And they are finding receptive allies among socially activereligious leaders who see helping the working poor through unions toattain a living wage as a moral and ethical issue.
Unions "are showing us how to bring our faith into action," saidRabbi Michael Feinberg, executive director of the Greater New YorkLabor-Religion Coalition.
Feinberg and the Rev. Edward F. Boyle, director of the Institute ofIndustrial Relations/Labor Guild of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston,were main speakers at an Aug. 12 seminar in New Haven.
The speakers pointed to a deep reservoir of Jewish and Christianreligious principles -- from the Bible to papal encyclicals -- thatuphold the rights of workers, including the right to organize.
The seminar capped the summer work of 25 interns, some fromseminaries who were recruited by the Chicago-based National InterfaithCommittee for Worker Justice to help unions organize and seek out thesupport of local congregations. The program was underwritten by theAFL-CIO.
After a weeklong orientation session, they fanned out across thecountry. They worked in drives to organize poultry factory workers inArkansas and Maryland, as well as hospital workers in Los Angeles andNew Haven.
"It's been so successful we are talking with the AFL-CIO aboutdoubling the program next year," said Regina Botterill, coordinator ofinterfaith committee's summer program.
The interns in New Haven were Daniel Smokler, who is entering hissenior year at Yale and intends to become a rabbi, and Gavan Meehan, aYale Divinity School graduate who will work for an ecumenical socialservice agency in Hartford in the fall.
Smokler, 21, whose mother organized migrant workers in Michigan inthe 1960s, was drawn to apply for the internship when he joined a 17-daysit-in at Yale to protest its policies regarding buying products made byworkers in sweat shops in Third World countries.
Meehan, 28, who was born in Ireland and is a 1994 Harvard graduate,said a few years ago if anyone mentioned labor union, "I would have onlythought about the movie, `Hoffa."'
That changed when he joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in 1995 andspent a year in the inner city of Hartford. It was there, he said, hecame to realize that unions are "the best and most effective way to getpeople to stand up for themselves." He went on to get a theology degreefrom Yale Divinity School with an eye toward working for social justice.
The two were involved in several organizing efforts at YaleUniversity and Yale-New Haven Hospital and learned about how a unionrepresenting many Hispanics improved their working conditions at a NewHaven hotel.
At Yale, graduate teaching assistants who claim they are poorlytreated have been agitating for a collective bargaining unit for adecade, something the university has stoutly resisted. Similarlyclerical and technical employees at Yale-New Haven Hospital who havebeen trying to form a union have been rebuffed.
Smokler and Meehan invited the people behind the local organizingefforts to the seminar as a way to educate people from area churches andsynagogues about the issues. The co-sponsors of the seminar were St.Mary Church, administered by the Dominican Fathers, and Young IsraelSynagogue of New Haven.
Among panelists who described their organizing attempts was SandyKimbro, 52, a single mother, who says she has to work 83 hours a week attwo jobs to keep afloat.
Kimbro straddles two worlds. She is among those who are trying toorganize clerical and technical staff at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Shealso works at the university, where she belongs to a union thatrepresents clerical employees.
"It's like night and day between the two jobs," she said. Withrepresentation by the union, she said, she is "treated with dignity." Itis otherwise in her hospital position, she said.
When her title was changed from "housekeeper" to "environmentalassociate," she said, more tasks were given her to do and when shecomplained she was told "if you don't like it you can quit."
"That is inhumane and we expect it to be an out and out battle,"Kimbro said.
Not if the religious community can help it.
The Rev. Carleton Jones, pastor of St. Mary, said he and RabbiMichael Whitman of Young Israel of New Haven are circulating a petitionamong area clergy appealing to the hospital to sign a neutralityagreement that would allow workers to vote for a union withoutinterference.