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Special Report

Religion, labor tap new energy as allies

NCR Staff

This is a different way of playing chicken: praying and singing in the Louisville, Ky., headquarters of Kentucky Fried Chicken -- praying and singing songs until KFC management agrees to meet with 600 Jobs for Justice activists outside.

On the Delmarva Peninsula on the East Coast, Jobs for Justice allies are meeting with Congressional representatives. There’s similar agitation in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. These are representatives of religious denominations seeking changes in working conditions, pay and benefits on behalf of poultry workers.

The umbrella group for all this organizing and advocacy work is the Chicago-based National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.

The organization’s genesis is as peculiar, perhaps, as its purpose -- joining religion to the cause of labor. In the early ’90s, Kim Bobo’s grandmother left her $5,000. She took Ellen Garrett’s money and invested it in a venture that won’t show up in many portfolios -- she started a national interfaith committee for worker justice.

Even more foolish, depending on one’s point of view, with her husband’s encouragement, she also gave up half her day job to pursue the dream. Or mirage.

Her investment has grown to include more than 40 local groups nationwide.

Bobo -- today the mother of 4-year-old twins Eric and Benjamin -- thought at the start that all the major religious denominations had a person who worked full time on labor issues.


In her first attempt, she said, the Catholics helped her a bit. The U.S. Catholic Conference offered her the name of retired “labor priest” Msgr. George Higgins, but didn’t have his telephone number, and they gave her staffer Thomas Shellaburger’s name. He wears the Catholic Conference labor hat along with several others.

Actually Bobo had been spoiled. She had worked with interdenominational groups before as an organizer for Bread for the World throughout its first decade. Most religious groups did have a person assigned to the hunger issue. She’d simply presumed the same was true for labor. Back to the drawing board -- unabashed.

Bobo is a Cincinnati native who holds a BA in religion from Barnard College and an MA in economics from the New School for Social Research, both in New York. She said she grew up in a “very evangelical and fundamentalist family.”

“I jokingly tell people I do this work because I memorized my Bible passages as a kid, but it’s actually true,” she said. “I’ve always taken seriously the call to be involved in doing justice to care for the poor.”

After Bread for the World, Bobo moved in 1986 to Chicago as a trainer of community organizers at the Saul Alinsky-founded Midwest Academy.

In 1990, during a large gathering of organizers, “someone talked about the Pittston coal miners strike. I sort of wandered up to an organizer and said, ‘What’s the religious community doing on this?’

He said, ‘A lot in southwest Virginia but nothing nationally.’ ”

Bobo said she’d try to organize something. On a national level, she failed.

Rebuffed, she concentrated on bringing together “religious folk in Chicago who would be intentional about supporting workers’ rights. And rebuilding some of those religion-labor ties.”

Time for a new alliance

By 1995 she was receiving calls from around the country asking, “Couldn’t we have one of these groups in our town?” Encouraged by reformer John Sweeney’s election as AFL-CIO president and sensing a new moment for a religion-labor alliance, Bobo took the plunge. First, with the agreement of her husband Stephen Coats, director of the U.S-Guatemala Labor Education Project, she determined that “we could probably live with half of my academy salary for a while.” With that decision, she began rounding up committed people in religion.

Then Grandmother Garrett died and left the $5,000. Bobo wrote a concept paper, then tried to figure out “who in the faith traditions was the best person on labor issues,” and began working the telephone until she gathered commitments from a number of denominations.

As part of her pitch, she was offering an eminently refusable deal: “It’s a working board not a name board. You have to come to meetings and work and you have to pay your own way.” More than 40 people couldn’t resist and signed on as board members -- people like retired United Methodist Bishop Jesse DeWitt of Detroit (a former sheet metal worker apprentice and member of the Mechanics Educational Society, now part of the United Autoworkers).

Today he’s the interfaith committee’s president. There’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion minister the Rev. Michael J. Rouse of New Rochelle, N.Y.; the United Church of Christ’s Homeland Ministries director, the Rev. Theodore H. Erickson; Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen of the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism; and the Catholic bishop of Albany, N.Y., Howard J. Hubbard.

Bobo’s second tactic was to tackle labor. She went to see Sweeney. “I just wanted to make sure we had those ties from Day 1,” she said. “I laid out what I wanted to do, and frankly the AFL-CIO and a lot of individual unions have been very supportive.”

Then Bobo had to launch into another new area: fundraising. She has two little signs on her desk. One reads: “If you want money you have to ask for it. If you ask enough people, you will get it. The word you will hear most often is no, so your success depends on the number of people you ask. If no one has turned you down recently, it’s because you haven’t been asking enough.”

So she keeps asking across a wide variety of sources and is bringing in enough to keep going. In its three-year existence, the Interfaith Committee has started 42 local groups nationwide. “Half of them are quite strong,” Bobo said. She is pleasantly surprised at the response. “I mean people just calling in from all sorts of places. I had to look some of them up on the map.”

