GEORGETOWN, DEL. — Union workers today are battling management from an unusual posture - on their knees.
More than at any time in decades, labor activists are rallying support from people of faith.
From hotel maids in Beverly Hills, to bus drivers in Chicago, to chicken workers on Maryland's Eastern Shore, unions and religious leaders have in recent years launched more than 40 local activist groups nationwide. These allies in prayer and protest have helped hundreds of workers regain their jobs or unionize and win better pay and benefits.
For example, a coalition in Minneapolis staged "pray-ins" last month in the lobby of a downtown hotel. After four consecutive days of silent vigils and spirituals, the Regency Plaza gave in and rehired 13 maids.
Labor and church "people are more eager to do this than I had ever imagined," says AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.
The linking of blue collars with clerical collars is highly controversial, provoking concern that religious institutions will be manipulated and lose credibility.
But champions of union/faith alliances say churches will sooner lose credibility if they ignore the widening gap between rich and poor and the hardship of workers in harsh, low-wage jobs.
When aiding hard-up workers, churches should expand from treating symptoms to healing the underlying malady, activists say. Rather than just deal with hunger, homelessness, and other signs of economic imbalance, churches should help millions of "working poor" rewrite wage, benefit, and workplace standards. (See story page 17, bottom.)
"The church must be responsible for determining why many people working full time still have to go to soup kitchens," says Kim Bobo, executive director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice in Chicago. "Then," she says, "the church has to be a force that works for justice."
The alliances give unions a way to help reverse a relentless decline in their share of the work force.
Joining hands with churches helps unions seize the moral high ground. "It is impossible for management to say this is an internal management/labor dispute," Ms. Bobo says, "because the involvement of the churches says this is an issue of social justice."
Also, the churches link unions to congregations spanning differences in class, race, and ethnicity. By publicizing labor grievances, the alliances work especially well against service or consumer product companies dependent on a decent public image, activists say.
But there are strains to wrapping the ideals of the cloth around big-fisted labor.
Battle to unionize 'Big Chicken'
Consider a fledgling labor and church coalition taking on the $1.6 billion poultry industry, which dominates the Delmarva Peninsula, the parts of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia lying between the Chesapeake and Delaware bays.
Huge poultry companies in the area, such as Perdue Farms Inc., annually control more than 600 million chickens from first peep to final squawk - all the way from breeding houses to supermarket loading docks.
The high-volume, hyperefficient corporations have benefited consumers by slashing poultry's price tag; chicken is now the nation's No. 1 meat.
But critics say the combination of regional economic dominance and tight control on all stages of poultry production gives Big Chicken unusual opportunities for abuse.
The highly profitable industry has engineered a finely calibrated relationship with workers, especially the hundreds of farmers who raise chickens on contract.
Slaughterhouse workers are also vulnerable. A recent survey from the US Department of Labor finds that 60 percent of poultry companies fail to pay sufficient overtime to workers or keep accurate hourly work records. The report adds that "Chicken catchers," or workers who haul the birds from farm pens to trucks, are especially abused on overtime.
Workers and labor activists say poultry plant managers hide injuries, treating them within the plant, to hold down the numbers reported to the government. The industry has also come under fire in recent years for polluting Chesapeake Bay with the runoff from chicken manure.
The survey, which covered 51 poultry plants nationwide, also found that many companies spend insufficient time promoting health and safety and fail to provide workers with enough protective equipment.
The report also charges that workers are inadequately trained and employers fail to overcome language barriers when providing safety gear.
Failure to communicate
A language barrier spans the Delmarva poultry industry because many of its 14,000 workers there are Hispanic immigrants with limited English skills. The Immigration and Naturalization Service in recent years has staged several raids, identifying employment of illegal workers in the industry as one of its biggest challenges.
The industry denies it hides injuries or knowingly employs illegal workers. The National Broiler Council in Washington also condemns the government findings on wages and safety as politically motivated and "based on debatable interpretations of federal labor law and regulations."
Many points of the survey "are simply outrageous," says David Wylie, an attorney for the broiler council. He notes that by employing thousands of small-town residents "the industry has stabilized the economies of many rural areas."
The clash between unions and chicken barons on the peninsula has flared for decades. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) has vainly tried to organize some of the area's biggest plants, especially those of Perdue, the peninsula's largest producer.
In response, Perdue has lived up to its "tough man/tender chicken" sales pitch. Early last decade former company chairman Frank Perdue admitted that he twice sought out the boss of the Gambino crime family, Paul Castellano Sr., for help in thwarting the UFCW. Mr. Perdue later described the overtures as a mistake.
Churches join the struggle
Regional church leaders last year joined the fray by launching the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, a coalition of union activists, chicken farmers, environmentalists, and religious leaders.
Funded by a private foundation and the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches, the alliance has loudly challenged industry managers - and their pastors. It has provoked a wrenching debate over when churches should take up the cause of labor.
Industry critics say the answer to the debate is clear in Georgetown, Del. There, Perdue runs a slaughterhouse on the east side of railway tracks that seem to divide residents who are well paid from those who are not.
After the morning shift, workers trickle out of the plant in heavy rubber boots and stained, white smocks, trudging back to ramshackle houses and tenements crammed between the factory gate and railway depot. Most earn $7.50 an hour, higher than the minimum wage but not enough to support a family.
Many workers can speak only a few English phrases. Many say they accept the rough work and shrink from union organizing for fear of losing a steady job with benefits.
"A lot of workers are afraid to speak up and don't even dare think about organizing a union," says Delcia Melendez, a former Perdue employee.
"There is a lot of intimidation," says UFCW organizer Pilar Gomez: "to these workers, having a job is more important than anything else."
"The church has to help bring the scales of economic power between workers and management into balance," says the Rev. Jim Lewis, an Episcopal minister who heads the poultry alliance. "When the scales tip evenly," he says, "then we'll be able to achieve reconciliation and justice."