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The Re-Emergence of the Religion-Labor Tradition:
The National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice
By: William Bole
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Maria Elena Durazo, president of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees'
hard-hitting Local 11, had the final
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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;
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
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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