Keeping Faith With Labor: Can Unions and Churches Maintain Their Longtime Friendship?KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ
For much of America's history, labor unions have enjoyed support from religious leaders and their followers. But those ties show signs of unraveling, as unions embrace the radical Left and oppose the priorities of church leaders.
The Catholic Church places an individual's dignity at "the center of her social messages," Chavez-Thompson said. That concern for human dignity is the basis of the longtime partnership between labor unions and Catholics — and also many other Christians, Jews and other faithful — but it is also the reason that ties between some churches and labor have loosened in recent years. Churches are increasingly concerned that unions are a leading source of funding for political candidates opposed to traditional values. In addition, unions' traditional bond of support for struggling blue-collar workers and immigrants is eroding as union membership in the private sector reaches historic lows and as unions focus their organizing on higher-income public employees, teachers and other professionals.
The AFL-CIO is attempting to reverse these trends and strengthen church-labor bonds. Its success is far from certain.
An Ecumenical History of Support
Although the Catholic Church is historically the most recognizable and organized church advocate of U.S. labor unions, it's not alone.
Protestant churches were union advocates during the Progressive era at the turn of the twentieth century. While the Catholic Church was still ministering to off-the-boat immigrants, Protestant leaders of the Social Gospel movement provided some support for a faith-based, prolabor activism. But Monsignor George Higgins, a prominent Catholic labor activist, saw the limits of the movement. In Organized Labor and the Church he writes:
During the early immigration period, the Social Gospel movement in America Protestantism provided leadership in the arena of religious social action. The movement worked to apply biblical teachings to the economic realm. (One of its more memorable battle cries was against "economic atheism," that is, economics as if God and moral principles did not exist.) I think many of my Protestant friends, however, would agree that the Social Gospel movement amounted to little more than a sideshow in American Protestantism. It caught the interest of intellectuals and some socially minded people in the upper classes. But the movement, partly due to its elitist character, never reached deeply into the grass roots. It has little connection to working people and organized labor. …Nevertheless, Social Gospelers helped awaken the consciences of certain elite segments in America, forming the soul of a Progressive movement that achieved early victories in the area of legislative reform.
Jews also were active in the labor movement. The Jewish Labor Committee was founded in New York in 1934 by leaders of a coalition of groups including the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the Workmen's Circle and the Jewish Daily Forward Association. But the focus of the committee was getting Jews out of Europe and safely into the United States. Only later, in the 1950s and 60s, would it become a more traditional labor-movement group.
The Catholic Church "did not come easily to labor's support until the late 19th century," writes Julia Vitullo-Martin in the Wall Street Journal. Even though the U.S. Church hierarchy largely had workingclass roots, the Vatican was uncomfortable with the concept of the labor union. The Church rejected union rhetoric of class warfare, and the rituals of union brotherhood (secret handshakes and the like) reminded Church leaders too much of anti-Catholic groups like the freemasons. Moreover, some union leaders did not welcome Catholic immigrants. Still, unions inevitably were drawn to immigrants as a source of members, and the Church saw it had to accommodate itself to them.
Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore realized a lot was at stake in the Church's growing friendliness to unions. Writes Vitullo-Martin, "In a pluralistic society, people could just walk away from their faith if a church did something sufficiently troubling to alienate them." Gibbons believed "workers were the church's core membership" and must "be persuaded to stay in the church."
In an 1886 memo approved by the U.S. Catholic bishops, Gibbons wrote:
Since it is acknowledged by all that the great questions of the future… [are] the social questions, the questions which concern the improvement of the condition of the great masses of the people, and especially of the working people, it is evidently of supreme importance that the church should always be found on the side of humanity, of justice toward the multitudes who compose the body of the human family. …In our country, especially, this is the inevitable program of the future, and the position which the church must hold toward the solution is sufficiently obvious.
In no small part due to Cardinal Gibbons' nudging, the Catholic Church would play a leading role in "supporting labor's legitimate goals, such as just wages, and in moderating its radical impulses," as Vitullo-Martin put it. Enthusiasm for unions would last well into the 1970s as labor's organization of the private sector peaked.
