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Spotlight Report

Faith takes a seat at bargaining table

By Rich Barlow, Globe Staff, 10/12/2002

One morning last summer, the Rev. David Carl Olson led more than 200 people in prayer, alternately facing the four compass points and reflecting on the symbolic meaning of east (morning and birth), west (sunset and rest), south (the heat of midday when we work), and north (''The pole star that draws us,'' Olson recalls saying, ''Our faith, the ethics that we bear.'')

For Olson, a Unitarian Universalist minister and president of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, such prayerful meditation is as natural as breathing. But his usual forum is the Community Church of Boston, the congregation in Copley Square he leads.

But that July day he was in a hotel room, offering an opening prayer at collective bargaining talks between Boston janitors and cleaning companies. Neither the praying nor the bargaining averted the janitors' strike. Still, labor-management negotiations normally aren't ecclesiastical exercises.

"I can tell you that doesn't happen very often," said the Rev. Robert Francis Murphy, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth.

From a Nation of Islam minister rallying workers at a demonstration to the state's Episcopal bishops declaring that the corporate culture served by the janitors bears primary responsibility for their low wages, many religious leaders are throwing their weight behind the strike. For janitors involved in the two-week-old strike, the visible presence and support from various denominations has given their cause moral weight. The alliance also marks an important moment for religious leaders and activists. "The explicit involvement of clergy is certainly far more significant than I have seen before," says the Rev. Edward Boyle, a Jesuit active in Boston-area labor issues for 33 years.

What's changed?

Last year's fight by Harvard University workers for a living wage was a "wake-up call for a lot of the religious community," says Murphy, underscoring the struggle that Greater Boston's low-income workers face.

Then came the janitor's strike, which featured a largely minority workforce struggling with low wages and inadequate health care, causes that are important to many religious activists.

The religious activism goes well beyond walking picket lines and offering prayers (such as Cardinal Bernard Law's special Mass Tuesday for the strikers). The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization clergy and organizers have met with owners of buildings affected by the strike and with Steven Kletjian, chief executive of Unicco, one of the two biggest cleaning companies in the area. Some denominations have invited janitors to address their congregations and have raised money to replace lost pay. Ministers attend contract negotiations as observers.

A Unicco negotiator has called the clergy's involvement a case of good intentions trumping clear understanding of the issues.

Churches have long sided with workers. Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum, an encyclical supportive of labor rights, in 1891. But the labor-church alliance in the United States frayed during the Vietnam War, which many clergy opposed and the more conservative labor leaders backed.

In the mid-1990s, however, unions, weakened by decades of atrophying membership and public support, realized that coalitions with social activists could lend their causes greater legitimacy, says Gary Chaison, a professor at Clark University in Worcester and coauthor of the book "Unions and Legitimacy."

"Nowadays, they're forming coalitions with their old friends, the clergy," he added.

Boyle says that two organizations founded during the Great Depression -- the Archdiocese of Boston's Labor Guild, of which he is executive secretary, and the Jewish Labor Committee -- were for many years the pivotal religious groups focused on local workplace issues. Now, their ranks have grown with the addition of groups such as the Massachusetts Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, formed in 1997.

Chaison contrasts the janitors' strike with another labor story in the news, the lockout -- recently halted by a presidential decree -- of West Coast longshoremen over a contract dispute. That conflict involves workers better-off than the janitors agitating to protect their jobs, he argues. The janitors' strike, framing its cause as one of basic rights, has evolved from economic action into moral crusade.

"You could frame the janitors' dispute as a civil rights movement. You have a hard time making that case for a longshoreman," Chaison says.

The support of religious leaders and denominations might leverage broader public sympathy. The national president of the Unitarian Universalist Association has asked church members to honor picket lines.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner of Temple Israel in Boston says some in his congregation who own buildings have not only committed to providing their janitors a living wage but have supported his siding publicly with the strikers. "One guy thanked me for standing for the same Temple Israel principles that he learned here as a child."

This story ran on page B2 of the Boston Globe on 10/12/2002.
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