Organized labor and organized religion are
coming together in new ways.
In recent years, unions and activist clergy have worked together informally to organize Hispanic and black workers trapped in low-income service jobs traditionally ignored by the labor movement.
Now, as the AFL-CIO prepares to open its annual convention on Monday, union leaders and religious groups want to solidify the
relationship with a formal plan to boost wages and improve working conditions on farms and in hotels, restaurants and other low-wage
"We believe that human beings are created in the image of God, and deserving of dignity and respect," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said Friday in a speech kicking off a three-day gathering of union and religious leaders preceding the convention.
The new plan of action is scheduled to be unveiled Sunday, when the meetings with clergy ends.
"We believe that, together with family and faith, work is sacred because we pour into it our time and our talent and our creative capacity and our commitment to our loved ones," Sweeney said.
Those attending the conference included Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony and United Methodist Bishop Jesse DeWitt, president of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.
The union's campaign to forge stronger bonds with religious leaders is part of a broader strategy to strengthen its ability to organize at the grassroots level, particularly among blacks and Hispanic immigrants, analysts said.
Already, the effort has yielded results. Church leaders and union organizers worked together in Los Angeles to obtain a job security agreement for University of Southern California workers and to raise wages for employees at Los Angeles International
Clergy supported unions during the United Parcel Service strike in 1997, and have been involved in other labor talks.
Organizers hope the help of clergy will boost a campaign to increase wages and benefits at hospitals affiliated with the Roman Catholic church, said Merrick Masters, a University of Pittsburgh professor who studies labor relations.
"What labor is trying to do is strengthen its grass roots base," Masters said. "That involves not only linking themselves with religious organizations, but also environmentalists and
constituencies that are typically underserved in the community."
The new partnership also reflects labor's historical roots.
Clergy and labor worked together to improve conditions in steel mills at the turn of the century and when the automobile industry
organized in the 1930s.
Clergy appear pleased with the clout union support can add to their own efforts to improve conditions in low-income communities.
Friction sometimes develops with churchgoers who find themselves the target of clergy-supported organizing.
"If you have a congregation of business people and corporate executives, and many congregations are that way, advocating on
behalf of a living wage is a controversial issue because somebody's got to pay for it and there's going to be one less Lexus in the
driveway, maybe," said the Rev. Jim Conn, who prepares urbanstrategy for the United Methodist Church in Southern California.
In preparing the plan to be released on Sunday, union and church leaders are discussing a broad range of initiatives that would tackle wages, working conditions, benefits and racism in the workplace.
"We want to reaffirm our ministries and our mission. The mission of the labor movement is economic and social justice. The ministry of the church is feeding the poor and caring for the sick," said Arlene Holt, the AFL-CIO's liaison to religious groups. "We need to have a public policy that assures that."
The Associated Press.