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Labor and Religion Reunite

Times Staff Writer

The office manager pressed forward, glowering, his muscles straining the seams of his pinstriped suit. “I’m asking you to step outside,” he said.

The nine men and women who had taken over the lobby of AlliedBarton Security Services did not budge.

Rabbinical student clasped hands with Islamic scholar and Methodist seminarian. Heads bowed, eyes closed, they sang “Amazing Grace.” And prayed that the security guards employed here would join the Service Employees International Union.

Struggling to regain power and prestige for the sagging labor movement, the AFL-CIO has hired more than three dozen aspiring ministers, imams, priests and rabbis to spread the gospel of union organizing across the nation this summer.

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The program seeks to recreate the historic partnership between faith and labor, an alliance that for nearly a century gave union leaders an aura of moral authority -- and their cause the stamp of divine righteousness.

As it prepares for a national convention next week in Chicago, the AFL-CIO faces stark challenges: Less than 8% of private-sector workers belong to unions, compared with more than 35% in the 1950s. Calling the federation so weak it risks irrelevancy, several member unions have threatened to secede.

Labor leaders are responding with programs to overhaul their image. They want unions to be seen as a dynamic force for social justice, not as a stodgy special interest.

That’s where the seminary students come in.

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For $300 a week, they’re organizing security guards in metropolitan Washington, carpenters in Boston, hotel maids in Chicago, meatpackers in Los Angeles. Some spend their days with the workers, trying to give them courage to mobilize. Others visit local congregations to urge solidarity with the union cause.

The interns also march on management, quoting Scripture, hoping the power of prayer -- and a bit of embarrassing public theater -- might force concessions come contract time.

“We’re showing up in their office, telling them that God does not want them to act the way they’re acting toward their workers,” said rabbinical student Margie Klein, 26. “They’re going to get the message.”

Most of the interns can readily quote the religious text that moved them to apply for the labor internship, which is cosponsored by Interfaith Worker Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group.

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John Flack, who plans to be ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, talks about the biblical injunction to “love thy neighbor.”

Ali Abrams, a rabbinical student in Los Angeles, expresses concern that “though these people are made in the image of God, they’re not being treated that way.”

Born-again Christian Jerad Morey finds motivation in the stories workers have told him about forced overtime, on-the-job injuries and schedules forever in flux. They’re pushed so hard, he said, they don’t have the chance to “lead an abundant life” -- to read, to play with their children, to worship. “They’re not living up to their divine potential,” he said.

For all their idealism, several interns said they took the job not at all certain that unions were a force for good. As Flack put it, he worried he’d find “a lot of corruption and complacency.”

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So far, he hasn’t. On the contrary, he’s been impressed with the union’s energy. The tough part has been persuading other ministers to set aside their stereotypes. “I get lots of wary responses,” said Flack, 25. “Pastors don’t like to get involved with people they think are playing dirty.”

Other interns report similar obstacles. They have struggled to find congregations willing to join union rallies or walk picket lines.

“It’s a hard sell,” said Clete Daniel, a professor of labor history at Cornell University. “Unions have become so weak and ineffective, churches and synagogues are at a loss as to why they should take up cause with them.”

Historically, religious leaders have been among labor’s most steadfast partners.

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Propelled by the doctrine of “social gospel,” which holds that Christians are obligated to lift up the poor, ministers stood with Pullman railroad workers in the 1894 strike that started the modern labor movement. When John L. Lewis was struggling to organize steelworkers in 1938, Bishop Bernard J. Sheil famously offered his hand in solidarity.

The bond continued through the 1960s. Cesar Chavez drew moral strength -- and practical support -- from the religious leaders who walked picket lines with farmhands. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was preparing to rally striking sanitation workers in Memphis when he was assassinated.

As the Vietnam War escalated, many religious leaders shifted their focus to the pacifist movement. Few would return to labor’s side. Their congregations were growing more affluent, full of business owners and stockholders who considered unions a nuisance at best. Corruption scandals and internal bickering didn’t help the union cause.

