Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Reunited and It Feels So Good: Labor Unions & the Religious Left

Steven Malanga, the senior editor of City Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has written a most illuminating essay about the formidable alliance now developing between labor unions and the Religious Left. Malanga explains that this fraternization isn't really new, reminding us of the impact of Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel movement of the 19th Century. However, there is definitely new energy, new motivations and, with the recent fragmenting among evangelical conservatives, a fresh sense of opportunity being felt by the old guard denominations. True, their "progressive" thinking on theological and cultural matters may be causing their congregations to dwindle away, but liberal clergy are finding new sources of approbation, encouragement and assistance from fellow-travelers in the unions and mainstream media.

Malanga cites specific examples of this new collaboration including "Seminary Summer", actions against Wal-Mart, and the resurgence of a John Sweeney favorite, “Labor in the Pulpits.” It's a fascinating, important piece and one which certainly relates to the MSM's recent promotions of the Religious Left. You can (and should) read the article in its entirety but here are a couple of excerpts:

...The Sweeney-led AFL-CIO re-energized the old alliance. Soon after he took office, the AFL-CIO launched “Labor in the Pulpits,” a program that encouraged churches and synagogues to invite union leaders to preach the virtues of organized labor and tout its political agenda. Labor in the Pulpits has steadily expanded: nearly 1,000 congregations in 100 cities nationwide now take part annually. Sweeney himself has preached from the pulpit of Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral, urging congregants to join antiglobalization protests in the capital. In Los Angeles, caravans of union activists have visited black churches on Labor Day Sunday, dispensing contributions from union locals. San Jose union leaders, seeing amnesty for illegal aliens as a way to garner new recruits, have asked churchgoers to support it. And in Des Moines, a vice president of the United Steelworkers told a Methodist congregation: “In America today, the pursuit of profits takes precedence over the pursuit of justice—and working families are suffering the consequences.”

Under the auspices of Labor in the Pulpits, clerics in America’s mainstream churches—Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians—have composed guidelines for union-friendly sermons and litanies, as well as inserts for church bulletins that promote union legislation. One insert, distributed in 2006, asked congregants to pray for a federal minimum-wage hike and also—if the prayers didn’t work, presumably—to contact their congressional representatives. Another recent one encouraged churchgoers to arrange home viewings of an anti-Wal-Mart documentary, to stop shopping at the retail giant, and to patronize Costco, a unionized competitor. A 2005 insert urged congregants to lobby Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act—controversial legislation that would let unions organize firms merely by getting workers to sign authorizing cards, rather than by conducting secret ballots, as is currently required.

Unions are also cultivating the next generation of church leaders. “Seminary Summer,” an initiative created with the Chicago-based, union-supported Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), arranges for seminarians to spend the summer months working with union locals.
“Within three years most of these students will be in leadership positions in congregations,” predicted IWJ head Kim Bobo shortly after the program began in 2000. Since then, some 200 seminarians have helped unionize Mississippi poultry workers, aided the Service Employees International Union in organizing Georgia public-sector employees, and bolstered campaigns for living-wage legislation in California municipalities.

Seminary Summer seems to be sparking considerable enthusiasm among participants. “Before Seminary Summer, I had been leery, even suspicious, of labor unions,” remarked Lori Peterson of Loyola University, a 2006 enrollee. But afterward, she said, “I began to believe in the labor movement again. The training gave me a new perspective on unions and how important they are to creating equality and justice.” Chicago Divinity School student Beau Underwood, who took part in 2007, is equally fervent. “One staple of a union organizer’s toolbox is the bullhorn and I love it,” he noted on his blog. “One of the very first days I led chants during an early-morning hotel picket line. Just today, I ‘bullhorned’ at customers of a hotel being boycotted by the union.”...

Some of America’s most venerable Protestant denominations have thrown their institutional weight behind the new alliance with labor. More than 100 religious organizations support IWJ financially, including the National Council of Churches of the USA (NCC), an umbrella organization of nearly 40 mainstream Christian denominations. Key NCC members such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church are particularly active. Though it was founded in 1950 to promote ecumenical cooperation, the NCC has become a clearinghouse for religious participation in left-wing causes. Heavily funded by liberal groups like the Tides Foundation and the Ford Foundation, during the 2004 national elections the NCC organized the Let Justice Roll campaign, which focused on voter registration drives in Democratic areas, and it renewed the campaign in 2006, this time with an emphasis on helping statewide groups pass referenda raising the minimum wage.

The new alliance between labor and religion also enjoys the powerful backing of the Catholic Church, whose American hierarchy, though often conservative on social issues, is firmly left-wing in its economic views. Several dozen major Catholic groups—including the Catholic Conference of Bishops, Catholic Charities, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles—contribute financially to interfaith workers’ groups and assist their lobbying efforts. At a national conference, Bishop Gabino Zavala of L.A. went so far as to compare labor leaders with Old Testament prophets, praising them for “bringing the same conviction, ideals, passion, commitment to justice, energy for human rights, and sense of mission to their bold words and actions, to their union organizing and coalition building.”

Having established itself in many places as the moral authority on economic issues, the resurgent Religious Left has brought back the fiery redistributionist language of the social gospel. Despite decades of economic progress that have reduced unemployment levels to record lows and made America a magnet for opportunity-seeking immigrants, clerical anticapitalism increasingly echoes Rauschenbusch’s old notion that “it is hard to get riches with justice.” Leading clergy have depicted the free market as a vast, exploitative force, controlled by a small group of godless power brokers for their own gain. Speaking to a national conference of religious and labor leaders, IWJ’s copresident, the Reverend Nelson Johnson, called for America to save itself from “its own arrogance, its selfishness and greed” and admonished an elite “wallowing in the obscenity of massive unearned wealth.” In a scriptural reflection distributed for Labor in the Pulpits this year, the Reverend Darren Wood, a Methodist and the author of Blue Collar Jesus, criticized “the gluttony of the wealthy and the abusive powers of corporations” and declared that Christ envisioned “an alternate economy of equality.” To achieve that egalitarian vision, the IWJ’s Bobo recently pronounced, America needs a “redistribution” to “shift wealth from a few to working families.”...