December 13, 2007

Labor and religious leaders join forces for workers' rights

Source: NYSUT Newswire
Caption: From left: Kathleen Scales, executive director of the Capital District Area Labor Federation and Gene Rodriguez, executive director of the Labor-Religion Coalition's Capital District Worker Center at the Faith and Labor Holiday Celebration Dec. 11.

Gene Rodriguez and the Rev. Victor Collier know that a training program alone won't help an inexperienced worker get a starter job in the building trades.

"Some young people need someone they never had before, to rely on, just to talk," Rodriguez explained as he described the winning combination of faith, labor and community-based services that workers-in-training find at the Building Bridges & Skills Project in Albany. The project is part of the state Labor-Religion Coalition's Capital District Worker Center in Albany, where Rodriguez is executive director, and Collier - the associate pastor at the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Albany - is a mentor.

The Faith and Labor Holiday Celebration at NYSUT headquarters was an opportunity for area labor organizations and religious communities that work under the auspices of the Labor-Religion Coalition to mark a year of progress and look ahead to 2008.

The gathering was also a celebration of a successful collaboration in which contributions by four statewide unions - PEF, NYSUT, CSEA and SEIU - combined with a matching grant from the Jobs with Justice, a national worker rights organization. The Labor-Religion Coalition of the Capital District is a Jobs with Justice affiliate. The money will help fund the clergy breakfast series in the Capital Region, which will bring together clergy and area residents to discuss workers' issues, especially in communities where workers are interested in organizing.

NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi took note of the historic connection among unions and the social-justice branches of many faiths. Iannuzzi, with Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, co-chairs the statewide Labor-Religion Coalition.

"There is no finer statement than the ability to say 'labor and religion' in the same sentence, and see them in the same place, carrying the same banner," Iannuzzi said. "We have a common bond. So often labor and religion are the voices for those who have no voice to speak, so it is very important to bring them together."

Participants who addressed the gathering offered testaments to the gains made for working people when labor and religion join forces.

"Most people of faith immediately recognize the natural connection between religious creeds and the mission of organized labor," said Paul Cole, a retired social studies teacher and the director of the American Labor Studies Center in Troy. "Virtually every major religion has policy or doctrine supporting the rights of workers, and specifically their right to organize and bargain collectively."

"Every worker has the right to dignity," the Rev. Alexandra Lusak of the First United Presbyterian Church in Troy told the gathering. "When those rights are ignored, the faith community, unions, and volunteers from civil and human rights organizations have a shared responsibility to stand together and work for change."

Lusak and her church activists have advocated on behalf of the right to unionize for home-based child-care providers. A group of 28,000 providers affiliated this fall with the United Federation of Teachers, NYSUT's local union in New York City schools.

- Darryl McGrath