November 2010
October 25, 2010

Labor-Religion Coalition: 30 years of fighting for justice

Author: Bernie Mulligan
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, left, applauds Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, who was instrumental in the creation of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

As NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi has said many times, "You can't be a union without a social justice agenda." One of NYSUT's main allies in the fight has been the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, now celebrating its 30th anniversary.

The coalition has grown as a statewide voice, with a network of nine affiliates that advocate for a host of local, regional and statewide issues.

Its commitment springs from the vision of two leaders — one, a NYSUT founding leader, the other, an innovative bishop — who shared a desire to improve the lives of working families and equalize opportunities for all.

In 1979, NYSUT's first president, Tom Hobart, and Albany Roman Catholic Bishop Howard Hubbard were approached by union and religious leaders who wanted to create an organization to strengthen their historic ties.

"Tom and Howard were asked to board the coalition bus and sit in the front row of leadership," said Brian O'Shaughnessy, the coalition's executive director since 1994. "Without their immediate embrace, the coalition would not have gotten off the ground."

Hobart was deeply focused on tackling tough issues in New York and across the globe. Hubbard was known as a "street priest" in upstate New York, taking on unresponsive power structures. They led the coalition for 25 years, until Hobart's retirement in 2005. Hubbard now co-chairs with Iannuzzi.

"The coalition brought together the lessons of the workplace and the house of worship," Hobart said. "Without social justice, the labor movement has no creed. We would only demand improvements for ourselves. The welfare of all citizens of the world has to be our concern."

"We are a voice for the poor, the powerless, the defenseless and the voiceless," Hubbard said during a recent celebration at NYSUT headquarters in Latham. "Let this 30th anniversary be an opportunity to recommit ourselves to that goal."

The coalition's birth in 1980 came at a time of plant closings and eroding union influence. It helped lead the fight against the effects of "free trade," which created an exodus of jobs first to the non-union South, then Mexico and now the entire globe. The job loss devastated many communities, many of which remain mired in poverty and decay.

"We live in a global economy —how can we not discuss fair vs. free trade and how it affects our society?" asked UFT staffer Linda Vila Passione, a coalition activist. "To a unionist, it doesn't matter the union, the country or the worker — we are fighting for dignity for all workers."

In the 1990s the coalition turned its attention to the lives of workers in American-owned factories in Mexico and the Caribbean. More than 400 union and community members, including 125 high school students, have taken 28 "border witness" journeys and returned home to educate others about the impoverished situations they saw.

"We bring together workers from both sides of the border to look at this economic system devastating individuals and communities in this race to the bottom," said Maureen Casey, the coalition's international project coordinator since 1997.

Sharon Carloni, co-president of the Coxsackie-Athens Teachers Association called her two border trips "life-changing."

"After each trip, I tell student groups the story of those who benefit from free trade and those who suffer at the hands of corporate greed," she said.

The coalition began trips to Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic in 2008 to build relationships with Fair Trade coffee and chocolate producers who receive an equitable share of the wealth they produce.

"With Fair Trade educational resources and coalition training, my students have learned about the global economy, the economics of coffee and cocoa production and the working conditions of children in poorer countries," said Ken Kurzweil, NYSUT's Human and Civil Rights Committee chair.

Working closely with NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler, whose office coordinates the union's social justice agenda, the coalition is urging participation in the union's three Child Labor Challenge initiatives. The challenge hopes to raise awareness about fair trade and the illegal use of child labor in chocolate production.

More information can be found at www.nysut.org 

In 2007, the coalition galvanized labor's support to win passage of "anti-trafficking" legislation to prevent adults and children from being held in virtual bondage.

"As members of the labor movement, we need to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and fight to ensure that every individual enjoys basic human rights," Cutler said.