From 1935 to 1955, as many as 150 labor schools around the U.S. were run by local Catholic parishes, Jesuits and chapters of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists — especially in Chicago, Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, New York, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. The so-called "labor priests" who ran them — assisted by attorneys, labor leaders and teachers — "supported the God-given right of workers to organize and collectively bargain," writes Higgins. At the labor schools, immigrant and rank-and-file workers would show up at nights and on weekends. They "received training in the nuts and bolts of organized labor, rudiments such as public speaking, parliamentary procedures and democratic elections," Higgins recalls. "They also got a dose of American labor history and Catholic social teaching."
Higgins, who died last year, was perhaps the most recognizable religious leader in the labor movement and one of the last "labor priests." He led the Catholic bishops' Social Action Department, mediated the dispute between grape-growers and followers of César Chávez in California, and vowed to never turn down an invitation to speak to union audiences. In 1990, President Bill Clinton awarded him the presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award presented to American civilians.
Rev. Robert Sirico, a free-market advocate and president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty (www.acton.org), writes that Higgins was as much a moral influence on labor unions as he was a supporter: "Monsignor Higgins dedicated his life to helping to guarantee the rights of workers and to improving the conditions under which they fulfill their vocations in the workplace. His moral voice made a difference, not only in championing worker rights but also when he broke ranks to denounce unions for corruption, racism and violence."
"Now that Higgins is gone, where is his legacy?" asks the AFL-CIO website. "It is all around us. The seeds he has been planting for decades are sprouting. There are countless signs of budding new strength — a new activism — in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the union movement."
The AFL-CIO and its president John Sweeney have been hard at work trying to maintain traditional relationships between labor and America's churches and synagogues. Indeed, Sweeney claims to have developed an interest in unionism because of his Catholic blue-collar upbringing.
"My father was a bus driver, and my mother was a domestic worker," Sweeney has said. "They were immigrants from Ireland who had come to this country hoping for just a small share of the American dream. In our modest home in the Bronx, there were three things central to our lives: our family, the Church and the union." In a 1996 speech in Rome, Sweeney said:
[W]e must strengthen the relationship between the labor movement and the Church. Our close ties came naturally when our Church was disproportionately working class and consisted largely of immigrants, such as my own mother and father. In those days, priests and union leaders were natural allies. Catholic parishes and institutions were natural homes for those organizing and defending workers. Now, the task is more challenging, but even more urgent. Much remains to be done.
Sweeney's answer to the challenge is Labor in the Pulpit, a coalition project with the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (NICWJ). The effort "calls upon our religious values in order to educate, organize and mobilize the religious community in the U.S. on issues and campaigns that will improve wages, benefits and working conditions for workers, especially low-wage workers."
On NICWJ's website (www.nicwj.org) the focus is apparent: organize, organize, organize. The biggest day for organizing unions is the Sunday before Labor Day. It could be dubbed: Operation Pulpit. Getting into churches and preaching the message of militant unionism is the goal.
The Labor in the Pulpit initiative seeks widespread support from members and leaders of all religious denominations. Early on, the program managed to secure money from the influential Catholic Campaign for Human Development, sponsored by the Catholic bishops and funded by a nationwide church collection. The initiative also has been endorsed by and collected resources from Jewish, Muslim and all varieties of Christian groups and congregations.
In May, the AFL-CIO was well-represented at NICWJ's conference in Washington, D.C., titled "The Prophetic Work: Religion and Labor Uniting for Work Justice." Keynote speakers included AFLCIO secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka and Christian, Jewish and Islamic leaders.
The alliance of the AFL-CIO and NICWJ seems to be meeting with some success. Since the Labor in the Pulpit initiative began in 1996, hundreds of churches and temples nationwide have opened their doors and altars each Labor Day to labor leaders.
