Four hundred religious leaders urge senators to pass PRO Act
Arise Chicago Zoom meeting. Facebook page

CHICAGO —Saying protecting and expanding workers’ right to organize is a moral imperative, and a boost to workers who most need it, more than 400 religious leaders signed an open letter to senators, urging them to pass the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.

In a June 30 Zoom telephone press conference unveiling the letter, speakers from the Chicago-based Interfaith Network for Worker Solidarity declared that for the past 40 years “the middle class has been squeezed and families have been thrown into poverty,” as the Rev. C.J. Hawking of Arise Chicago, a Methodist minister and the network’s director, put it.

“Just like the New Deal was a mighty economic reset” during the Depression of the 1930s, “the PRO Act will be,” Hawking declared. Enacting it “will protect workers who want to lift themselves out of poverty.”

FDR’s New Deal included the original National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Later Republican-run Congresses, federal court rulings, and virulent, and sometimes violent, boss opposition to workers organizing in their defense and their own interests weakened it.

The PRO Act is designed to reverse those losses—and the losses workers have suffered as a result, through a wide range of pro-worker measures. Pro-worker provisions range from negating state so-called “right to work” laws to mandating card check recognition.

The act also includes, among many other sections, first-contract arbitration if the workers and bosses can’t reach agreement, to hefty fines for labor law-breaking, and giving the NLRB the power to immediately reinstate illegally fired workers, for example.

“Everyone who’s free should have the freedom to fight for themselves,” said Jennifer Bates, an Amazon warehouse worker from Bessemer, Ala., who became the face of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s campaign to unionize the 5,600 workers there.

After Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the U.S., spent $11 million a day on union-busting, captive audience meetings, and the like, RWDSU lost. The PRO Act would ban all of Amazon’s illegal actions—and force union-buster disclosure.

“It would be hard to overstate the importance of dignified labor in Catholic Social Teaching,” going all the way back to the 1890s, said Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky. “We are not to be slaves,” he told the group, which included Catholic, Methodist, Church of Christ, Muslem, and Jewish religious leaders.

Though Stowe did not say so, Pope Francis I, in a video speech in June to the International Labour Organization, reiterated the church’s strong pro-union stand. Francis is an outspoken supporter of workers and equally critical of untamed dog-eat-dog market capitalism.

“If we want a society that works well, we want all (his emphasis) voices to be heard and all (people) to be recognized as human beings” declared United Church of Christ Bishop Dwayne Royster of Philadelphia. Workers must have “the ability to organize to create vibrant communities,” excellent health care, and good schools for their kids, he added.

Jewish tradition and Torah creates “a level playing field” for workers, said Rabbi Michael Feinberg of the Greater New York Labor-Religious Coalition, in a statement read by a colleague. “In a time of income inequality, it deserves support of all people of faith.”

In their joint letter, which the group wants other religious leaders to sign, the coalition declares the consequences of the decline of workers’ rights in the U.S. “as devastating.”

“Too many unscrupulous employers fire workers who exercise their legal right to organize, stall on negotiating a first contract, wrongly label their workers as ‘independent contractors,’ which bars them from unionizing; and regularly undermine the efforts of workers to come together. Under today’s laws, there are no real consequences for these unethical employers. Further, ethical employers are being undercut, resulting in a ‘race to the bottom.’”

“Drawing on our sacred scriptures and religious traditions, we believe workers should be free to join together in solidarity to make their voices heard, and to improve their lives and the lives of their families,” their letter declared.

“Because we believe in the sacred worth of both work and workers, we support the PRO Act, which will strengthen and expand the right of workers to form unions, bargain collectively, and engage in collective action without fear of retaliation by their employers.

“The right of workers to organize in unions is a fundamental human right. This right can unlock the door to a just wage, a safe workplace, and respect on the job for America’s working families. Workers’ right to organize and to be heard is a critical part of any healthy democracy, and is essential to ensuring that human beings are treated with dignity and not as mere objects or means to others’ ends.”

Religious penalties for labor law-breakers are another matter. Under Islam, such violators “know if they get income from people who are oppressed, it is blood money, and they have to answer at the Day of Judgement” for violating the religion’s values and laws, said Shaykh Abdool Khan of Charlotte, N.C.

But while the religious leaders back the letter and the PROAct, some admitted parishioners—notably bosses and CEOs—don’t follow their own religions’ moral teachings. “We also have to hold corporations responsible and accountable,” added the Rev. Michael Livingston, Senior Pastor at New York City’s famed Riverside Church.

“In Catholic health care systems, the bishops do have a voice and should be using it,” said Stowe. “We would want all of our Church institutions to be leading the way.”

But it was Rev. Hawking who had the last words. First, she cited the New Testament, saying “If you have two coats and you see someone with no coats, you are to give your second coat to them. We have an economic system with CEOs who have 300 coats and workers,” especially essential workers, “with none.”

Then she switched to the Old Testament—the Torah: “Since the time of Moses, workers’ rights have been put at the top of God’s agenda. By leading the Israelites out of slavery, God made a mark and said, ‘I stand on the side of workers,’” Hawking said.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.