Across New York State and the country a growing movement is bringing workers and their supporters in unions, religious institutions and youth groups together in efforts to challenge corporate control and to move toward greater economic justice.
Specifically, workers, trade unionists, people of faith and young people are uniting to fight sweatshop conditions at home and abroad and to end child labor. They also are actively leading campaigns that call upon municipalities to require that those doing business with government pay living wages.
Founded as a volunteer organization more than 20 years ago--and incorporated in 1997--the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition is a growing alliance of unions, religious institutions, youth groups and individuals who share a commitment to challenging economic injustice. Through education, support for organizing, and advocacy the Coalition works to help low-wage workers both in New York and in developing countries to challenge corporate control. Both the labor movement and religious institutions share a long history of activism for social justice and both root this work in a fundamental respect for the dignity of each worker. We believe-and have demonstrated-that together unions and religious institutions can advance workers' rights. That said, the Coalition is both nonpartisan and nonsectarian. While we believe that all workers have the right to union representation if they so choose, we do not represent or speak for any union. Similarly, we do not adhere to or promote the religious beliefs of any faith.
The New York Labor-Religion Coalition is a statewide organization with ten local affiliates. Seven of the local chapters have at least part-time paid staff. The statewide office which coordinates much of the Coalition's work, is located in Albany.
The local chapters are spread across the state in Buffalo, the Capital District (Albany and surrounding communities), Utica, Central New York (Syracuse and surrounding communities), Long Island, New York City, Rochester, the State's Southern Tier (Elmira and surrounding communities), the Hudson Valley and Westchester County.
Active coalition members include unions such as the New York State United Teachers, the National Health and Human Service Employees Union, Local 1199/SEIU , UNITE , the New York State Nurses Association, District Council 1707 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), United University Professions, the Professional Staff Congress, the Public Employees Federation, and others.
Churches, synagogues and mosques that are active in the coalition include seven of the eight Catholic Diocese in New York State, the Albany United Methodist Society, the New York Board of Rabbis, several Unitarian-Universalist churches across the state, the Episcopal Diocese of New York, the Islamic Da'wah Educational Alliance, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and others.
Youth organizations in our alliance include all of the Free the Children chapters in the state. Also, we are active with United Students Against Sweatshops in Albany, Buffalo, Long Island, Rochester and Syracuse.
Our Model and Work
Under the leadership of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, religion-labor alliances are increasing across the country. Nationwide, the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition is the oldest such coalition.
Combining Local Initiatives with a Shared Statewide Program
We function constitutionally and interactively at both the state and local level. Our approach is to blend locally based work-such as leading a community's living wage campaign, building support for a local organizing effort such as the cafeteria workers at New York City's Metropolitan Opera, or generating attention about egregious health and safety violations in a Syracuse plastics plant-with statewide programming and initiatives.
Each local chapter participates in a shared set of activities such as our annual 40-Hour Fast and our Sweatfree Schools campaign. Each March, for the last five years, we have led a statewide 40-hour fast intended to highlight the plight of New York's invisible, low-wage workforce. In 2001, the fast focused on home care workers who are organizing to join a union, farm workers who are advocating to be included under the state's labor laws, and immigrant day laborers who are struggling to win better pay, safer working conditions, and an end to abusive treatment from employers. Coalition members organized numerous events across the state to publicize the conditions that these workers face.
Similarly, as a part of the statewide campaign we call Sweatfree Schools, Coalition chapters are leading efforts to get their local parochial and public school districts to adopt anti-sweatshop procurement policies for apparel (primarily for their school and sports uniforms). In Suffolk County on Long Island, the local Coalition chapter expanded the campaign into the larger community and led a successful effort to pass the first countywide Sweatfree Resolution in the country.
Blending a statewide organization with local chapters enables Coalition affiliates to learn from one another and to build on each other's victories. For instance, our Rochester chapter recently led that city's successful living wage campaign. The Long Island chapter is now actively working toward a countywide living wage bill. And the chapter in New York City is part of the leadership team in the City's new living wage initiative. Meanwhile at the state level, we will be working with the Fiscal Policy Institute to apply the Self-Sufficiency Standard, which is a more sophisticated way of calculating the wages and benefits that constitute a real, community-specific living wage.
Linking Local and International Labor Struggles
Since 1997, the Coalition has led eight delegations of rank-and-file union members, community leaders, teachers, young people, clergy, and union leaders to the maquiladoras and colonias (workers' neighborhoods) in Mexico along the Texas border. These delegations have met with workers, organizers, and health and environmental experts to learn both about the conditions that maquiladora workers endure and about their organizing efforts to improve those conditions.
