The New York Times reports this morning that “leaders of four of the country’s largest labor unions announced on Sunday that they would boycott this week’s A.F.L.-C.I.O. convention, and officials from two of those unions, the service employees and the Teamsters, said the action was a prelude to their full withdrawal from the federation on Monday.”

The withdrawal is the culmination of a period of dissatisfaction with the direction of big labor in the US. The leaders of the dissedent unions feel that “the federation under the leadership of its president, John J. Sweeney, has been ineffective in halting the decades-long slide of organized labor.” The disagreement is in part over the amount of AFL-CIO money that should go back to the local unions for recruitment.

Some of the dissenters feel that more money should be used for recruiting the next generation of union members, while the AFL-CIO leadership fears the diversion of funds would weaken the national political influence of labor unions.

This schism is occuring despite the efforts of the labor leadership to utilize religious leaders to push union membership. The Los Angeles Times recently reported on the interfaith outreach of the AFL-CIO, which “has hired more than three dozen aspiring ministers, imams, priests and rabbis to spread the gospel of union organizing across the nation this summer.”

This attempt to revitalize a form of the social gospel “seeks to recreate the historic partnership between faith and labor, an alliance that for nearly a century gave union leaders an aura of moral authority — and their cause the stamp of divine righteousness.”

There is some cause for doubt as to the authenticity of the effort, however. After signing up an interested worker, rabbinical student Margie Klein:

was pinning on a yarmulke — “to look more like a rabbi,” she explained — and preparing to march on AlliedBarton.

She read through a letter she had drafted to the firm: “Our traditions tell us that when one of us is poor, we are all impoverished…. When we work hard, we must be given the resources not only to get by, but to live, pray, and dream.”

“It’s a little spiritually cheesy,” she said doubtfully.

Two other interns came by to help; they added a quote from the Book of Micah to make the letter more authoritative. When Klein made her pitch to the exasperated manager at AlliedBarton, the other interns sang the line from Micah in the background: “We’ve got to do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with our God.”

  • http://www.hubsandspokes.com marc

    The Wall Street Journal has a fine editorial on the AFL-CIO split in [url=http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110007016]today’s edition[/url].

  • http://blog.acton.org Jordan

    I can’t help but wonder if the intractability of big labor has something to do with Michigan’s nationwide leading unemployment rate.

  • http://www.kavodhouse.com Margie Klein

    Dear Acton,

    I am the rabbinical student described in the LA Times article, and my words were taken out of context.

    Seminarians are smart enough to know what what we believe is right, and we were not conned by the AFL-CIO to stand up for workers. Unlike people on the religious right, we don’t have well-funded think tanks to tell us what to say. We are learning how to articulate to others what we believe, how to explain that respecting the dignity of workers is not just better, it is morally urgent.

    The seminarians who come together with the labor movement through Seminary Summer come because we believe in the tradition of social gospel. We feel that some of the deepest lessons of our religions are about respecting human dignity and treating people equally.

    Margie Klein
    Rabbinical Student
    Hebrew College