The Prophetic Work Some Reflections by Catholic-Labor Network  Members about the National Interfaith Committee's The Prophetic Work Conferenc

May 18-20, 2003

The National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice held a historical meeting this past May in Crystal City, Virginia (just outside of Washington, D.C.) from May 18-20, 2003. More than 150 clergy, religious and lay leaders gathered to pray, learn, lobby, and support one another in raising up the important worker issues of our country.

Following the conference, I asked a number of the Catholic-Labor Network members who attended the conference to share some of their reflections about the event. What follows are some of their thoughts.

Fr. Sinclair Oubre, J.C.L.
Web Master

The National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice has produced a summary of the the Prophetic Works Conference in their July newsletter Faith Works .

Fr. Ed Boyle, S.J.

Boston Labor Guild

Fr. Ed Boyle, S.J. The fast-growing National Interfaith Committee For Worker Justice (NICWJ) held a conference,  "The Prophetic Work; Religion & Labor Uniting For Worker Justice" in Washington, DC on May 18-20.  As many of our Network members know, Msgrs George Higgins and Jack Egan were among the first and most important backers of this Chicago-based Center, founded seven years ago.   This attendee thinks that they would have been very pleased by both the tone and professionalism of the three-day event.

The range of the workshops -- from Immigration Reform,  Department of Labor Partnerships, and Justice For Janitors to Free Trade vs Fair Trade, and Sweatshop Free Schools --  and the quality of the presentations from competent, nationally recognized activists and scholars testified to the Conference's professionalism.  So too, the mix of events between   the hands-on activities such as the lobbying of Congressional representatives on threatened changes in the Fair Labor Standards Act, with formal workshop and plenary sessions, prayer and music interludes, and some "R&R" was well  synchronized .

The tone was remarkably positive in light of the negative social and economic climate in the US these past few years with increasing unemployment, deterioration of public services, expanded prison system, and anti-union - anti-immigrant spirit.   Through a combination of charismatic speakers such as Rich Trumka of the national AFL-CIO --  Marie Elena Durazo, of the large HERE Local #11 in Los Angeles -- Imam Mujahid Ramadam of Las Vegas -  Kim Bobo, NICWJ Director - and Robert Marx, NICWJ Chair, and the faith vision enshrined in song and music, a resilient spirit determined to do battle was fostered.  There were just enough success stories woven in to add additional hope.  Finally ,  there was the large, diverse, group of attendees, numbering almost 300 that showed that "Hope" was still alive. Sr. Mary Priniski, Clayton Sinyai and other participants prepare for march on Starbucks

The ultimate test of the success of this Conference can only be measured by the progress in joint initiatives explored at this May Conference in future months.  I for one, however,  am happy that I was in attendance at this  gathering,  my batteries recharged, and I want to commend Kim Bobo, and her hardworking team at NICWJ, for the quality and content of this Washington DC event.

Fr. Ed Boyle, S.J.

Clayton Sinyai


Mid-Atlantic Laborers' Cooperation Trust

Clayton Sinyai and Sr. Mary Priniski with other members of the conference The conference was extremely well organized, featuring a very full schedule. It included most prominently several episodes of interfaith worship and reflection, numerous workshops on a variety of topics, a series of coordinated actions in support of CINTAS laundry workers focused on corporate client Starbucks Coffee, and a lobbying effort designed to protect the Fair Labor Standards Act. By bringing together people of many religious traditions the conference both indicated what unites "people of faith" who are interested in worker justice and what is distinctive about our Catholic social justice tradition in general and the work of the Catholic Labor Network in particular.

While the workshops covered a broad array of topics, one of the most frequent and popular themes revolved around "workers' centers" sponsored by interfaith groups in Chicago and elsewhere. Typically such workers' centers operate as a clearinghouse of information and a safe haven for workers who lack the protection of a union contract. In most cases they
are aimed at immigrant and especially undocumented workers, and they maintain extensive contacts with government agencies, churches, community groups and labor unions while remaining formally independent from any of these. Workers who face injustice in the workplace can come to such workers centers without fear of reprisal to learn about their legal rights and gain assistance in exercising these rights, including referrals to government regulatory agencies, trade unions, or social service groups as their particular situation requires.

It is no accident that much of the grant support for the workers' centers derives from Catholic Charities and other Church bodies, and that most of the workers' centers have especially close relationships with Catholic parishes. The Catholic Church in the United States has not only been a consistent advocate of worker rights but has been in the forefront of policy initiatives to secure amnesty and justice for undocumented workers. Although this policy stance is not unique, and is largely shared by the liberal Protestant and Jewish groups active in the NICWJ, today only the Catholic Church (and the Muslims) actually has an extensive presence in the immigrant community. The Church's special pastoral concern for the large immigrant Latino workforce, both in policy and the delivery of social services, makes our participation in these efforts a virtual necessity if they are to succeed.  

The NICWJ resolved to make protection and enhancement of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which enacted into law the minimum wage and  the forty hour week (by creating the overtime premium), our public policy focus. The choice was a sound one, with some interesting resonances in the history of American Catholic social teaching. Monsignor John Ryan's A Living Wage (1906) served as a philosophical justification for many of that era's Progressive legislative efforts to enact state minimum wage laws; by 1938 Ryan was working with the nation's Catholic Bishops on national policy and he played an important role in securing passage of the FLSA.

Lobbying to raise the minimum wage and to protect the forty-hour week offered something that might unite all members of the faith community. It is a campaign that the NICWJ can take to virtually any congregation, of any theological or political complexion, and receive at least a respectful hearing. While the Catholic Labor Network in particular, and the Catholic Church broadly, as an express commitment to support trade union organization, others who are more ambivalent about labor unions as such may still wholeheartedly support an increase in the minimum wage. And to the extent that we can bring together a variety of religious groups around this issue and testify to it before our public officials, the many Republican elected officials who are currently attacking FLSA will be obliged to rethink their stances.

