At recent nursing-home-worker rallies in Minneapolis, collar-wearing clergy walk among placard-carrying workers and slogan- shouting organizers. And that is just where they should be, according to some Twin Cities area religious leaders who believe that economic justice and the rights of workers are cutting-edge religious issues.
"Religion and labor together creates a kind of synergy," says Stephen Van Kuiken, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Apostles in Burnsville, Minnesota. "I'm excited about the coalitions that are developing, and that we are seeing the natural connections between religion and labor. We are both justice-minded people." Mary Rosenthal, field director of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, agrees. "There is a growing awareness and appreciation for the links and overlaps between religion and labor," she says.
Van Kuiken, Rosenthal, and other local clergy and labor leaders are at the forefront of expanding partnerships between religion and organized labor in the Twin Cities area. Two years ago, in November 1996, the first religion-labor coalition in recent memory was founded.
The Religious Alliance for a Just Global Economy (RAJGE) quickly became active in local labor issues, especially in developing religious support for organizing efforts of nursing home workers in Minneapolis. When workers at the Nile nursing home faced managerial opposition, for example, clergy attended rallies and 10 ministers signed a letter outlining rules of conduct for employers whose workers are organizing a union. Nile management is currently negotiating with Service Employees International Union Local 113.
Van Kuiken, a co-founder of RAJGE, says that his motivation to get involved came out of his faith-based commitment to justice. "I am concerned about fair labor and economic justice because of what I read in the Bible," he said.
TODAY, RAJGE is no longer in operation, but the relationships developed as a result of RAJGE activities have paved the way for a new religion-labor dialogue, tentatively calling itself Organization for Economic Justice (OEJ). This group, which includes ex-RAJGE members as well as labor and community leaders, has held four well-attended planning meetings in preparation for an economic justice conference scheduled for this fall.
Through workshops, dialogue groups, and guest speakers, organizers of the conference aim to educate people about economic justice in the global economy and the importance of unions within the global context. "In the Bible there is the image of shalom, of people living in peace," explains Nancy Anderson, pastor of Minnehaha United Church of Christ. "We have to ask ourselves today how we can promote that ideal. One important way is through solidarity with working people and making economic justice a primary concern."
"This conference is an opportunity to make a case for the importance of unions as a counterbalance to corporate power and to explore how to organize churches around economic issues," says Van Kuiken. He uses the image of a canary in a coal mine to illustrate how the poor treatment of low-wage workers across the globe is an indication of the health of our society.
"Right now there is downward pressure on the poor, from regressive labor laws to welfare reform to a lack of affordable housing, and this affects all of us," Van Kuiken offers. "Religion and labor have historically been connected, but today the issues are different. We are facing corporations that are accumulating more and more wealth and power in ways not seen before, and people need to know what is happening."
As for the future of the growing religion-labor coalition in the Twin Cities, Van Kuiken is hopeful. "Too often, the church is not the moral engine it can be. Instead it is the caboose. Teaming up with labor helps us become leaders on economic justice issues instead of followers." Mary Rosenthal looks to the future with hope as well. "Much of what we are fighting for is identical," says Rosenthal. "Religion and labor working together is a practical solution to a problem, and when it comes together it helps us win."
PAUL GRAHAM is a free-lance writer living in St. Paul, Minnesota.