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Episcopal Priest Rallies Local Support For Poultry Workers

By: William Bole

Religion News Service

September 1998

They say organized labor in the United States hasn't got a 
prayer. But the skeptics haven't spoken to the Rev. Jim Lewis and other religious leaders who are blessing the new labor struggles. The Episcopal priest is rallying churches in the mid-Atlantic region behind the cause of low-paid poultry workers, at a time when the labor movement is gearing up for an onslaught of organizing in the industry.

     "We see it as a deeply moral question, a moral struggle," said Lewis, who heads the newly formed Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, based in Georgetown, Del. Clergy and lay activists are turning up in union battles across the country, in greater numbers than at any other time in decades. They are 
praying on the picket lines with janitors, hotel workers, strawberry pickers, and others who labor at the bottom of America's booming economy.

     Retired Bishop Jesse Dewitt of the United Methodist Church said he hasn't seen so many clergy of various denominations in the labor field since the California farm workers' crusade of the 1960s and perhaps the Depression, 
when Dewitt worked on a Detroit assembly line before entering the ministry. He said economic trends such as the widening gap between the lowest and highest paid workers along with anti-union campaigns by employers have galvanized the traditionally pro-labor segments of organized religion. "It's not that they're supporting unions alone. They're supporting 
workers, particularly low-wage workers. It's a question of justice," said Dewitt, who lives in Ann Harbor, Mich., and serves as president of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.

     The clearest sign of a religious revival in labor's tent is the 
emergence of the interfaith committee, based in Chicago. When it surfaced in early 1996, the umbrella 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 organization made headlines this past summer by calling on poultry companies to sign a code of ethics to guarantee fair wages, safe working 
conditions, and the right to organize and bargain collectively.
     Behind the initiative is what Lewis described as a spirited alliance of parishioners, community leaders, and environmentalists, along with process workers and small contract farmers. (Environmentalists are worried about 
pollutants from chicken factories and food safety.)

     Referring to this convergence, he said, "It's a Pentecostal experience. It's a speaking-in-tongues experience. It's a deeply religious thing that's happening here." According to the alliance, poultry workers receive among the lowest industrial wages - averaging around $7.50 an hour - and suffer one of the highest rates of workplace injury.

     The United Food and Commercial Workers plans to launch organizing drives 
among poultry workers later this year. The union says that over the past decade, national poultry industry profits have soared by more than 250 percent, while wages, after adjusting for inflation, have fallen.

    Industry officials say the religious activists should mind their own business. "Our industry does not need Jim Lewis and his crowd telling us how to operate our businesses," said Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., a trade association that represents the 
region's chicken companies.

     Satterfield said the wage levels decried by Lewis and others "are considerably above the minimum wage" and higher than pay in other sectors such as fast food. "These charges about workers being mistreated are nonsense," he said, 
adding that companies are trying to keep workers happy because of a labor shortage. He also characterized the anticipated organizing as an attempt by the union to "increase its revenue by increasing its membership."

     Religious leaders are standing up for labor at a time when the movement has its back to the wall. Union representation has thinned to slightly more than 16 percent of the American workforce. Leaving out government workers, the figure melts down to about 10 percent of the private sector. In hope of a revival, some unions have begun organizing on a grand 
scale, for the first time in decades.

     "What we discovered is that a union movement that doesn't organize is a lot like a church that doesn't proselytize - as the years go by, there are fewer and fewer people in the pews and the sermons keep falling on ears that hear less and less," said John Sweeney, the reform-minded president of the 
AFL-CIO.

     Sweeney, a Catholic with close ties his church's social action movements, made the remarks in July to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
     Kim Bobo, executive director of the national interfaith committee in Chicago, said the campaigns to organize new members have helped spark a resurgence of religious interest in labor. "It feels very much like a movement," she said of the religion-labor partnership. "Almost everywhere we go, there is a core group of folks who are renewing these relationships."
     In Los Angeles, an interfaith campaign that began last spring has helped win union contracts for approximately 2000 hotel employees including housekeepers, bellhops, waiters, and cooks, according to religious and labor leaders.

     A few days before Easter and Passover, more than 150 ministers, priests, rabbis and lay people marched through downtown to support the hotel workers' fight for a citywide contract. Two of the three hotels along the route signed 
contracts in the days just before the April 8 procession, and the third signed just after.

     "This was truly a historic event," said Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 of Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, following the march. "I cannot recall ever seeing such a strong moral presence in my 15 years at Local 11." She said the procession played a key role in "pushing hotel management over that final hurdle and helped them to decide to treat their workers with respect."

     Asked if the procession prompted his decision to sign a union contract, Regent Beverly Wilshire general manager Peter O'Colmain said, "Actually, no." He said management intended to sign even before religious leaders announced 
they would march past the Wilshire and other hotels.
     During the march, a religious contingent stopped at the Wilshire and ceremoniously presented O'Colmain with a gift basket of milk and honey, to symbolize the sweetness of the union contract. "I was pleasantly surprised, quite frankly," said the hotel manager, adding that he appreciated the 
gesture.

     Since then, two other hotels have signed union contracts. Both were targeted by a "Java for Justice" campaign in which small groups of religious activists ordered coffee in hotel restaurants and asked to speak to the managers, said Linda Lotz of Clergy and Laity United For Economic Justice, which coordinated the effort. The subject of conversation was not coffee, but unionism.
     

Sidebar

      Observers say the partnership between religion and labor is likely to remain a limited one. They point out that religious activists tend to gravitate to union causes that involve workers who earn poverty-level wages. Msgr. George Higgins, the Catholic Church's chief liaison to the labor movement, said he thinks church people would "look foolish" picketing with 
autoworkers, who rank among the best-paid industrial workers. The summer strike by the United Auto Workers against General Motors drew almost no visible support from clergy.

     In contrast, he pointed to last year's summer strike by Teamsters against United Parcel Service. It was the first major strike to spotlight the cause of part-time and temporary workers, who typically receive lower pay and fewer benefits than their full-time counterparts. It also triggered a groundswell of support in congregations and communities. The Teamsters won.

     Some of labor's adversaries warn that religious leaders could lose their soul in the marriage with unions. David Kendrick, program director of the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, said unions often use "coercion and violence," and clerics may squander their moral credibility by supporting union campaigns. His organization in Washington opposes union shops.

     Retired Bishop Jesse Dewitt of the United Methodist Church admitted, "Sometimes unions are wrong. Sometimes the workers are wrong." He cited corruption among other evils. But he added that many labor struggles today are pitting the rich and powerful against vulnerable workers. "As spiritual leaders, we have to be on the side of the powerless," he said.



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