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Public Theology: Historical Highlights of the Religion-Labor Movement
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Historical Highlights of the Religion-Labor Movement
From the Interfaith Worker Justice website, this article provides background on specific people and events.

The article below is reproduced from the Interfaith Worker Justice website since it provides an excellent introduction to the relation of religion and labor in terms of specific people and events.


Martin Luther King Jr. & The Sanitation Worker Strike

The Sanitation Worker's strike in 1968 galvanized community, labor and religious leaders both locally and nationally. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was killed while supporting 1,300 striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

In late 1967, the nearly all African-American Memphis' sanitation workers established a local chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees to improve wages and working conditions, but the city refused to recognize them. The workers decided to strike on Feb. 12, 1968. Religious and community leaders asked for and received support from Dr. King. "We are tired of working our hands off and laboring every day and not even making a wage adequate with the daily basic necessities of life," said Dr. King to 17,000 people at Mason Temple, March 18, 1968. Dr. King called for a huge downtown march and boycott.

"The question is not what will happen to me if I stop and help these men," said Dr. King at a march on April 3. "The question is, if I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them. That's the question." The next day, Dr. King was assassinated on his hotel balcony. Four days later, his wife, Coretta Scott King led 19,000 people in a silent memorial march through Memphis. Eight days later, the city recognized the union and signed a contract to improve their wages and benefits.

The March On Washington

Despite A. Philip Randolph's earlier success, there continued to be troubles for Blacks in organized labor. Randolph's fights inside the AFL-CIO were taking place in the late 1950s during a time of harsh economic recession that was disproportionately affecting blacks. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott was heating up in Alabama.

This lead to Randolph becoming a director of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which brought more than 250,000 people to the capital on Aug. 28, 1963, to demonstrate support for civil-rights policies for African Americans. Randolph's ties to organized labor provided a crucial link to the march. Although AFL-CIO president George Meany refused to endorse the march, trade unions provided key organizational and financial support.

After the march, Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders met with President Kennedy and within a year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed. Over the next decade, Randolph became entrenched as the elder statesman of the civil rights movement.

Catholic Labor Schools

The Catholic Labor Schools were a means by which Catholic labor union members, their families and fellow workers could learn about the special care and concern the teachings espoused for workers in its social encyclicals, Rerum Novarum, and Quadregesimo Anno.

The Labor School movement was encouraged by the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, now the United States Catholic Conference, as a way to train union rank and file leaders in the social teachings of the Church and provide practical skills for building and maintaining effective unions. Courses were added which were of special appeal to union leaders, who also became students. The Labor Schools provided support, training, and resources for priests through the innovative programs.

Labor Schools were organized by local parish priests, the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, dioceses and Catholic colleges. It is estimated that more than 150 labor schools were established from 1936 through 1956. The Labor Schools gave labor union members and leaders the spiritual and moral base for their work in the unions. There is one remaining Catholic labor school: the Labor Guild of Boston, directed by Fr. Ed Boyle.

Jewish Labor Committee

The Jewish Labor Committee was founded in 1934 by leaders of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the Workmen?s Circle, the Jewish Daily Forward Association, and other kindred groups to challenge the rise of Nazism in Europe. In the 1950's, the Committee's focus changed to fight prejudice and discrimination among American workers. The Committee established 25 local committees to combat intolerance around the United States and Canada. These committees worked closely with local labor and other community groups to develop multi-ethnic and interreligious solidarity among workers and within the larger community. Since that time, the Committee has evolved into a permanently established community relations and worker advocacy organization.

Jewish religious and cultural traditions demand an attitude of fairness toward workers and an active commitment to social justice. This imperative has led many to take an active role in programs and policies that lead to more just and equitable society, such as the struggle to organize or to secure adequate wages and working conditions. American Jews and the American labor movement have been close allies for many years, with a shared commitment to pursuing a just, fair, and stable community and society.

The Farm Worker Movement

Religious involvement with the farm workers began in the 1920's with day care centers for young children of laborers on the East coast sponsored by the Council of Women for Home Missions. Direct service programs were expanded in 1926 when the newly created National Migrant Ministry, a ministry related to the National Council of Churches, began providing health, vocational training and religious services at labor camps.

By 1939, migrant ministry programs had been established in 15 states. By the 1950's, the California Migrant Ministry was experimenting with ministry in areas on the outskirts of established towns where farm laborers had settled, called "rural fringe" areas to promote justice and self-determination among farm workers through the cooperative efforts of a team made up of a pastor and a community organizer.

