Seminarians seek labor justice

Churches punch in for workers' rights

For a group of theological students from various faiths, their summer program is a far cry from the classroom and the detailed analysis of sacred texts. Instead, they are preparing for the ministry by working with labor unions in communities across the country to improve the conditions for low-wage workers.

It's an opportunity, they say, to learn first-hand about the struggles facing many churchgoers and, at the same time, to put their faith into action.

"Who better to join the workers in their quest for fair hours, working conditions, and health benefits than the churches?" asks Kate Holbrook, a Mormon studying at Harvard Divinity School.

It's no secret that at a time of unprecedented prosperity in the US, the gap between rich and poor has widened and many low-wage workers are being left behind. Religious leaders from many points on the political spectrum have joined together in "Call to Renewal" to actively seek solutions to issues of poverty. And a coalition between religion and labor, once active decades ago, has recently been reborn.

Treating workers with dignity

Seminary Summer is the latest project of the alliance between the National Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice and the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization of US unions. The National Interfaith Committee seeks to involve religious leaders in efforts to ensure that workers are treated with dignity and respect, have the right to organize and bargain collectively, and can earn a "living wage," so that those who work full time do not remain in poverty.

The aim of this project, says Kim Bobo, committee director, is to "engage seminarian and rabbinical students more intensively in this effort."

Such an active labor-religion link can be very controversial, with critics concerned that religion will be "used" by labor. Ms. Bobo says, "There is a lot of mistrust about labor unions - and stereotypes. But there's widespread support across the religious spectrum for helping low-wage workers get living wages and family health benefits, and have safe working environments."

Some students have come from families where unions are suspect. But their concern for issues of justice, they say, led them to apply for the 10-week summer internship to see for themselves.

Alan Jenkins, an intern from suburban Atlanta who studies at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, is learning some lessons about "the real working conditions of the working poor," particularly those without representation, he says. Mr. Jenkins and Nilson Camelo, who studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, have spent many hours with poultry workers in northwest Arkansas.

In addition to low wages, he says, "we hear of injuries from lost fingers to carpel-tunnel syndrome without medical compensation or paid recuperation time; random firing after workplace accidents even when the worker is not at fault; and workers not being allowed to take necessary bathroom breaks, even having to urinate on themselves."

"There are four companies in this area and every one is breaking laws," Jenkins adds.

The poultry industry is booming and profits have soared over the past decade as poultry became the favorite of American consumers. Yet a 1998 US Department of Labor survey found that 60 percent of poultry plants nationwide were violating wage-and-hour laws. Many also failed to pay sufficient overtime, or provide adequate protective equipment for workers. The government has fined some companies for their infractions.

Jenkins, who spent a year as a missionary in Guatemala for the Presbyterian Church USA, says he never expected to find similar working conditions in the US. Yet he says "these are third-world working conditions in the factories of a product Americans are consuming in the millions of pounds each year."

Jenkins and Camelo have spoken in local worship services about the situation, and are in the process of exploring with religious and labor leaders just what is the role churches should play. "So many workers are afraid," Jenkins says, "and it's important for churches to get involved, to say, 'People in the community are behind you in your effort to gain a voice in the workplace.' "

The 23 students participating in the summer internship met for a week of orientation in Chicago in June, and then moved out to a dozen cities, from Los Angeles to Boston, and from Milwaukee to New Orleans. They are helping design "living-wage" campaigns, build religious support for workers' rights, and organize workers.

It's a community issue

Dan Smokler, a Yale senior who plans to be an Orthodox rabbi, is active on a union drive in New Haven, Conn., for low-wage hospital workers. Their poverty-level wages even after long years at the hospital have forced many, he says, to take on two or three jobs to support their families. This takes away from their families and the community, "so this is not just an abstract moral issue but a community issue." After work with local religious leaders, more than 200 clergy have signed a petition to ask the hospital to take a stance of neutrality in the final push of the union drive.

Glenn Chen, a Roman Catholic at Yale Divinity School, is working in Los Angeles to get "the hierarchy on board on the issue of [organizing] convalescent home workers." He, too, feels the "support of clergy is essential" because of "the climate of fear among workers who feel that they are alone." He and his colleagues face a particularly sensitive situation, since some homes are religiously affiliated and aren't doing any better than others on worker rights and benefits.

Ms. Holbrook, who is working in Quincy, Mass., has learned how unions and management can work together. When Quincy hospital was in danger of closing, she says, "union members worked hard ... to help pass a bill that brought $12.1 million in loans to save the hospital." Workers who had enjoyed good union wages for years were also willing to sacrifice to help the hospital get back on its feet.

She says she hopes to work for "a symbiosis among unions, religious leaders, and management" to solve problems together.

The great teachers of various religions "have all told us to take care of one another, but we aren't," she says. "The existence of unions is a good reminder that we need to be living our religion.

"On the other hand, unions can't fulfill their role if they don't live up to certain moral standards," she adds, "and religious leaders can influence them to meet those standards. In this way religion and labor provide a moral touchstone for each other."

The National Interfaith Committee, which has a network of 53 committees in the US involving Christian, Jewish, and Muslim members, also sponsors Labor in the Pulpit, an annual Labor-Day-weekend event in which union members speak to congregations on workplace concerns. Last year more than 700 congregations participated in 60 cities.

The aim of these efforts is dignity and justice for all workers, Bobo says. "The challenge is that in our seminaries we study the prophets who discuss justice and we are very clear on the principles," she explains. "But what is often not studied is how you put them into practice, how we live faith in the world and put flesh to those principles."

At summer's end, the interns will gather again in Chicago to share their new-found perspectives on how to do just that.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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