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Episcopal Priest Rallies Local Support For Poultry Workers
By: William Bole
Religion News Service
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
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,
The clearest sign of a religious revival in
labor's tent is the
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
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
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
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,
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
"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
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.
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
"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
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.
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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