William R. Robertson, executive secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, has launched a sharp attack on the labor policies of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese stemming from the long-running battle to organize the 140 gravediggers at the archdiocese’s 10 cemeteries.
“Organized labor is shocked and saddened” by the archdiocese’s “continuing” resistance to the unionization efforts, Robertson said in the latest issue of the labor federation’s newspaper.
Robertson’s verbal assault comes after months of increasingly strained relations between labor and Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, a longtime ally. It heightens the possibility that a small organizing battle could escalate into a much broader dispute, which could rupture relations between the archdiocese and organized labor.
Msgr. Stephen E. Blaire, the chancellor for the archdiocese, took issue with the tone of Robertson’s remarks.
“The implication in that statement is that we are opposed to labor,” Blaire said. “We certainly are not.”
In mid-February, the workers, by a narrow 66-62 vote, chose to be represented by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU).
A few days later, Ben Goldman, an attorney for the archdiocese, said Mahony believed that there had been improper conduct by union representatives in the election campaign. The archdiocese decided not to accept the results until its objections had been reviewed by an independent third party.
“A number of employees came forward and said they had been threatened, intimidated, etc.,” Blaire said Thursday. “We feel that we have an obligation to investigate that.”
Blaire said the archdiocese notified the union of its objections within 10 days in accordance with a pre-election agreement.
Barbara Mejia, the union’s California director, vociferously denied the contention about intimidation and said the archdiocese had presented no formal charges to the union.
In the issue of the county labor federation’s newspaper published this week, Robertson asserts that the archdiocese’s decision not to accept the election results continues “a pattern of delays and obstructions,” since the workers started organizing more than a year ago.
Robertson criticized the archdiocese for “apparently using a handful of workers at cemeteries owned by the church to embark on a campaign to fight the rights of all labor.”
Labor “does not want a war” with the archdiocese, Robertson said in his article.
“But the attitude of the archdiocese now seems to rival that of the Merchants and Manufacturers Assn. in its cold disdain for the laboring man and woman,” he declared.
For some months, labor leaders have been reluctant to criticize the archdiocese and Mahony, a long-time liberal who supported efforts of farm workers to organize in the 1970s and was one of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s first appointments to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board after it was created in 1975. More recently, beginning in 1987, Mahony campaigned in favor of increasing the state’s minimum wage.
Shortly after he became archbishop here in 1985, Mahony began raising the wages of workers in the archdiocese. He also agreed, according to labor sources, to see that all construction projects in the archdiocese would be done by unionized workers.
But a number of union leaders have grown increasingly disenchanted with his resistance to the campaign to organize his gravediggers, an overwhelmingly Latino group, including many immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Mahony raised the workers wages during the campaign, fired a supervisor who reportedly mistreated workers and personally appealed to the workers to be allowed to deal directly with them, not through a union.
In particular, some of the gravediggers and union leaders were disturbed that during the campaign, Mahony hired Carlos Restrepo, a Latino labor consultant who specializes in convincing Latino workers to vote against union representation. They were also angry that his aides distributed leaflets to workers stating that a vote against the union was a vote for the archbishop.
Some of the workers said they wanted a union to raise their wages, improve their health benefits and receive better treatment from supervisors.
Robertson said he called Mahony right after the election and said he had received assurances that Mahony would get back to him swiftly.
“I haven’t heard from him yet, though I still would like to keep the door open,” Robertson said Thursday.
Mahony, who has been out of town for the last two weeks, was unavailable for comment.
Part of Robertson’s remarks also were printed in this week’s edition of the statewide California Labor Federation News. John F. Henning, executive secretary of the state federation, said he too was quite concerned about the situation.
“It is the moral duty of the archbishop to recognize and bargain with the union of the workers’ choice,” Henning said in a telephone interview from San Francisco. “The workers have made their choice. The action now rests with the archdiocese.”
His son, Patrick Henning, who is the president of the nonprofit Catholic Labor Institute, which annually sponsors a large Labor Day breakfast here, said it is time for the archdiocese to come to the bargaining table.
“We support the right of workers to freely choose their union,” he said. “They’ve done it. It’s now up to ACTWU and the archdiocese to bargain a fair contract.”
Lawyers for the two sides rejected several proposed candidates for an arbitrator and then agreed on Fred Alvarez, a veteran labor lawyer from San Francisco. A hearing is expected to be held soon.
Blaire said that with an arbitrator now chosen, a determination will be made on if there was improper conduct.