For instance, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles allowed Sweeney a pulpit to preach to parishioners at a Sunday Mass in 2001.
"We're a nation of immigrants, yet we daily visit injustice upon new arrivals to our shores, a cruel irony not lost on those of us who share experiences as children of immigrants," Sweeney lamented to more than 1,600 people, including Democratic Governor Gray Davis and Los Angeles Times reporters. Emphasizing issues of concern to California Catholics, Sweeney advocated amnesty for undocumented workers.
Mahony joined in, telling congregants that "while immigrant workers continue to be a vital part of our economy, their immigration status leaves them vulnerable to many different types of abuses in the workplace." He promoted one of labor's leading causes by calling on Congress to raise the minimum wage.
Organizing in the Pews
It's not just the Labor in the Pulpit initiative rallying the faithful from church altars. There are a number of groups and coalitions of groups dedicated to increasing church-labor ties. And the ties go beyond recruitment. It is not uncommon to see churches as headquarters for anti-globalization rallies, for instance.
"Religion and labor together creates a kind of synergy," a Presbyterian pastor in Minnesota told a reporter for the magazine Sojourners at a nursing-home-worker rally. "I'm excited about the coalitions that are developing, and that we are seeing the natural connections between religion and labor. We are both justice-minded people."
Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran pastor and Executive Director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), a Los Angeles-based "interfaith association of over 400 religious leaders throughout Los Angeles County who come together to respond to the crisis of the working poor," explains the importance of building a coalition of churches, immigrant groups and labor unions:
The religious communities' commitment to economic justice vastly predates the existence of unions. (The prophet Amos wrote about worker justice long before anyone had even thought of the concept of a trade union.) This same concern and commitment currently drives the religious communities to respond to the crisis of working poverty — the growing number of families with a working adult whose wages are insufficient to cover basic necessities, even in situations in which they work for profitable corporations where the CEO earns 300- 500 times the amount paid to their employees. When unions also act as an advocate for those families, there is natural common ground for collaborative efforts. Most religious traditions have doctrinal statements that support workers' right to organize, as a natural tool for maintaining a democratic balance of power in the economic arena. It is true that the overall membership of unions is declining, largely because of increasingly sophisticated methods used by businesses to prevent unionization. (You could check out the 2000 report by Human Rights Watch, "Unfair Advantage" which details the barriers to union representation and union contracts.) However, in some industries in which the unions follow the model used by the United Farmworkers under Cesar Chavez, union membership is growing — particularly among new immigrants, a group that played a central role in the advances of workers at the turn of the century. Close to 70 percent of low-wage workers in Los Angeles County are new immigrants. Immigrant groups also often look to the religious community to support their struggles against discrimination and exploitation.
The effort to build union-church ties has its limits. Some observers see the role self-interest plays in loosening of church-labor ties.
"One dynamic that has changed between religion and organized labor is the result of economic circumstances," says Bruce Cameron, a lay pastor in the Seventh- Day Adventist Church and a lawyer who has represented workers against their unions. "As organized labor makes our heavy industry less competitive in the world market, and this work gets 'exported,' the unions lose members in those industries. To try to make up for this, organized labor has turned to organizing public employees, private school employees and health care employees.
"Since churches often operate schools and health care facilities as part of their religious outreach, they suddenly find they have a 'NIMBY' ['not in my backyard'] problem with organized labor," Cameron says. "It was fine to have organized labor organize the employees of someone else, but when they start organizing church ministry employees, well, that is something quite different."
But principles are also at stake. Some churches — like the Mormons, Seventh day Adventists and Mennonites — have always been doctrinally anti-union. And many union leaders increasingly only show interest in working with churches that help preach a leftist social and economic policy agenda. These are primarily mainline Protestant denominations and subgroups of other churches where the Left is still a powerful force.
