Just say it: “labor union.”
That’s the request from a Duke University divinity professor who is among clerics asking faith groups throughout North Carolina to use the words during services the weekend before Labor Day.
The Rev. Amy Laura Hall acknowledged that this “Labor Sabbath” effort may be a small step, but she says having the specific phrase said, sung or prayed out loud could help spark conversations about the value of organized labor in a right-to-work state where many churches once fervently opposed unionization.
“You’ll have people appealing to different scriptural passages about the poor and the importance of not oppressing the alien,” Hall said. “Micah and Amos stress the ways that a growing empire can grind up workers as if they are not people.”
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The local effort to involve more than a dozen congregations is part of a longstanding national project called “Labor in the Pulpit,” organized by the Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice network.
“There are more than 500 congregations involved across the country,” said Cathy Junia, communications director for the national group.
The project started more than a decade ago with the support of the AFL-CIO, other labor groups, houses of faith, foundations and individuals.
“It’s one of the biggest programs we have as far as increasing awareness,” Junia said. “When it first started, congregations would invite representatives from labor to speak. We are seeing more and more that they are inviting their own members to talk.
“There is a history of a strong connection between faith and labor.”
Several right-leaning organizations in the Triangle declined requests this week to comment on the appropriateness of introducing support of unions into religious services.
“Whether it’s appropriate or not depends on what they say about it and the context,” said state House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, a Wake County Republican and a committed Christian.
The history of labor organizing in North Carolina sometimes shows support from liberal churches and, simultaneously, opposition to unions from churches in areas where company management played powerful roles in the community. Joey Fink, a doctoral candidate in history at UNC-Chapel Hill, has researched the role of churches during the wrenching struggle in the 1970s over organizing the J.P. Stevens textile plants in North Carolina.
In addition to opposition arising from company sources, Fink said, some conservative churches spoke out against any organizing that smacked of allegiance to a group not founded in religious faith. But other forces were at work as well, she said.
“There was a remarkable amount of support in the ’70s, especially coming out of the civil rights movement,” Fink said. “They saw issues of fair wages as an extension of the civil rights movement.”
With organized labor waning in influence and the rise of the religious right, issues other than workers’ rights came to the forefront.
“In the past 25-30 years there have been much louder things, much more visible issues like reproductive rights that have overtaken it,” Fink said.
Those involved in the North Carolina effort say that labor is once again part of a spiritual dialogue, with more focus on issues such as the global divide between rich and poor people and support for an increased minimum wage.
Rabbi Eric Solomon, of Temple Beth Meyer in Raleigh, will take part in Labor Sabbath there Saturday. He noted that it’s a departure from the norm for many places of worship even to mention the words “labor union” during a service.
“There have been times of corruption, times when unions didn’t act perfectly,” Solomon said. “For my side, I am hoping to remind my people – and there are a lot of people who are just a generation or two away from immigration.”
During a prayer and a “teaching” about labor, Solomon plans to talk about his parents, both Jewish public school teachers in Maryland who belonged to a union.
“My mother had an anti-Semitic incident happen at her school and the union came to help her, to represent her, to take her side,” he said.
Many Temple members who once lived in the Northeast belonged to unions or had family members who did, Solomon said.
“Many have done their best to rise up through the American dream. It’s about memory and reminding ourselves of it. It’s an issue of dignity.”