The result: Even pastors who support unions often find it difficult to bring up the topic in church.

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The Rev. Rachel Cornwell, a union intern five years ago, hesitates to invite a minimum-wage worker to address her congregation in Bethesda, Md., though activists encourage such interactions as a way of raising awareness about the labor movement. “They wouldn’t know what to do with it,” Cornwell said. “Upper-class people don’t have a lot of connection with unions.”

A few former interns have had more success linking faith and labor.

Daniel Klawitter, for instance, takes the pulpit from time to time at a United Methodist church in Denver -- and infuses his sermons with lessons he learned from a summer with the Justice for Janitors campaign. His constant pro-union message irritates some in the congregation. “I think pastors should stick to the Scripture,” said Paul Hadle, 90, who battled unions in his job as a manager for the phone company.

But others have taken Klawitter’s exhortations to heart. The church donated money to a janitor strike fund and successfully lobbied the city to offer a tax credit for the working poor.

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That’s the type of activism the AFL-CIO hopes will spring from the internships, which have been in place for six summers. If quoting the Bible can persuade a fearful maid to join the union, great. But the real goal is to inspire a generation of pastors to put economic justice -- and, in particular, union-building -- at the center of their ministry.

“There’s always been a bond, but this is the first time we’ve really focused on building a coalition with the faith community,” said Nancy Lenk, who directs union internships for the AFL-CIO.

In their interactions with workers, many interns shy away from talking about faith. They present themselves as union organizers and stick to standard patter.

But now and then, their authority as future religious leaders comes in handy.

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On a recent sticky afternoon, Klein found herself in a marbled-and-mirrored lobby in Washington listening to security guard Fernando McKinnon complain about his job. He did not get paid holidays, sick days or vacations, he said. He worked 11-hour shifts without overtime pay.

He wanted change; sure he did. But agitate for a union?

“I’m a Christian,” said McKinnon, 46. “I keep my mouth shut and let God take care of things.”

Klein didn’t hesitate. “I’m with a group of religious leaders, and we all think it’s really important to stand up,” she said. “On your own, it might not be the Christian thing to fight, but when workers join as a group to stand up for justice, fighting may be the Christian thing to do.”

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McKinnon considered a long minute. “You’re a godsend,” he told Klein.

In a careful, deliberate hand, he signed the purple and yellow card authorizing SEIU Local 82 to represent him.

A few hours later, Klein was pinning on a yarmulke -- “to look more like a rabbi,” she explained -- and preparing to march on AlliedBarton.

She read through a letter she had drafted to the firm: “Our traditions tell us that when one of us is poor, we are all impoverished.... When we work hard, we must be given the resources not only to get by, but to live, pray, and dream.”

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“It’s a little spiritually cheesy,” she said doubtfully.

Two other interns came by to help; they added a quote from the Book of Micah to make the letter more authoritative. When Klein made her pitch to the exasperated manager at AlliedBarton, the other interns sang the line from Micah in the background: “We’ve got to do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with our God.”

Applicants for security jobs stole wary glances at the commotion. “This is embarrassing,” a secretary hissed.

The interns swayed in prayer for nearly an hour, until police arrived and ordered them to disperse.

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An AlliedBarton spokesman later said the firm paid more than $11 an hour in some cities and offered free life insurance and a 401(k) plan. AlliedBarton will support a union if employees demand it, but does not approve of outsiders meddling, spokesman Lawrence Rubin said.

The seminarians’ prayers for a pay raise, Rubin said, “will be considered at the proper time.”

Confident those prayers would be answered, the interns walked out of AlliedBarton exultantly -- holding hands, still singing. Some would be back on the streets that night, distributing union leaflets to guards working the graveyard shift.

As gospel rang through the parking garage, Junaid Ahmad, a Muslim intern, beamed.

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“If this isn’t faith,” he said, “what is?”


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