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Interfaith committee protects workers’ right to organize

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Monday, September 6, 2010

By David Eck

ARCHDIOCESE — To Dominican Sister Monica McGloin, protecting the right of workers to organize goes beyond money and becomes a moral issue.

Giving workers a say in their workplaces and the conditions in which they work enhances their self-esteem and role in society in general. It’s a matter of human dignity, she believes.

“From our perspective, one of the reasons for this is that much of our life is spent working,” Sister Monica said. “It’s one of the ways that we contribute to the greater good of the world. It’s important that in the workplace [employees] do have input.”

In her ministry, she chairs the Cincinnati Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice, an ecumenical organization that promotes the rights of workers. The organization is based in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine.

“The fundamental mission is to educate and mobilize the religious community on issues of worker justice,” said Thomas Choquette, the committee’s staff director. “We’ve done that in a variety of ways.”

Among the efforts is protecting the unionization process. The committee serves as a resource for workers who are seeking unionization but doesn’t lobby workers on how they should vote.

“We’ve often served as a means for dialogue,” Choquette said. “We don’t get in the middle.”

Several years ago the committee was part of a coalition to promote unionization of janitors in Cincinnati office buildings. The committee participated in gatherings and was among the delegations that met with building owners to encourage them to better provide for workers.

“We’re talking about the basic dignity of these workers,” Choquette said. “We recognized that this was a very legitimate endeavor. The interfaith committee, along with others, was helpful in bringing this as a human dignity issue, as a moral issue. That message resonated.”

The effort was successful, and the workers did vote to organize. The move will improve their working conditions and personal dignity.

“We work with the unions,” Sister Monica said. “From the beginning we did establish a relationship with the labor council and other unions. When we deal with issues we request input from management. Sometimes we get it and sometimes we don’t.”

About three years ago, the committee was part of a massive rally to support Kroger workers who were seeking a fair contract. The rally attracted thousands of supporters and raised awareness of the issue, said Bill Dudley, director of strategic programs for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 75.

“They stood with us,” Dudley said of the committee leaders. “We were able to negotiate a fair contract with Kroger that met the goals that our members had set for a fair contract.”

Dudley said Sister Monica has attended shareholder meetings to speak on the rights of workers to organize. Such efforts boost workers’ morale.

“It’s very uplifting for the workers,” Dudley said. “It makes you feel like you’re not alone, that you are not fighting in a vacuum. There are other people out there who care. It brings more credibility to the fight.”

While the committee works closely with organized labor, it retains its independence.

The committee’s common foundation of enhancing personal dignity and addressing moral issues resonates across religious denominations. Catholics, Presbyterians, Episcopalian priests, Jewish leaders and officials from the United Church of Christ have served on the committee. Over the years, various denominations, including Islam, have participated.

“It fits in terms of their own denominations to be part of this,” Choquette said. “The interfaith nature of it has been pat of why the group has persisted.”

The Cincinnati committee, which is modeled after a national effort based in Chicago, was formed in the late 1990s.

In the past, Sister Monica said, workers were seen by corporate officials as tools used to make a profit. Workers needed to have some influence, companies needed to know of the workers’ plight and profits had to be shared so that everyone’s needs were met.

“To me, it’s just what the Gospel is all about,” Sister Monica said. “Some of us have far more than we need. It’s sad today that there are people who work full time who can’t provide for their families.”

David Eck can be reached at deck@catholiccincinnati.org.

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