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The Nation

Labor and Religion Reunite

The AFL-CIO is sending forth seminary students to shore up the waning clout of unions by reviving the connection with a traditional ally.

July 17, 2005|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The office manager pressed forward, glowering, his muscles straining the seams of his pinstriped suit. "I'm asking you to step outside," he said.

The nine men and women who had taken over the lobby of AlliedBarton Security Services did not budge.

Rabbinical student clasped hands with Islamic scholar and Methodist seminarian. Heads bowed, eyes closed, they sang "Amazing Grace." And prayed that the security guards employed here would join the Service Employees International Union.

Struggling to regain power and prestige for the sagging labor movement, the AFL-CIO has hired more than three dozen aspiring ministers, imams, priests and rabbis to spread the gospel of union organizing across the nation this summer.

The program seeks to recreate the historic partnership between faith and labor, an alliance that for nearly a century gave union leaders an aura of moral authority -- and their cause the stamp of divine righteousness.

As it prepares for a national convention next week in Chicago, the AFL-CIO faces stark challenges: Less than 8% of private-sector workers belong to unions, compared with more than 35% in the 1950s. Calling the federation so weak it risks irrelevancy, several member unions have threatened to secede.

Labor leaders are responding with programs to overhaul their image. They want unions to be seen as a dynamic force for social justice, not as a stodgy special interest.

That's where the seminary students come in.

For $300 a week, they're organizing security guards in metropolitan Washington, carpenters in Boston, hotel maids in Chicago, meatpackers in Los Angeles. Some spend their days with the workers, trying to give them courage to mobilize. Others visit local congregations to urge solidarity with the union cause.

The interns also march on management, quoting Scripture, hoping the power of prayer -- and a bit of embarrassing public theater -- might force concessions come contract time.

"We're showing up in their office, telling them that God does not want them to act the way they're acting toward their workers," said rabbinical student Margie Klein, 26. "They're going to get the message."

Most of the interns can readily quote the religious text that moved them to apply for the labor internship, which is cosponsored by Interfaith Worker Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group.

John Flack, who plans to be ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, talks about the biblical injunction to "love thy neighbor."

Ali Abrams, a rabbinical student in Los Angeles, expresses concern that "though these people are made in the image of God, they're not being treated that way."

Born-again Christian Jerad Morey finds motivation in the stories workers have told him about forced overtime, on-the-job injuries and schedules forever in flux. They're pushed so hard, he said, they don't have the chance to "lead an abundant life" -- to read, to play with their children, to worship. "They're not living up to their divine potential," he said.

For all their idealism, several interns said they took the job not at all certain that unions were a force for good. As Flack put it, he worried he'd find "a lot of corruption and complacency."

So far, he hasn't. On the contrary, he's been impressed with the union's energy. The tough part has been persuading other ministers to set aside their stereotypes. "I get lots of wary responses," said Flack, 25. "Pastors don't like to get involved with people they think are playing dirty."

Other interns report similar obstacles. They have struggled to find congregations willing to join union rallies or walk picket lines.

"It's a hard sell," said Clete Daniel, a professor of labor history at Cornell University. "Unions have become so weak and ineffective, churches and synagogues are at a loss as to why they should take up cause with them."

Historically, religious leaders have been among labor's most steadfast partners.

Propelled by the doctrine of "social gospel," which holds that Christians are obligated to lift up the poor, ministers stood with Pullman railroad workers in the 1894 strike that started the modern labor movement. When John L. Lewis was struggling to organize steelworkers in 1938, Bishop Bernard J. Sheil famously offered his hand in solidarity.

The bond continued through the 1960s. Cesar Chavez drew moral strength -- and practical support -- from the religious leaders who walked picket lines with farmhands. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was preparing to rally striking sanitation workers in Memphis when he was assassinated.

As the Vietnam War escalated, many religious leaders shifted their focus to the pacifist movement. Few would return to labor's side. Their congregations were growing more affluent, full of business owners and stockholders who considered unions a nuisance at best. Corruption scandals and internal bickering didn't help the union cause.

The result: Even pastors who support unions often find it difficult to bring up the topic in church.

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