foreign policy and the romantic internationalism of many church leaders. By the 1980s, churches and unions split further, over Central America. To church people, organized labor and the AFL-CIO in particular gave aid and comfort to Washington's policy of regional military intervention. 

Mainstream labor saw religious activists holding hands with Daniel Ortega while his left-wing Sandinista government made guacamole out of Nicaragua's free trade unions. (The irony of this geopolitical equation was that some labor priests and laity of past generations had crusaded against communists in the leadership ranks of industrial unions.)

     The prospects of renewed friendship between religion and labor appeared with the passing of the Cold War. Perhaps the earliest signal was the 1988-1989 Pittston strike in Virginia. In August 1991, then United Mine Workers president Richard Trumka went before an assembly of liberal church leaders in Washington to give thanks for their "friendship, communion, and solidarity" during the strike, which settled with the Virginia mining company withdrawing most of its demands. "We called for help," said Trumka, now AFL-CIO secretary treasurer, "and you, the progressive religious leadership of America, responded with a force that our country has not seen in a long 
time."

     Still, it has taken years beyond Pittston for anyone to seriously speak of a new "movement." The decades-long chill had to do not simply with the Cold War, but with a refusal to transcend political differences in the interests of working families, especially on the part of religious activists. 

Beginning in the 1960s, the religious left also partook in the culture... (This article ended in transmission at this point. I am consulting with the author to complete the text. Web Master)



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