October 08, 2010

Labor-Religion Coalition celebrates 30th anniversary

Author: Deborah Hormell Ward
Source: NYSUT Communications
Caption: Labor Religion Coalition executive director Brian O'Shaughnessy and AFL-CIO executive vice president Arlene Holt Baker. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

It was a time for reflection... recognition... and inspiration.

At the 30th anniversary celebration of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, participants reflected on more than three decades of progress in their shared crusade for fair wages and justice.

Members of the faith/labor partnership have changed state law to promote "sweat-free" clothing manufacture; given voice to farm workers seeking basic labor rights; launched a Fair Trade movement with the sale of coffee and chocolate; and energized three generations of activists through education and witness experiences.

At the celebration held at NYSUT headquarters in Latham, the coalition honored Sam Williams of the United Auto Workers and the Most Rev. Howard Hubbard, bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Albany, for their leadership and dedication to the coalition's mission.

Congressman Paul Tonko (D-Amsterdam) thanked the coalition "for 30 years of service providing the voice for the voiceless" and credited it with instilling in the halls of government "awareness, understanding and compassion for those who struggle in life." He hailed the marriage between the "principles of the unionized labor movement and tenets of faith that make it all work."

"You have creatively inspired the coalitions and campaigns that make a difference in public policy," Tonko said.

Coalition Executive Director Brian O'Shaughnessy reflected on some milestones in the coalition's mission to "educate, advocate and organize for economic justice." Those include a collaboration with Rural and Migrant Ministry that put rural poverty on the coalition's agenda; the coalition's support for the first statewide "Free the Children" student-run conference; and its annual 40-hour fast, a tradition that highlights the group's mission to advance worker rights and justice for the disenfranchised.

The coalition's "sweat-free" campaign achieved multiple successes, including passage of state laws in 2001, 2002 and 2003 that advanced "sweat-free" apparel purchasing for colleges and schools.

Inspiration was provided by singer/songwriter Bryan Thomas of NYSUT, who offered a stirring rendition of the Stevie Wonder social justice anthem "Heaven Help Us All," a theme later referenced by keynote speaker Arlene Holt Baker [video].

Holt Baker, who is vice president of the AFL-CIO, was warmly welcomed by NYSUT President Iannuzzi, who noted she is the highest ranking African-American woman in the labor movement.

Citing the African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child," Holt Baker declared that for the broad agenda of global justice, "We ARE the village - labor and faith."

"We live in a society that has been so often ripped by cruel individualism: ` You're on your own,'" she said. "That philosophy runs counter to every religion we know.

We're stronger together - our faith and our solidarity are powerful. Faith and action, outreach and education - that's how we strengthen our communities."

She spoke of the need for undocumented immigrant students to "come out of the shadows" and be able to fully participate in American society. "The immigrants that come today are no different than the immigrants who came before them" and deserving of respect and opportunity, she said.

In a call to redouble activism, Holt Baker spoke of the remarkable experience of the Oct. 2 "One Nation: Working Together" march that brought progressive forces together in D.C.

"We marched together on the national mall, and on that gorgeous day we truly were brothers and sisters, one nation … part of a mighty movement, bigger than any one of us," she said.

"We marched to unify America," she added. "We marched on 10/2/10, and we will march to the polls on 11/2/10 to vote. And once ballots are counted, we will still keep marching!"

Bishop Hubbard, in accepting a plaque honoring his decades of service to the Labor-Religion Coalition, spoke of his "great admiration and affection for the people of this organization" and of his commitment to "give voice to the voiceless," such as farmworkers who still lack basic rights on the job. "I would like to suggest that the Labor-Religion Coalition is more important today than it was when it was established three decades ago," Hubbard said, pointing out that millions lack health care and the American jobs/ poverty index has increased by 1.5 percent

Echoing the call to action sounded by Holt Baker, Hubbard said: "The fight will continue. We are a voice for the poor, the powerless, the defenseless and the voiceless. Let this 30th anniversary be an opportunity to recommit ourselves to that goal."

Iannuzzi, who co-chairs the coalition with Bishop Hubbard, also recognized a number of unionists who have contributed greatly to the coalition's success, including NYSUT President Emeritus Tom Hobart, CSEA President Danny Donahue, and NYSUT stalwarts Jim Wood and Tony Bifaro.