And they are finding receptive allies among socially active religious leaders who see helping the working poor through unions to attain a living wage as a moral and ethical issue.
Unions "are showing us how to bring our faith into action," said Rabbi Michael Feinberg, executive director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition.
Feinberg and the Rev. Edward F. Boyle, director of the Institute of Industrial 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 Christian religious principles -- from the Bible to papal encyclicals -- that uphold the rights of workers, including the right to organize.
The seminar capped the summer work of 25 interns, some from seminaries who were recruited by the Chicago-based National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice to help unions organize and seek out the support of local congregations. The program was underwritten by the AFL-CIO.
After a weeklong orientation session, they fanned out across the country. They worked in drives to organize poultry factory workers in Arkansas and Maryland, as well as hospital workers in Los Angeles and New Haven.
"It's been so successful we are talking with the AFL-CIO about doubling the program next year," said Regina Botterill, coordinator of interfaith committee's summer program.
The interns in New Haven were Daniel Smokler, who is entering his senior year at Yale and intends to become a rabbi, and Gavan Meehan, a Yale Divinity School graduate who will work for an ecumenical social service agency in Hartford in the fall.
Smokler, 21, whose mother organized migrant workers in Michigan in the 1960s, was drawn to apply for the internship when he joined a 17-day sit-in at Yale to protest its policies regarding buying products made by workers 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 only thought about the movie, `Hoffa."'
That changed when he joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in 1995 and spent a year in the inner city of Hartford. It was there, he said, he came to realize that unions are "the best and most effective way to get people to stand up for themselves." He went on to get a theology degree from Yale Divinity School with an eye toward working for social justice.
The two were involved in several organizing efforts at Yale University and Yale-New Haven Hospital and learned about how a union representing many Hispanics improved their working conditions at a New Haven hotel.
At Yale, graduate teaching assistants who claim they are poorly treated have been agitating for a collective bargaining unit for a decade, something the university has stoutly resisted. Similarly clerical and technical employees at Yale-New Haven Hospital who have been trying to form a union have been rebuffed.
Smokler and Meehan invited the people behind the local organizing efforts to the seminar as a way to educate people from area churches and synagogues about the issues. The co-sponsors of the seminar were St. Mary Church, administered by the Dominican Fathers, and Young Israel Synagogue of New Haven.
Among panelists who described their organizing attempts was Sandy Kimbro, 52, a single mother, who says she has to work 83 hours a week at two jobs to keep afloat.
Kimbro straddles two worlds. She is among those who are trying to organize clerical and technical staff at Yale-New Haven Hospital. She also works at the university, where she belongs to a union that represents clerical employees.
"It's like night and day between the two jobs," she said. With representation by the union, she said, she is "treated with dignity." It is otherwise in her hospital position, she said.
When her title was changed from "housekeeper" to "environmental associate," she said, more tasks were given her to do and when she complained 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 Rabbi Michael Whitman of Young Israel of New Haven are circulating a petition among area clergy appealing to the hospital to sign a neutrality agreement that would allow workers to vote for a union without interference.