For many delegation members, first-hand knowledge about workers' struggles in the maquiladoras often makes real what had been an abstract understanding of the global consequences of corporate control. Thus, once home, many delegation members move into leadership roles in their local Coalition chapter. For example, one delegate persuaded his union, the United Auto Workers (UAW), to produce 1,500 copies of his video documenting maquiladora workers' living conditions and to distribute the video to every UAW local in the United States and Canada. Another delegate from Syracuse has developed a presentation that he has given to twenty-one local union, community, and religious groups. And as a result of their participation in the February 2001 delegation, at least two young people have decided to pursue social justice-oriented careers.
Bringing Youth Organizations into the NYS Labor-Religion Coalition
Anti-sweatshop youth organizations and activists are choosing to join with us because our collaborative relationship provides them with both mentoring and a means to participate in local workers' rights campaigns. Participation in the Coalition enables young people to translate the spirit of the protests against corporate control-as manifest in the anti-IMF and anti-WTO protests in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Prague-into concrete action.
The Coalition serves as the umbrella organization, providing mentoring and administrative support, to the incipient Free the Children chapters that young people are founding across the state. (Free the Children is a youth-led organization dedicated both to empowering young people and to eradicating child labor.) In October 2000, the Coalition was a key organizer in convening the first-ever-statewide meeting of New York's Free the Children chapters. Over 140 anti-child labor youth activists met for 1½ days to learn more about the issues that concern them, to enhance their leadership skills, and to build connections with one another across the state.
In response to their interest, the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition led youth-oriented delegations to the maquiladoras in Mexico. Trips to Mexico help youth activists understand the connections between the conditions of the maquiladora workers and anti-sweatshop activism in their own communities. Members of the February 2001 and 2002 delegations, for instance, now are organizing their school districts to pass Sweatfree Schools policies.
Southern Tier NY Labor-Religion Coalition
The Southern Tier Labor-Religion Coalition is an alliance of faith communities and unions (or individual members thereof) working together to promote the dignity of workers and to advance the common good. Rooted in religious values, the Coalition educates, organizes and mobilizes the community to advocate for social and economic justice for working people, especially the poorest.
Membership in the Coalition is open to any faith community or union (or individual member thereof) committed to this mission and located in the following counties: Chemung, Steuben, Schuyler, Alleghany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua.
The Southern Tier Labor-Religion Coalition is affiliated with the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition and the National Inter-Faith Committee for Worker Justice.
Organizational Structure Membership
Membership is open to any faith community and union (or individual members thereof) committed to the Coalition's stated mission and located in Chemung, Steuben, Schuyler, Alleghany, Cattaraugus, Chatauqua counties. A self-determined annual membership contribution will be invited from each institutional and individual member. This contribution will be due in January each year.
Steering Committee Members' President of the Chemung County AFL-CIO Labor Assembly, President of the Steuben County Labor Council, President of Local 532 United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Catholic Charities Director of Justice and Peace Ministry, Coalition staff person. As project committees are formed, a representative will be asked to serve on the Steering Committee.
A living wage provides a worker with a salary sufficient to cover his/her family's food, housing, childcare, transportation, health care, childcare, recreation, some savings for retirement or children’s education. A living wage is calculated based on the real costs of living in each county/region and will be higher per hour if health insurance is not provided by the employer.
A living wage is not minimum wage. When the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1937, the minimum wage represented the amount one working parent needed to earn to support a family of four. Now, the national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is not enough to meet even an individual worker's basic needs. Thus, millions of workers, despite their full-time jobs, are still poor. How disheartening it is to work hard at a full-time job and still struggle to make ends meet. In addition, many workers earning low wages do not have health insurance for themselves and their families.
Living wage ordinances have been passed by more than 101 communities across the country; and, while they differ slightly from place to place, all seek to foster wages that will lift workers above poverty and reward work. Most living wage ordinances require that the established living wage be paid to employees by employers receiving public dollars/subsidies or those with contracts to provide services to the government entity having a living wage ordinance.
A living wage benefits the workers who earn it and the entire community. When workers earn a living wage, they have less need for charity assistance. When government or private charities help cover basic needs for workers and their families (such as emergency food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, prescriptions etc.), taxpayers are actually offering a hidden subsidy or reward to employers who refuse to pay a living wage to their workers -these employers prefer to let the community take care of the worker's needs. Employers who pay a living wage benefit because turnover is reduced, productivity increases, training costs are lowered and a more stable workforce results. When workers earn a living wage they can save for the future, can more quickly become homeowners/property taxpayers, and they spend their earnings in the local economy.
Most faith traditions teach that it is a moral imperative to pay workers a living wage that allows them and their families to live in dignity and many faith communities are participating in living wage campaigns:
We will be working - Please join us!