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Church Role Sought for Southland Labor Disputes : Jobs: Union officials at impasse with USC and several Catholic hospitals ask for support at area congregations.

September 06, 1999|GEORGE RAMOS and HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Representatives of organized labor and sympathetic ministers Sunday took to the pulpit throughout the Southland to remind worshipers that there are workers on this Labor Day who are still fighting for the right to organize and to get better working conditions.

The spreading of the labor "gospel" was part of an effort by an interfaith group to underscore what it says is the theological basis in the struggle for workers' rights. The group, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, said it coordinated the pro-labor activities at more than 100 congregations from downtown to Pasadena to the Los Angeles Harbor on Sunday.

At Los Angeles' oldest and largest Roman Catholic church, clergy yielded the pulpit to a union official, who used the last few minutes of the noon Mass to ask the overflow crowd for its support of workers who want to form a union at three area Catholic hospitals.

"The workers want to have a voice at work for just wages and benefits and better care for the [hospitals'] patients," Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, told nearly 2,000 people at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church near Olvera Street.

Speaking in Spanish, Medina said the company operating the three hospitals--St. Francis in Lynwood, St. Vincent in Los Angeles and Robert F. Kennedy in Hawthorne--has not responded kindly to unionizing efforts.

"Only working together, with the support and spirit of our church, can we create a better future for our families and better service for the patients," he said.

Medina's words were met with warm applause from the largely blue-collar, Spanish-speaking congregation at La Placita, as the church is commonly called.

The dispute, involving about 1,500 workers at the three hospitals, has been continuing for several years between the union and Catholic Healthcare West, which manages the hospitals on behalf of nine orders of nuns in California and Arizona.

Cardinal Roger Mahony issued a statement Aug. 30 asking both sides to agree to the arbitration of a neutral third party to settle the dispute. At Sunday's Mass, Medina said the union has agreed to Mahony's offer.

Officials for Catholic Healthcare West's office in Pasadena could not be reached Sunday for comment. But in the past, company officials said they have been evenhanded in the dispute, pointing out that 30% of the hospital's work force belongs to unions.

In Lynwood, Pastor Jose Mejia's sermon at St. Emydius Church cited a passage in Scripture that says God is there when two or more people gather to pray. Mejia tied the passage to the union's dispute with Catholic Healthcare West.

"It is unjust to have to work two or three jobs to maintain a family," Mejia told the congregation of about 500 mostly Latino parishioners.

He then introduced Juan Trinidad, a worker at St. Francis Hospital, who urged parishioners to sign cards supporting the workers' efforts to organize.

After the service, Trinidad said he and other organizers had gathered 200 cards of support from parishioners by 2 p.m.

"The church should put its support behind all legitimate causes," Edwin Mirada, a hotel worker from Lynwood, said as he left the church. "After all, the church is the community."

The conflict involving the hospital workers wasn't the only one raised Sunday. Also discussed was the squabble involving about 360 cafeteria and dormitory workers at USC, who want the university to guarantee their jobs by not hiring outside contractors to do the work.

The USC workers, represented by Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, have been deadlocked in a bitter, four-year dispute with the school administration over a new union contract.

University officials, who say they are happy with the workers in question, refuse to agree to the guarantee, arguing that it would preclude employment options in the future,

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Koreatown, the Rev. Frank Alton said both sides would win if USC President Steven Sample would sign a statement supported by dozens of religious leaders. The statement asks Sample to abandon all efforts to hire outside contractors and seek an end to the contract dispute.

"We need to learn to live together," Alton said. "We are in the promised land for all the people of the world."

The 100 or so black, Korean and white parishioners also prayed for "all workers exploited by multinational corporations pursuing cheap labor."

A similar pro-labor theme ran through songs, speakers and sermons at Los Angeles churches working in conjunction with Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the AFL-CIO and other unions.

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