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We Gotta Have Faith

How unions are partnering at the pulpit to help workers

By Kate Childs Graham

Built in 1941, the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., serves as the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. The cavernous temple can hold nearly 4,000 churchgoers and virtually nothing, save the installation of a few air conditioners, has changed about the sanctuary in decades. You can almost feel the heat of the crowd. You can almost hear the booming voice of the most famous pastor in our nation’s history: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1968, King travelled to Memphis to stand in solidarity with the sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733, who were striking after years of discrimination and poor treatment on the job.

On April 3, he delivered what would be his final sermon from the hallowed pulpit of the Mason Temple. He preached on the story of the Good Samaritan and said, “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me? If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.”

The following day, King was assassinated. Perhaps no single event in our history so profoundly demonstrates the interconnection of labor unions and communities of faith. That interconnectedness survives and thrives across the country today, as the sisters and brothers of the American labor movement partner with the sisters and brothers of faith organizations – and the two groups’ membership often overlaps – to fight for social justice and the working middle class.

Honor Thy Contract

Three hundred miles from Memphis, in Muskogee, Okla., Rev. Roscoe Beasley leads the Muskogee Christian Ministers Union. And when Beasley isn’t preaching, he is working in the city’s sanitation department as a member of AFSCME Local 2465.

In 2011, when the city council denied recognition of his union and refused to renew their collective bargaining agreement, Beasley mobilized both his union family and his faith community. Together, they recruited city council candidates who supported public workers’ right to organize and got out the vote for those candidates.

“We took information back to our churches,” Beasley shared. “We wanted our church members to make an educated vote. I really believe it made the difference.”

In February 2012, they secured a pro-worker, pro-union majority on the city council. And in June, they helped the new city council pass an ordinance to return collective bargaining to city workers.

Seek, and Ye Shall Find Opportunity for Workers

Public workers in Las Vegas, N.M., weren’t as fortunate, but one local priest wasn’t going to let a campaign for union rights pass without adding his voice to the effort.

Blue and white collar workers in San Miguel County were organizing to join Council 18. It was an uphill battle, and their opponents had deep pockets. So the workers sought some divine intervention, calling upon Father George Salazar of Immaculate Conception

Parish – a mainstay of the Las Vegas faith community – for his support. He jumped at the chance.

At Mass the weekend before the election, Salazar stood at the pulpit and gave a thoughtful and impassioned homily on the importance of unions. He spoke about how the right to organize goes hand in hand with the Catholic Church’s work toward social justice. He talked about an 1891 papal letter issued by the then-pope, which called unions “the most important” element for securing workers’ rights. And he thanked the San Miguel workers for their service to the county.

Salazar knows he is one priest at one pulpit and hopes others will join him to amplify the message about workers’ rights.

“Oftentimes we are not heard unless there is a unified voice,” Salazar said. “One voice is not going to be heard, but if our voices are put together, we are more likely to be heard.”

San Miguel County workers ultimately lost the representation election by only four votes. But they gained a lasting ally in Salazar and the infrastructure was created for future church-labor campaigns for workers’ rights.

Thou Shalt Not Impose Dictators

Bishop Bernadel Jefferson leads Faith Deliverance Center Church in Flint, Mich. Flint, one of the poorest communities in Michigan, has been under the rule of an “emergency manager” – or local dictator – since 2002. And according to the emergency manager himself, the city is in much worse shape than it was a decade ago.

So, when AFSCME members in Michigan began to mobilize to overturn Public Act 4 – the law investing these local dictators with undemocratic power, Jefferson stood not only in empathy, but in solidarity. Jefferson was a leader in the Stand Up For Democracy coalition, a coalition in which AFSCME played a key role.

At a rally on the steps of the state Capitol, she quoted a Biblical passage about freedom and added, “We do not want, we will not have, we are not under a dictatorship. We are free.”

Throughout the campaign, Jefferson organized town hall meetings and rallies. She circulated petitions throughout her community. She spoke with media. She testified before Michigan state representatives. She got out the vote.

On Nov. 6, Public Act 4 was overturned at the ballot box with the bishop’s help. However, corporate-backed politicians jammed through a similar law during December’s lame-duck session, ignoring the will of the people.

Blessed Are the Allies

While partnerships between the American labor movement and faith communities may seem radical or unlikely today, New York Rabbi Michael Feinberg knows that history and theology show they are anything but.

“All of our faith traditions – Islam, Judaism, Christianity – have something central in their teaching about social justice, workers’ rights, dignity of labor and just wages,” Feinberg said. “Doing this work is embedded in our traditions.”

Feinberg, executive director of Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, has worked for years with the AFSCME affiliates in New York. He helped CSEA/AFSCME Local 1000 organize workers at facilities for the developmentally disabled. He helped DC 1707 fend off cuts to child care services. And he continues to work with DC 37 to protect public services from the threat of privatization.

Feinberg is a key partner in DC 37’s new Labor, Faith and Community Engagement program. This program brings together “neighbors and co-worshipers to fight off the anti-worker attacks that threaten all our futures,” said DC 37 Exec. Dir. and International Vice Pres. Lillian Roberts.

Feinberg notes that these partnerships are beneficial for both the labor movement and the faith community. “Working in partnership with labor movement keeps religious people grounded,” he said. “It reminds us what our basic values are. That’s why these partnerships have been so important and effective.”

Our Collective Will

Four days after Dr. King’s death, Coretta Scott King and former AFSCME Pres. Jerry Wurf led 20,000 in a memorial march through the City of Memphis. In a steady voice, she invoked the words of her late husband, “Our great nation, he always said, has the resources. But his question was do we have the will?”

She added, “Somehow I hope in this resurrection experience that will can be created in the hearts and minds and the souls and spirits of those who have the power to make these changes come about.”

By bringing the hearts, minds, souls and spirits of the labor movement and the faith community together, transformation isn’t only possible. It’s inevitable. Ask Reverend Beasley and the workers of Muskogee. Ask Father Salazar and the workers of San Miguel. Ask Bishop Jefferson and the workers of Michigan. Ask Rabbi Feinberg and the workers of New York. Ask the workers of Memphis.

Send comments to kchildsgraham@afscme.org

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