Labor Leader Shares Concerns For Social, Economic Justice

WASHINGTON (UMNS) -- John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, spoke with representatives of several faith groups in an effort to find common concerns between organized labor and religious advocacy organizations here Feb. 27.

Religion and labor "have been great allies" in the past, Sweeney said, indicating that he would like to see a new partnership built around social and economic justice issues.

About 35 people including the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., attended the breakfast meeting at the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, arranged by the Board of Church and Society.

Representatives of several Protestant denominations attended as well as those of Catholic, Jewish and labor organizations.

Sweeney, who has been president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations since fall 1995, pointed to efforts the AFL-CIO has made to address some of these justice issues.

It has established a women's department and is pushing a civil rights agenda that includes pay equity and an end to harassment and discrimination for women and minorities. Outreach to young people was the point of Union Summer in 1996 and will be repeated in 1997 but also expanded to include a program for retirees, Sweeney said.

AFL-CIO programs to support the working family will include attention to health care, education and welfare reform.

"Building a greater respect for workers" is the overarching goal, Sweeney said. Downsizing and outsourcing have really hurt workers, he said.

Corporate responsibility will be another emphasis, he said, citing examples good and bad. U.S. Steel, which maintains a training and education facility for workers to improve skills and obtain degrees, was offered as a good example. Boeing was insensitive, he said, while workers were on strike for "a modest increase" in wages, the CEO announced bonuses worth millions of dollars for a few executives.

Sweeney expressed an intention to treat the changes in welfare, much of which labor opposed, as an opportunity to organize the new work force that will be produced, and at the same time, unions will be consciously watching the way their present members' jobs may be affected.

"As a labor union, we want to be out front," he said. He also verbalized a need to address trade laws with an eye to workers' rights and safety and environmental protection. Sweeney said that NAFTA has not aided workers in this country, and things actually have gotten worse for the maquiladora, factories established just over the Mexican border where workers who are paid very little live in squatters' communities without plumbing and electricity.

He said work with unions in other countries continues in an effort to address other issues associated with multinational companies.

An immediate priority for Sweeney is a drive to get clean drinking water, sanitary bathrooms, health insurance and job security for workers in the California strawberry fields. A march will be held April 13.

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