The Common Good
January-February 2000

Natural Born Allies

by Pat McDonnell Twair | January-February 2000

Labor activists and people of faith rally around 'core values.'

"I feel like I’m back in Selma," enthused the woman minister from New Haven, Connecticut.

"I haven’t seen anything like this for 30 years...I take it back—ever," exclaimed the union organizer from Orange County, California.

"I’m glad I lived long enough to see religious and labor movements so connected. I’ve never seen (AFL-CIO President) John Sweeney (above left) so enthusiastic over anything before," commented Monsignor George Higgins—who was described by Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony as "the bridge between the Catholic faith and labor for the past 60 years."

In an extraordinary gathering last October in Los Angeles, labor and religious leaders united to seek ways to bridge the widening gap between the over- and under-privileged classes in the United States. More than 300 participants were on hand for the three-day session called by the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (NICWJ). AFL-CIO President John Sweeney addressed the group twice and announced that a comprehensive plan was being made at the grassroots and national level to ensure health care and a higher living wage for all workers.

"This is a natural alliance because labor and communities of faith share core values of basic decency and justice," Sweeney declared.

Kim Bobo, NICWJ executive director, convened the conference under the title, "Forging Partnerships for the New Millennium." She cited four immediate goals: passing living wage ordinances and obtaining health care and pension provisions; defending workers’ rights to be represented by a union; strengthening the Department of Labor and defending human rights here and abroad; and supporting immigrant and minority workers.

Sweeney stressed the third point, urging all those assembled "to make sure no nation sends its children to work and imprisons their parents for seeking union representation."

The interfaith conference preceded the national convention of the AFL-CIO in Los Angeles. One insider noted that since Sweeney was elected president of the AFL-CIO in 1995 as part of a reform insurgency, he has revolutionized the union, trying to draw in more members by representing minorities and immigrants who had been rejected by earlier labor leaders.

"This isn’t just another conference," stated Bobo. "We invited some of the best minds in the country to come up with this plan."

The AFL-CIO’s commitment was reflected in a pledge of $100,000—which was matched by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development—to open approximately 20 new offices for the faith-labor coalition. The network has grown to 45 groups in the past three years.

One of the most dramatic moments of the gathering came when Cardinal Mahony spoke about a bishops’ document on the right of the working poor to receive health care and to decide on union representation. In 1991 Mahony opposed the efforts of workers in 11 archdiocesan cemeteries to join the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. The gravediggers lost their three-and-a-half-year struggle for union representation.

Mahony noted that since 1994, Catholic bishops hold a twice-a-year dialogue over lunch with the AFL-CIO leadership. He also cited the archdiocese’s Labor Day statement, which advocates the rights of low-wage workers and a worker justice fund.

Linda Lotz, interfaith coordinator for the Los Angeles-based Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, noted that the cardinal said his mea culpa discretely but clearly. "His speech was truly historic. I have some real hopes that he has publicly and privately turned a major corner in regard to speaking for workers in his archdiocese."

The mood was electrified by the energy of the speakers, as well as by a victory won two days earlier when the University of Southern California signed a contract with its more than 300 food service and dormitory workers—who had spent four years fighting for the contract. After the signing, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Helen Chavez, the widow of farmworker organizer CTsar Chßvez, had visited the USC campus and removed a shroud workers had placed over a stone monument honoring Chßvez.

Seventeen workshops convened to study the needs of health care workers, raise worker justice issues in seminaries, challenge union busting, and train union organizers for outreach to the religious community. At the latter session, a minister advised union organizers to be more appealing to the clergy and not to turn down invitations to attend Sunday services. "Whenever a union rep tells me he doesn’t believe in organized religion, I want to respond that I don’t believe in organized unions," the minister said.

THE MOST INSPIRING part of the program for many participants was the panel "Learning from Our Elders." After Delores Huerta of the United Farm Workers spoke, some felt a more appropriate title might have been "Learning from Our Legends." Recalling the early struggle of farmworkers led by Chßvez in California, Huerta said many of the wealthy growers were Catholics who urged their cousins who were priests to tell the laborers to go back to work.

"When the priests wouldn’t let the workers meet in church, we had mass in CTsar’s home," Huerta said. "We had what was called a migrant ministry of ministers, priests, and rabbis who were arrested with us when we formed picket lines."

Chßvez’s enemies accused him of using religion to gain union contracts, Huerta continued, "but faith is entwined in all we do. A union is nothing but an organization of workers who want to defend themselves and share in some of the wealth they create."

Father Eugene Boyle recalled how he studied for a pilot’s license so he could fly himself from the San Francisco area to Delano, California, to support Chßvez’s struggles. One of the more memorable sights of this tumultuous era, he said, was a barefoot campesino carrying a cross as he led marching farm workers. Boyle recalled being arrested with other clergy supporting farm workers in 1973 and spending two weeks in a Fresno County jail. "We went on a fast, but still carried out the Eucharist in jail with Manischewitz wine and matzo."

Rev. James Lawson, who studied Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent protest techniques in India and was an associate of Martin Luther King Jr., stated that 50 to 60 million Americans should be in the labor movement in order to turn around "capitalism that has gone mad in America. We are not aiming at a violent revolution but a genuine revolution that will transform the corrupting forces in our society," Lawson said. "We in the religious world must rediscover the hidden history of nonviolence and concentrate on forgiveness rather than vengeance."

"We must be holistic about work and workers," said Dr. Joseph Lowery, president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "We should not deny the workers’ contribution to the world. Rather than just appreciate the strawberry on your plate, think about the worker who put it there."

The most enthusiastic person at the sessions was Monsignor Higgins, who commented, "I couldn’t have predicted this coalition of faith and labor 10 years ago. It is the most important organization in my lifetime."

When Sojourners asked him why religious groups and unions are uniting at this time, Higgins replied, "When labor was riding high in the ‘40s and ‘50s, it wasn’t interested in coalitions, it had 35 percent of the work force. Earlier experiments were cosmetic, public relations efforts. This is something new. It shows the possibility of surviving."

Pat McDonnell Twair is a free-lance writer living in Los Angeles who specializes in political and cultural news of the Middle East.

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