"Among church hierarchy, there is precious little understanding of the economics of sound policy," says Lawrence Reed, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (www.mackinac.org) in Midland, Michigan. "'Thou shalt not steal' should be a pillar of church doctrine in support of private property, but you wouldn't know it from the public policy pronouncements of most mainline denominations. Christ's admonition against wealth redistribution in Luke 12:13-15 doesn't keep those same denominations from frequently endorsing the most harmful proposals in organized labor's agenda — from 'living wage' laws to nationalized health care. So for those of us who believe in things like contract, free trade, private property and baking a bigger pie for everybody, it's probably a good thing that the influence of both church hierarchy and organized labor is dwindling."
It's also a fact that labor unions have powerful enemies among America's faithful. The AFL-CIO readily condemns the "Religious Right," opposing groups like the Christian Coalition, the American Family Association, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the National Association of Christian Educators. These "religious extremists pose a significant threat to those candidates who would best represent America's working families," reported the AFL-CIO News in 1997.
Why the antipathy? Because the more unions move to the Left, the less traditional churches are willing to lend them a hand, says Phil Kent, president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation. In his new book The Dark Side of Liberalism: Unchaining the Truth, Kent points out that "the church of St. Trendy is losing members across America" — just look at the Episcopal and Methodist churches — while more conservative and traditional houses of worship and evangelical Christian churches continue to grow nationwide. Polls show more Americans are thirsting for the old-time religion, and the liberal churches have nothing to offer them.
Says Charles W. Baird, a professor of economics at California State University at Hayward: "The union-church ties in the mainstream Protestant denominations are still as strong and perverse as ever. However, among the nondenominational, evangelical churches, traditional unions rarely get a hearing."
It's the unions' penchant for delving into social issues that gets them into trouble.
"Priests and ministers — even Catholics —
have increasingly publicly parted from union activism," notes Stefan Gleason of
the National Right to Work Foundation (www.nrtw.org).
"You now have bishops publicly supporting school vouchers and loudly criticizing
union positions on abortion, homosexual special rights and contraception health
"As the union hierarchy become more militant on these subjects, we're seeing increasing rifts from what has historically been a pretty cozy relationship between many major churches and unions," says Gleason.
Stan Greer, also of the National Right to Work Foundation, observes that "the union hierarchy's increasingly strident support for abortion — the other year the AFL-CIO brass voted to make universal insurance coverage for so-called 'emergency' contraceptives an open objective — and gay rights is causing a backlash, especially among Catholics, but also among many other Christians."
Losing Catholic Support
Most damaging to unions is the declining interest in labor issues among average Catholics. Sympathetic bishops like Cardinal Mahony may let John Sweeney take to the lectern at Sunday Mass, but Catholic ties to unions are nowhere what they once were.
In 1993 Higgins wrote: "Will the Catholic Church, my church, reclaim its heritage of support for the organization of average working people? I am afraid I cannot say for sure. In fact, the church stands in danger of losing forever its tradition of cooperation with organized labor."
The disenchantment starts at the top, with a pope who became famous for supporting the Polish labor movement that helped bring down the Soviet empire. In his little-noticed encyclical Laborem Exercens issued in 1981, Pope John Paul II criticizes the politicization of unions:
The role of unions is not to "play politics" in the sense that the expression is commonly understood today. Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them. In fact, in such a situation they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society; instead they become an instrument used for other purposes.It's clear that American labor unions are deeply involved in partisan politics and use political power to achieve their goals.
"The Church's social teaching clearly supports the right to free association for all citizens, especially workers," Sirico explained in an interview with the Catholic news service Zenit. "However, we must recognize that not all unions are based on the principle of free association. Many workers in North America and Europe are forced to join unions, pay union dues and operate under union rules. The free association of workers does not necessarily include collective bargaining, forced membership or the politicization of the work force. Very often, the considerable funds amassed by unions is employed in causes, political parities and policies that are destructive to the family and even, at times, to the very dignity of life itself."
Baird writes in Liberating Labor: "Insufficient attention has been paid to the details of that [Catholic] endorsement [of unions]. What sort of unionism is consistent with papal encyclicals from Rerum Novarum to Centesimus Annus? Too often Catholics, lay and ordained, have simply assumed that Catholic social teaching supports all trade unions set up under the auspices of democratic governments."
