These were not high tech jobs that are often touted as the future of our country. Nor where there
high paying jobs. They were jobs that allowed many families to have dignity, a paycheck and a
means to support themselves. With the jobs going south, who will ask the non-economic
questions that arise. What will happen to the workers and their families? What will happen to
the towns that are dependent on this industry? What will happen to the new workers in Mexico
and Latin American who will be recruited to so our underwear? Will they be paid a wage that
will allow them to live in dignity? Or will their pay be like so small that they have only enough
to live for another day to go back to the factory?
The story seems to be repeating itself over and over again. Whether it is unorganized garment
workers in Louisiana, sweatshop workers in California, poultry workers in Texas and Arkansas
or mushroom pickers in Florida. If one is an average citizen, without any "marketable" skills,
will the new world economy allow one to make a living wage in a dignified work environment?
Issues like these are beginning to be discussed again by members of the religious community.
During the recent AFL-CIO convention, a groups of clergy, laity and seminarians met in
Pittsburgh to learn about the American labor movement, be with them as they set their course for
the future and reflect on the common areas of concern which are shared by those in the religious
community and organized labor.
Sponsored by the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, a fifteen member delegation
was joined by Msgr. George Higgins and Msgr. Charles Own Rice, two long time supporters of
the rights of working people, to discussed the history of religion and labor, share their different
theologies of work and worker justice and watch how the leading workers' organization in this
country carried out its work.
For many of the participants, this was the first time that they had direct experience with union
leaders. To their surprise, many of the issues being discussed during the convention were issues
that concerned them in their own churches and communities. Many of the union delegates were
also surprised to learn that there were people in the Catholic and Protestant churches who shared
their concerns regarding quality education for children, a safe and clean environment and a
living wage for eight hours of work.
On Tuesday morning, Kim Bob, director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker
Justice, and the members of the religious delegation were invited by the AFL-CIO to give the
opening invocation. The AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney, spoke with warm support for Bobo,
and the efforts of the NICWJ in making clear the moral issues that are present in any discussion
of the economy. He encouraged the more than three thousand delegates present to support
efforts like those taking place between individual unions and the NICWJ.
At noon, Msgr. George Higgins shared with the delegation some of his experiences that he has
accumulated in over fifty years of supporting the rights of workers. He also shared some of the
do's and don't's in any cooperative effort between religious people and labor people. For instance
he stressed that is was imperative that one read labor history. That history would give the reader
a firm understanding of the struggles that labor has gone through, and a knowledge of how
American society and its work place has been changed by labor. He also warned the participants
that they must stay out of the internal affairs of the unions. Since unions are set up on a
democratic structure, it would be inappropriate for members of the religious community to
interject themselves in that process.
By Tuesday afternoon, many of the seminarians had to return back to their studies. There is no
doubt that those fifteen delegates walked away with a new perspective. A perspective that they
are not a voice crying out in the dessert, but stand in solidarity with 13 million brothers and
sisters in a common effort to create a more just and compassionate nation.
Further information on the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding union, workers rights, a just wage and the right to form unions can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Current articles on the subject can be found on the Catholic - Labor Web Page (www.pernet.net/~sinclair). Information regarding the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice can be found at their web site: www.igc.org/nicwj.