Her timing wasn’t bad, given the growing commitment of the religious community to labor issues, reflected in staff and agencies working on labor topics. Bobo rattles off names -- Thomas Shellaburger for the Catholics; Ron Steif at the United Church of Christ; Presbyterian church women; the Methodist Quadrennium’s worker task force; the National Council of Church’s women’s division.

But it has not been all clear sailing among religious groups.

Labor operates differently

“Clearly the religiously owned and sponsored hospitals and nursing homes -- the hospital leadership’s visceral antiunion stuff” has been one of the most difficult chapters (NCR, Nov. 14, 1997). She paused, then said, “Anyway, the dynamics are really bad.”

The other difficulties concern the cultural differences between the religious community and labor. Bobo put it politely: “Those of us who come out of the religious, social justice kind of stuff, we’re used to bunk beds and retreat centers. That’s not how the labor community does things.”

Bobo was talking about how labor generally functions from comfortable offices, staying in good hotels and funding activities at levels rarely known to advocacy groups.

“Plus frequently there’s a lot more protocol in the labor movement, compared to religious social action stuff in general,” she said. “Don’t deal with labor organizers unless their president is on board, that sort of thing.”

For some Americans, unionism carries a lot of baggage, from corrupt locals and sweetheart contracts, to free-spending and ties to the mob. “Like the religious community, there are sinful parts,” counters Bobo. “The Episcopal treasurer ran off with all the money. You’ll find similar corruption in some unions. It certainly makes my work harder. But it’s wrong to imply that everybody’s corrupt.” And, she adds, it’s essential to keep focused.

Bobo believes that U.S. labor has entered a new, encouraging moment. “I think there’s a lot of new energy -- a lot of terrific new organizers out there,” she said. “Plus this is a change moment in the religious community, too. There’s economic trends in the society where you’ve increasingly got half the jobs below the poverty wage. We’re losing our middle class. Anybody who pastors any sort of normal church knows these things, because they see it.”

Some of that new energy was evident just this spring as faith-backed groups involved themselves in pickle company boycotts, marched with food workers at the University of Southern California, held Manhattan vigils on behalf of 60 kitchen workers at the Angelo and Maxie’s Steakhouses, and protested sweat shop conditions at a San Diego furniture factory, Quality Craft, by picketing a Phoenix store that sells its products.

In the words of Jim Lowthers, whose mid-Atlantic Local 400 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union has recently hired nine full-time organizers who speak Korean, Vietnamese, French and Spanish, the immigrant workers “are who we all used to be.”

Said Bobo, “It doesn’t mean that people understand that one reason for the growing disparity is the decline of the unions. There’s little knowledge or recognition of unionism’s successes historically.” But that’s changing -- and the Interfaith Committee’s contacts and workers are spearheading the change.

What the religious community is learning is contained in the other little sign on Bobo’s desk: “Justice will not be granted. It must be demanded.”

The National Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice is headquartered at 1020 West Bryn Mawr, 4th floor., Chicago, IL 60660; phone: (773) 728-8400. Fax: (773) 728-8409. E-mail: nicwj@igc.org Web site: www.igc.org/nicwj

Milestones in Catholic church’s role in labor movement
1879: The Knights of Labor, a Catholic labor movement that peaked in the 1880s, is founded in the United States. Most members eventually joined either the American Federation of Labor or unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
1891: Leo XIII issues Rerum Novarum (“On the condition of workers”), the first papal encyclical on social questions. Leo endorsed the right of laborers to organize.
1916:Fr. John A. Ryan publishes Distributive Justice, analyzing the U.S. economy from the point of view of Catholic social teaching. Ryan would become a major force for Catholic support of the labor movement.
1919: The U.S. bishops issue their “Bishops Program” for social renewal after World War I. It was the first pronouncement by the U.S. hierarchy on social and economic problems. Its support for collective bargaining, unemployment insurance and protection for the elderly anticipated many of the elements of the New Deal.
1931: Pius XI issues Quadragesimo Anno, reaffirming the church’s commitment to labor. It is the first papal document to use the phrase “social justice.”
1933: Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day start The Catholic Worker newspaper in New York City, a voice for labor and Catholic social teaching still being published.
1935: The Association of Catholic Trade Unionists is formed in the United States, designed to bring church teachings on the economy and workers’ rights to the people.
1948: The United Nations issues its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with observers from the Holy See present. The declaration includes a strong section on social and political rights.
1965: The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes reaffirms the church’s commitment to the rights of labor flowing from the dignity of the human person.
1986: The U.S. bishops issue their pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, which calls for a renewed Catholic commitment to social and economic justice.
1991: John Paul II issues Centesimus Annus on the 100th anniversary of Leo XIII’s encyclical, reaffirming papal support for collective bargaining, a living wage and cooperative rather than competitive relations between labor and management.

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999