CFL News
September 04, 2011

Union leaders seek religious help for labor cause

Union leaders across the Chicago area fanned out to churches, mosques and synagogues this weekend to argue that organized labor’s cause is on the side of God.

Source: Chicago Tribune

By Dan Hinkel

In the modest cinder block confines of St. Agatha Catholic Church in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood, James Thindwa of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers & Staff asked parishioners to thank unions for such amenities as weekends and the eight-hour workday.

As heads nodded from the rows of plastic chairs, he derided executives for taking “ungodly” raises while subjecting workers to layoffs and benefit cuts.

“They’re laying off workers. They’re getting bailed out. It’s not a just situation,” Thindwa said.

While labor leaders and faith organizations have been coordinating Labor in the Pulpits/on the Bimah/in the Minbar on Labor Day weekend for 15 years, rarely have unions appeared to have so much at stake in the battle for public support, in Chicago and elsewhere.

Cuts in bargaining rights sparked massive and sustained protests in Wisconsin this spring, while the Chicago Teachers Union has locked itself in battle with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration over issues including teacher pay and the length of school days.

In an illustration of that discord, St. Agatha’s churchgoers stepped out into the sun after services to find their cars papered with fliers attacking teachers for “holding our children hostage.” The fliers were not attributed to any specific group.

About 50 teachers stood among the 150 speakers Saturday and Sunday at services in the city and across the suburbs, said Rev. C.J. Hawking, executive director of Arise Chicago, one of the program’s organizers.

“To connect the teachers with the neighborhoods in which they teach can only serve to strengthen both the schools and the neighborhood,” she said.

At St. Agatha, Thindwa asked parishioners for help in calling for companies to pay workers a living wage, singling out Walmart. The giant retailer’s expansion plans in Chicago have been fraught with controversy over wages. The first store opened in the Austin neighborhood in 2006 after former Mayor Richard Daley vetoed a minimum wage-raising ordinance for big-box retailers.

Thindwa told the crowd that the economy is not out of money. Cash has simply been pooled in the hands of a wealthy few, he said.

“For your information, the country is not broke,” Thindwa said.

Thindwa spoke after parishioners stepped down the aisle to take communion, the sacrament backed by the shuffle of the choir’s drummer and a few soaring voices. He said after the service that an overtly pro-labor speech is not out of place in church.

“I think Jesus was highly political. Jesus went into the temple and turned over the tables,” he said.

Though one woman came to Thindwa with pointed questions after his speech, parishioners seemed receptive to hearing labor’s message under the light of stained glass on a Sunday morning.

“Everything that’s going on outside the church,” said Sharon Kerby, “should be inside the church as well.”