Tuesday, September 1, 2009


With the new Obama administration in office will Catholic social principles have more of a chance to be discussed and implemented? A national faith based program called Labor in the Pulpits/Minbar/Bimah will add the voice of workers of faith to the discussion on the weekend before Labor Day September 7th. All faith traditions are invited to participate and most do. Labor in the Pulpits preachers will express many concerns including immigration reform, health care and labor law reform.

Labor in the Pulpits is a program of "concientizacion" (awareness with social action) initiated by Kim Bobo and Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) in 1996. The weekend before Labor Day workers speak from the pulpit to remind the faithful about social justice. Thousands will participate around the country. The program could be said to be political, because some might see it as counter cultural, but it is not political in the sense of advocating for particular political candidates or parties. Labor in the Pulpits is concerned with policy concerning justice for workers and its relation to faith.

Historically a unified labor alliance is not easy, and the same is true today. For example some U.S. workers feel that migrants are stealing their jobs. Such tension makes it problematic to choose immigration reform as a theme for Labor in the Pulpits. In 2006 some labor locals in Milwaukee protested strongly that the Milwaukee Area Labor Council invited migrant worker center Voces de la Frontera to the annual Labor Day march. However, it should be noted that the Wisconsin State and National AFL - CIO support immigration reform and that "Voces" continues to participate in the parade.

Labor alliances with the faith community and labor are also difficult because of different perspectives and perhaps culturual differences. Despite such differences, courage to work for the common good has produced positive results such as the recent U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops document, "Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Health Care and Unions." One of the leaders who helped create the document with the bishops was Candice Owley who proclaimed worker justice in the Labor in the Pulpits program for many years. Owley is a registered nurse and president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.

Since the 1891 Encyclical of Leo XIII "Rerum Novarum", Roman Catholic teaching on economics has provided the rationale for discussion of worker rights, especially the right to organize. Strong statements from other Encyclicals and also the documents of Vatican II provide material for 'worker preachers' to advocate for justice. In recent times, John Paul II's Encyclical "Laborem Exercens" 1981 states that "....labor unions are an indispensible element in social life," is often cited. Benedict XVI's latest encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate", reaffirms the previous teachings and emphasizes global justice.

Frank Shansky, Director of Labor Relations of Local 212 American Federation of Teachers agrees that international fairness for workers is paramount. He commented "global injustice is a cause for the migration of workers." Shansky and Local 212 are strong supporters of immigration reform and fair trade.

In the Labor in the Pulpits programs, Worker preachers are prepared before the event. Suggestions for preparation are available from IWJ in Chicago. Teachings from the various faith traditions are also provided. IWJ helps include sample homilies related to the readings of the day and notes for the Congregation's bulletin.

Workers, who are not officially ordained as preachers, yet preach, come from a long tradition. The patron of preachers, Mary Magdalene, proclaimed the resurrection to the Apostles. Samuel Fielden, an experienced Methodist Lay Preacher, was one of the "Haymarket Martyrs".

This year in Milwaukee, because of the virtual collapse of the Labor Council sponsored Faith Community for Worker Justice, worker preachers for Labor in the Pulpits will be prepared and sent by Voces de la Frontera and its New Sanctuary Movement branch. Voces de la Frontera is an immigrant workers center and is home to a chapter of the national New Sanctuary Movement. "Voces" is an affiliate of IWJ in Chicago. Christine Neumann Ortiz, Director of Voces de la Frontera and Labor in the Pulpits speaker, said "The Labor in the Pulpits program is crucial as an aid to recognize the faith dimension in worker justice issues."

"Comite" Chairperson, Rev. Alvaro Ochoa Nova, an immigrant from Columbia and a priest of the Old Catholic Church of America, will direct the program and prepare the speakers. Father Alvaro will be assisted by Jill Vonnahme a Caps Corps volunteer. Kim Bobo, director of the IWJ Chicago commented on the "Voces" Labor Day theme, "At this moment in our nation's history, the issues of labor law reform and immigration reform are integrally connected."

David Newby, President of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, agrees. He said, "The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) makes it possible for workers to form unions without threatt of harassment, intimidation or being illegally fired. Immigration reform insures that all workers in the U.S., no matter what their legal status, would be free to speak up without fear to join a union and oppose workplace abuses. If not, wages and working conditions for all workers, documented and undocumented, can easily be undermined by exploitative employers. Greater protections to form a union are weakened if immigrants without legal status can still be intimidated into silence or into opposing a union. That's why strengthening the right to organize and immigration go hand in hand."

The Milwaukee Area Labor Council will mail material and perhaps telephone faith congregations about health care. A speaker will be sent if requested.

A sampling of other IWJ affiliates indicates a continued passion for the labor in the Pulpits program. In Pittsburgh Father Jack O'Malley and associate Mr. Joe Delale follow the strong tradition of leadership for worker justice established by labor priests, Mons. Charles Owen Rice and Rev. Donald McIlvane. Father O'Malley says, "that for the past two years worker issues have been sidelined very often in the Catholic Churches by one or two wedge issues." This year O'Malley hopes to get something said on Labor Day about immigration reform, Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), and health care. Father O'Malley is Labor Chaplain for the State of Pennsylvania.

Rev. CJ Hawking, director of IWJ affiliate "Arise Chicago", reported that Labor in The Pulpits will be at over one-hundred services in the Chicago area. Arise Chicago collaborates with The Chicago Federation of Labor in organizing the program.

The Massachusetts Interfaith Committee, Director Anthony Zuba says they will be doing Labor in the Pulpits in several Massachusetts cities.

Rabbi Laurie Coskey reports that the San Diego IWJ affiliate will be doing presentations at over one-hundred services.

Rabbi Renee Bauer of Madison, Wisconsin says they will be doing the regular Labor Day outreach, but Madison Interfaith concentrates more on a continuous program of giving talks and sponsoring forums on worker rights and immigration reform through the year.

The Miami IWJ affiliate, fresh off a wage theft victory for domestic workers, will do Labor in the Pulpit programs for the whole month of September. Director Jeanette Smith, a Quaker, said that immigration reform, EFCA and health care are concerns that would be stressed.

George Wesolek, Public Policy and Social Concerns Director of the Archdiocese of San Francisco said that he knew nothing of Labor in the Pulpits, but did know about Kim Bobo and IWJ in Chicago. The Archdiocese is not an affiliate of IWJ. Wesolek confirmed that the Archdiocese spent a large amount of money, but less than $10,000, supporting Proposition 8. The Mormons were also strong advocates in the promotion of the anti same sex-marriage bill. No campaign, such as the Proposition 8 campaign is planned to promote worker rights.

Wesolek said the Archdiocese is neutral on EFCA, because the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not taken a position on the bill. It should be noted that the "Catholic Scholar For Worker Justice" supports EFCA.

The consensus among faith and labor leaders is that the challenge for this year's speakers will be to relate a cogent faith based argument for labor rights to the various faith communities. The message must also resonate with U.S. American tradition. As a nation, we struggle with racism and nativism. Also a philosophy of self interest seems to be prevalent. But the basic U.S. document, The Declaration of Independence, says all are created equal, and are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The document does not restrict these rights to wealthy U.S. citizens.

In this recession year, "preferential option for the poor", the mandate so prevalent in recent Roman Catholic teachings on economics, may not be considered counter cultural in Labor in the Pulpit congregations. Worker speakers have a job to do, but this year's U.S. Labor Day will be celebrated with renewed hope.

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