Another element of the conference - and the Interfaith Committee itself - made this more complicated, however. For me the issue was highlighted by AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka's speech. Though always an engaging speaker, brother Trumka's remarks were aimed less at an audience brought together by their religious commitments to support worker justice than at an audience brought together by political commitments to support a broad liberal political agenda and the Democratic Party. Although this perspective was shared by many, perhaps a majority, of the NICWJ conferees, it would translate into a less effective effort to support FLSA. Republican Senators and Representatives who might listen to an independent faith-based voice for worker justice are likely to ignore an expressly "progressive" group with a partisan orientation.

Even more importantly, such an attitude would surely lock NICWJ permanently in a left ghetto.Sr. Mary Priniski and Si Kahn lead conference participants in song The broad ranks of "people of faith" in our country are a good deal more conservative on social issues than are progressive Democrats; they can only be recruited to this kind of social justice work by an organization that respects their beliefs. Catholics uneasy with the Democrats' stances on abortion and gay rights would have another reason to shun cooperation with NICWJ to support worker rights.
NICWJ could probably do an even greater service to both the labor movement and the nation if it were to make inroads with those evangelical denominations and groups influential in Republican circles who actually have the ear of our nation's present leadership. This might be possible on issues like the minimum wage, but is unlikely to make headway if burdened with an unpopular partisan identification, social agenda, or foreign policy prescription.

Fr. Sinclair Oubre, J.C.L.
St. John the Evangelist Church & St. Paul Mission
Web Master - Catholic-Labor Network

Fr. Les Schmidt and Fr. Sinclair Oubre, J.C.L. The National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice held its second national meeting in Arlington, Virginia from May 18-20, 2003. It was the first time since 1999, that the NICWJ organized such a meeting, and for those who participated, it was a tremendous affirmation of the efforts that go on throughout our country by clergy and people of faith to support workers in their efforts to gain greater dignity on the job, and collective bargaining rights.

So often, those who support and stand in solidarity with workers often find themselves struggling to know what is the right policy or strategy they should use in their labor outreach. There is not a “How to” book for this type of ministry. Therefore, when more than 150 men and women from around our country gathered together for this conference, it was an opportunity to support, console, encourage and learn from one another.

Something that separated this conference from many of the so called “progressive” conferences that are held throughout our country was the large presence and significant participation by young clergy, seminary students and young people. Those less than thirty-five years of age clearly made up more than 25% of those participating in the conference. This is a significant difference from many of the “progressive” conferences. These conferences continue to have the same faces that they had since 1976, and vision that no longer is able to reach the minds and hearts young, religious people.

Finally, as a Catholic priest, the conference was an opportunity for me to see the important role that the Catholic Church can play in this forum, and the difficulty it is to work around the common assumptions that pervade such a collection of persons and communions. Specifically, it struck me that many of the mainline protestant church leaders believed in something that was called “progressive clergy.” Progressive clergy appeared to be someone who mirrored the left wing of the Democratic Party, or followed what is often called the “progressive” social agenda of our society.

It seemed to me that “progressive clergy” supports abortion rights, gay rights, domestic partnerships, large social programs, worker rights, and manifested serious skepticism of U.S. foreign policies.

From this “progressive agenda,” a moral position is developed from one’s personal belief and the Holy Scriptures. This “progressive” is then given moral authority by the person or by his or her ecclessial office. However, this situation also allows for conservative or “regressive” clergy and ecclessial communities that can take fundamentally opposite positions. We are then left with two inherently contradictory views that both claim to be the truth.

What the Catholic Church can offer to this confusing situation is the truth that is neither progressive nor regressive, and which is based on her historical reflection on the life of Jesus, the apostles and St. Paul, the church fathers, and her two thousand years of tradition. In addition, it is a truth that is built upon itself. That is, since Rerum Novarum, the first modern social doctrinal teaching, the Church on all its levels has maintained and built upon its teaching. The Church has both maintained its teachings and has expanded it to meet the new situations that she has found herself in. In this way, there is no “progressive” or “regressive” truth, there is only the truth that is embodied and maintained in its consistent teachings.

The Catholic Church can offer organizations like the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice the anchor it needs inTom Schellabarger, Sharon Daly and an unidentified participant of the NICWJ conference proclaiming and instilling a consistent social justice ethic that then becomes the basis for approaching social questions of our time. No longer is the agenda set by individual people coming together to express a collective opinion, which can be trumped by another group coming together to express their opposite collective opinion.

However, just as the Catholic Church can play an anchoring role, it is also an uneasy role. It is an uneasy role because the Catholic vision of life, work, family and society is not in line the “progressive” line. When discussions move away from labor and collective bargaining issues, other areas of the Church’s teachings may come in conflict. Because there is an overriding agreement on the rights and dignity of workers, this does not mean that there is agreement on the rest of the “progressive” agenda.

This tension may grow even greater if the leadership of the NICWJ does not tread very carefully, and keep the organization focused on its primary goal of worker rights and low wage workers. As the organization tries to reach out to Black Baptist conferences, denominations like the Church of God in Christ, and other religions like the Islam, the assumed “progressive” view may be questioned more and more.

My believe is that the NICWJ will continue to be the advocate and prophet of truth for working men and women if it focuses exclusively on what brings the different churches, denominations and religions together. By focusing its energies on the dignity of working men and women, and supporting them in their efforts to gain a greater voice at work, one has neither a “progressive” nor “regressive” agenda, but an agenda that is based on the inalienable dignity of the person that is present because God has pressed His image in them.