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Pray for the Union Label

Labor activists team up with religious leaders to protect workers' rights

by Eric H

October 14, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Asserting the moral high ground and evoking biblical imagery, Jewish labor activists announced at the AFL-CIO's national convention here in Los Angeles last weekend a new interfaith campaign to protect worker's rights.

The National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, formed with activists from the Jewish Labor Committee and the Jewish Committee on Sweatshops, announced a new campaign last Sunday to build bridges between houses of worship and union halls. Local religious leaders from Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) helped finalize a national plan at the three-day conference, which drew 300 participants. The plight of low-wage workers, often living in poverty and without health insurance, will be the continuing focus on the organization's efforts.

"Some of our role models are the Hebrew prophets who brought truths to lights," the National Interfaith Committee's Evelyn Laser Shlensky said at the Sunday press conference, which also was attended by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Monsignor George Higgins and the Rev. Jim Lowery. "In the aftermath of the El Monte Thai workers, we looked to our own immigrant history, when many of our grandmothers sewed clothes in sweatshops."

The National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice's plan, titled "Forging Partnerships for the New Millennium," has four immediate goals: passing living-wage ordinances in cities and obtaining health insurance for all workers; emphasizing the right to unionize in public discourse; standing up for human rights in the United States and abroad; and increasing the diversity of workplaces and increasing support for immigrant workers.

"Most of the leaders of the religious communities and labor communities don't even know each other," said Kim Bobo, director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. "But our faith and the lives of workers depend on the same values."

"This is a natural alliance because labor and communities of faith share core values of basic decency and justice," said Sweeney. "Dr. King stood with workers in Memphis on his last day of his life."

The sacredness of work, in religious and union traditions, remains the alliance's foundation, according to several speakers.

The alliance appears to be working. Linda Lotz, CLUE's interfaith coordinator, cited recent labor victories at USC and at Summit Rodeo Hotel. Last Passover, CLUE and the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) "not only castigated the owners [by] leaving bitter herbs, but also left milk and honey for two hotel managers," said Lotz. The protests led to a contract for Summit Rodeo Hotel workers.

Another area of alliance between Jewish activists and labor is hate crimes. At the conference, 200 people listened as a distinguished panel discussed the need for strengthening the federal hate crimes law. Panelists included San Fernando Valley Congressman Brad Sherman (D-24th District); Congressman Julian Dixon (D-32nd District); Sweeney; John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Ismael Ileto, the brother of slain postal worker Joseph Ileto; and Linda Chavez-Thompson, the secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Morton Bahr, president of the Communication Workers of America and the JCL, chaired the 1 1/2-hour meeting.

"The Jewish Labor Committee was formed over 60 years ago to fight Nazism -- which was the ultimate hate crime," said Bahr. "As the century closes with victories over Nazism, Soviet communism and apartheid, we wondered if it was time to close shop and declare victory.

"Did we win the war against hate? These [recent] crimes should remind all Americans of good will that we must be eternally vigilant against hatred and the fear that leads to violence. Whether it is the misguided hatred of teen-agers or white supremacists, we must take a stand against hatred and intolerance."

The JLC played a pivotal role in getting the AFL-CIO to support hate crimes legislation this year.

"Hate crimes are attacks on the American idea itself that people of different backgrounds can come together for the common good," said Sweeney. Unions, he argued, rest on that assumption. "Unions are about more than wages and benefits; they are concerned with quality of people's lives."

Fishel described the intense reaction to the Aug. 10 shootings at the North Valley Jewish Community Center and the murder of Joseph Ileto on the heels of other shocking hate crimes in Illinois and Sacramento.

"Although we American Jews, today, may feel more vulnerable than a few months ago," he said, "we can have enormous satisfaction knowing that in Sacramento and in Los Angeles...we witnessed an enormous outpouring of empathy and support from other ethnic communities and other religious communities.... Because of this response, we as Jews and Americans stand a little taller and more proudly."

The focus on hate crimes seemed obvious to JLC executive director, Avram B. Lyon. "We are the Jewish voice to the labor movement, and the labor movement's voice to the Jewish community," he said.

"I look for a place where we can bring Jewish traditions, history and teachings to an issue," said Shlensky, explaining her involvement with the issue of sweatshops in the garment industry. "We all have a duty to be part of the solution. As consumers, as citizens, as manufacturers, everyone has a part they can play. The mission of Jews is to be God's voice on earth."

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