Faith and Work Symposium Held in Conjunction with

AFL-CIO Convention

By: Fr. Sinclair Oubre

Over the last few months, the newspapers in south Louisiana have been filled with the devastating news that Fruit of the Loom is leaving the state. With their departure, over 2,300 workers will lose their jobs as the company shifts its production to Latin America.

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.