The California Migrant Ministry was strengthened by the training they received from Fred Ross and Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), who were both trained by Saul Alinsky of the Industrial Areas Foundation. The relationships that grew between the California Migrant Ministry staff, Fred Ross and Cesar Chavez paved the way for CMM's involvement with labor when Chavez formed the National Farm Workers Association and asked for religious support during its first strike against grape growers in 1965.

The religious presence on the picket lines (including 1965 and 1973) let growers and others in power know that community people were concerned and were watching the actions of both the farm workers and the growers and helped to prevent workers and others from resorting to violence.

In an attempt to spread the news of the plight of farm workers, religious leaders joined Cesar Chavez and farm workers in a march from union headquarters in Delano, California to the state capital in Sacramento during Lent of 1966. Influenced by the religious tradition of pilgrimages, Chavez envisioned a march that would also help solidify support for farm workers. Thousands of marchers, among them clergy and people who identified with the march's religious symbolism, joined the 67 original marchers along the way. Ten thousand people converged on Sacramento on Easter Day 1966.

Religious support for farm workers also came in the form of denominational and faith body resolutions, which paved the way for more recent involvement, including the boycott of Campbell's Soup products to help pressure Campbell?s to negotiate a contract with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a farm workers' union representing workers in the Midwest and North Carolina. The reorganized National Migrant Ministry, now called the National Farm Worker Ministry, continues to encourage the religious community's involvement with farmworker issues and the farmworker unions.

The Catholic Worker Movement

The Catholic Worker movement began in the 1930's with the creation of the Catholic Worker newspaper. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, started the paper to advocate for social change and raise Catholic consciousness of the religious ideals that provided the foundation for that change. The Catholic Worker Movement viewed unions as a legitimate and helpful way to ensure justice for workers. Many Catholic Workers joined strikers on picket lines, organized consumer boycotts, served as third party mediators between workers and management, and helped unions organize many kinds of workers.

The Catholic Workers' biggest involvement with labor came during the 1936-1937 New York Maritime strike. During the strike, Catholic Workers set up a special Catholic Worker headquarters on the docks where they provided strikers with food and shelter.

Former Catholic Workers, Fathers Carl Hensler, Charles Owen Rice, and Jerome Drolet made great contributions to CIO organizing, especially among Catholics in Pittsburgh and New Orleans. John Cort, a one-time Catholic Worker, founded the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU), an organization of Catholic workers that was actively supportive of the trade union movement. The Catholic journal, Christian Front, later known as Christian Social Action, was also founded by former Catholic Workers who were supportive of the labor movement. Catholic Worker houses in Baton Rouge, Houston, and elsewhere continue to be actively involved in building ties with labor.

Religion and Labor Council of America

The National Religion and Labor Foundation, later known as the Religion and Labor Council of America, was founded in 1932. It was established in an attempt to apply religious social teachings to economic and industrial life by supporting labor in the United States. Members were of different faiths and various labor unions. The Foundation had three main activities. Production of a monthly newsletter that provided membership with news of the foundation's work and of relevant developments in both the religion and labor worlds. Second, was the organization of various community-centered Religion and Labor "Fellowships" where members could meet and discuss issues of concern about labor. Last, educational work in seminaries and schools of religion was also an important focus for the Foundation. Annually, the foundation sponsored Inter-Seminary Conferences at both the AFL and CIO national conventions.

The foundation encouraged the labor movement to keep its focus on justice and the general welfare. The newsletter covered the Montgomery bus boycott, and other activities of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Philip Randolph, and on the need for the labor and civil rights movements to be mutually supportive.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

The ties between the civil rights movement and labor can be linked directly to the efforts of the great labor and civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph (1889-1979). Randolph was greatly influenced by his father, Rev. James Randolph and his denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.), recognized as a center of black radical politics since the 18th century.

Heavily influenced by his father's religious convictions, Randolph was able to become a serious labor and civil rights leader. Randolph earned respect from both labor and congregations with the establishment of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and his victory over the notorious Pullman Palace Car Company that had already defeated the American Railway Union during the Pullman Strike of 1894.

After federal control of the railroads ended in 1920, Pullman created a company union to stifle outside organization efforts. In 1925, Randolph officially launched The Brotherhood with the large labor population of Black men who landed jobs as porters. For the thousands of Blacks migrating north, this was considered a very prestigious occupation.

