Magazine article The Christian Century

Labor Alliance: The AFL-CIO and Religion

Magazine article The Christian Century

Labor Alliance: The AFL-CIO and Religion

Article excerpt

One relative, an old-time leftist, tells the story of an ignominious communist cell meeting in the 1930s. The membership of the cell was mostly Jewish--secular Jewish, of course--but they were committed to diversifying their ranks, bringing proletarians of every color and heritage along for the fight. So they were very excited when an old black maid, inspired by a pamphlet someone had given her, began to attend their meetings.

As a genuine oppressed worker, she was asked to give a speech one night, and she happily obliged. She launched into a rousing condemnation of the master classes, and after an hour of fire-breathing, she concluded: ". . . and so with the help of Comrade Marx, Comrade Lenin and Jesus Christ, we shall prevail!"

The American left has for a century suffered with this paradox: the fight for social justice has often been the fight of shepherds and their radical flocks--ministers, rabbis and their religious followers. When religious zeal has been effectively marshaled in demanding the abolition of slavery, of in-humane prison conditions, of Jim Crow laws, the secular left has responded with disingenuous silence, grudgingly accepting the fruits of victory without acknowledging how they were won.

So it is worth noting when a president of the AFL-CIO turns to religious leaders as allies. John Sweeney, who was elected AFL-CIO president on his promise to make labor matter again, on two occasions recently turned to the religious community for help. On December 2-3, Sweeney met with Pope John Paul II in Vatican City. The pope developed a soft spot for labor during the 1981 Solidarity uprising in Poland; he predicted, correctly, that organized labor would be one of the best wedges to pry off communism's hold on Eastern Europe.

Absent the communist threat, however, the Vatican's commitment to labor has ranged from tentative to nonexistent. The pope knows that in Latin America, for example, labor movements tend toward socialism, which he equates with anticlericalism. Thus, when the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace convened a meeting with labor leaders from 15 countries to discuss the role of unions in the promotion of workers' dignity, Sweeney saw an encouraging sign. …

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