However, union participation in politics is not the main reason why the Catholic labor relationship is unraveling. The root causes of the disengagement are threefold: 1) the long-term decline in the number of private sector union members (who are more apt than public sector union members to be immigrants and blue-collar workers); 2) the decline in the percentage of Catholics who themselves are immigrants and blue-collar workers; 3) the Church's vocal stand against abortion.
Before his death, Monsignor Higgins tried to convince labor leaders to stay out of the contentious abortion battles. But the AFL-CIO and other unions have largely ignored his advice, siding with abortion and family planning advocates on issues ranging from employee health care to political candidate endorsements.
In a 1991 interview with U.S. Catholic/ magazine, Higgins said:
There are some conscience cases. Abortion is the big issue now. Some unions support, and pro-life workers object to that support. When I testified before the unions over the abortion issue, the position I took with many others was to say, "I'm not here to talk about abortion. And I'm hoping you will not talk about abortion in the labor movement, either. Because if you do — whether you go pro-choice or pro-life — you're going to have a bad split in the movement. My suggestion is to take a neutral position. There are plenty of opportunities for your members to debate the abortion issue in other forums. But if you allow it to become an issue within the tradeunion movement — where you have all religions, all nationalities, all racial groups, all ideologies — it's inevitable you're going to split the movement.Sweeney understood Higgins' warning too late. Ironically, when Sweeney accepted the first annual Monsignor George Higgins Award from the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington earlier this year, prolife Catholics angrily protested his selection.
"I don't think previous AFL-CIO presidents would have been similarly protested, because they were not seen as advocating a left-wing social agenda," says Greer.
Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), a Catholic, points out in a column in the March Crisis magazine, a Catholic publication, "In his official capacity — the capacity in which the Archdiocese of Washington honored him — Sweeney is probably the individual most responsible for the pro-abortion majority in the U.S. Senate. The tens of millions of dollars he wields in political campaigns throughout the country assists pro-choice candidates almost exclusively."
The role of Catholicism in public life is probably the foremost Catholic concern today, not the Church's position on unionism. In 1998, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops prepared a statement "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics" which underscores the issue of identity. It proclaims, "Both as Americans and as followers of Christ, American Catholics must be committed to the defense of life in all its stages and in every condition."
Only a few months before Sweeney accepted the Higgins award, the Vatican issued a document titled "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life." The Vatican warns that "those who are involved directly in lawmaking bodies have a 'grave and clear obligation to oppose' any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them."
Clearly, politicized unions that take positions contrary to Catholic teaching will not enjoy the church's confidence and are likely to suffer a continued loss of support from Catholics.
Pro-Justice, But Anti-Union
The tables are turning on labor union leaders. These days being pro-worker doesn't mean being pro-union. Political conservatives can be every bit as concerned about justice as old-fashioned political liberals in the tradition of Monsignor Higgins. And because of their commitment to justice they are proponents of paycheck-protection legislation, right-to work laws and the right to withhold dues because of their religious objections to union political endorsements.
Union leaders and their allies call that anti-union. The leftist magazine In These Times sarcastically titled an article "Does God Hate Unions?" when it reported on a local Christian Coalition chapter that supported paycheck protection. But the odds are that God does not hate unions, nor do most churches. Church support for organized labor will never completely dissipate. But the relationship will be more and more strained for good reason.
Kathryn Jean Lopez. "Keeping Faith With Labor: Can Unions and Churches Maintain Their Longtime Friendship?" Labor Watch (July, 2003).
Watch is published by Capital Research Center, a non-partisan education and
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Reprinted with permission from the Capital Research Center (CRC). Capital Research Center was established in 1984 to study non-profit organizations, with a special focus on reviving the American traditions of charity, philanthropy, and voluntarism.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is an associate editor of National Review magazine and the editor of National Review Online (www.nationalreview.com).
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