Pullman struck back with a spy system, threats and firings, but The Brotherhood continued to struggle for 12 years. The Brotherhood's courageous battles won the admiration of many labor and liberal leaders, including the American Federation of Labor (AFL), when prior to that half the affiliates of the AFL barred blacks from membership.

Though initially timid, the churches and "Negro" press eventually joined the NAACP and local members of the National Urban League in supporting the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood won its first major contract with the Pullman Company in 1937. The following year, Randolph removed his union from the AFL in protest against its failure to fight discrimination in its ranks and took the brotherhood into the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

When the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, Randolph was made a vice president and member of the executive council of the combined organization. Randolph and others formed the Negro American Labor Council in 1960 to fight discrimination within the AFL-CIO.

Labor Temple

In 1910 Minister Charles Stelzle of The Presbyterian Church established the Labor Temple in New York in response to industry workers' needs. Stelzle had extensive experience working with organized labor. Throughout its history, Labor Temple viewed supporting efforts to secure dignity and justice in the workplace an essential part of Christian teaching. The Temple was often used as a base for strike activity. An employment bureau was set up, and Presbyterian businessmen around the city notified Labor Temple when they had new of job openings.

Seminary students from Union Theological Seminary also came to Labor Temple to provide part-time assistance, and received practical training in return. Next came ecumenical organizations who stood for worker justice.

The Pullman Strike of 1894

The strike of workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Pullman, Illinois—home of the passenger car— is one of the more famous events in labor history. The company and town were founded and owned by entrepreneur George M. Pullman, who created the community for his employees, then just outside Chicago. During the Depression of 1893, the company fired a large number of workers and reduced wages without reducing the amount of rent payments.

Workers of the American Railway Union called a strike because even after business picked up again and some of the laid-off workers were rehired, nothing was done to raise wages or reduce rent payments. With government injunctions and federal troops, Pullman and the association of railway managers crushed the strike which ended in violence. The company refused to rehire workers, blacklisting many and having hundreds arrested on federal and local charges.

Though no one from the religious community publicly supported the workers, Rev. William Carwardine, the minister of First Methodist Episcopal Church in Pullman wrote a complete account of the strike so that people outside of Pullman could learn the stories not being told by the newspapers.

Rev. Carwardine was active with the Pullman Relief Committee which gathered food, clothing and money for strikers, and became director of the Homeseekers' Association, an organization that found jobs and homes for workers who had been blacklisted. Less than two decades later, religious organizations began to take an even more active public position to help workers.

The Anti-Slavery Movement

The first link between religion and labor in America started in the antebellum south and could fill volumes of books, chronicling how belief and faith in God compelled Africans to refuse their station in life as slaves. With pride, hope, and dreams of a better life, courageous Africans and whites abolitionists fought against the longest abuse of human labor ever witnessed in America and in the modern world, because they were determined that it was their God-given right to be free and to be treated as human beings.

The most well-known opposition of the peculiar institution included Harriet "Moses" Tubman, the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad. Churches, both Black and White throughout the south and north were common "stations" for the Underground Railroad, where runaways would hide in the church during the day and travel at night.

Some used their pens to declare their convictions that the institution of slavery was not in accordance with God's commandments, including Rev. Samuel E. Cornish and John Russworm, who published the first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal, while Frederick Douglass and David Walker and many others published works that advocated freedom.

Those with a vested interest in slavery recognized the intricate role that religion played in the anti-slavery movement. Governor John Floyd of Virginia blamed insubordination and insurrection among Africans due to Northern travelers and "Black preachers" creating uprisings by teaching that "God is no respecter of persons" and that "the black man was as good as the white," in his message to the Virginia legislative on December 6, 1831. Virginia and the Carolinas' night patrols were on the prowl to interrupt services at "church meetings" held in obscure places on the plantations, to prevent any plots for escape or rebellion.

There are many examples throughout the annals of history of the ties between religion and labor including, the Methodist General Conference declaration in 1784 that slavery was "contrary to the golden laws of God." This declaration, though suspended a year later, is credited with having sparked some slave owners to free their slaves as a declaration of religious conviction. There were the Emancipating Baptists who were opposed to slavery, as well as the early formed African churches like African Methodist Episcopal, that gave stinging rebukes of slavery.


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Date Added: 12/22/2004 Date Revised: 12/22/2004 1:07:53 PM

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