When Religion and Labor Activism Mix

Union Members lead a processional at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the Mass before the Labor Day parade

For some workers, the presence of religion in their union is welcome and expected. For others, it’s a source of discomfort.

“As far as we know, Jesus did not carry a union card. But if there had been a strong union presence, we know he would have joined the carpenters’ union of his time,” said Father Christopher Sullivan to hundreds of union members gathered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan for the Mass before the Labor Day parade.

Falling membership, worker deaths, and a recent unfavorable court decision are threatening unions this year. Members of several national unions came together to pray for improved job conditions and the future of organized labor.

Carl Gambino a plumber with UA Local 1, said he has come to the ceremony at St. Patrick’s for the last four years. Gambino finds the Catholic values he was raised with are similar to his union’s values: “To me, religion and unions go hand in hand, the way we live, the way we raise our kids in the union,” said Gambino.

But others believe that unions and religion don’t mix.

Louis Delgado a member of the Teamsters Union, said, “Some people have their differences within the unions, because of their religion and their values, and they think religion should not be part of the union.”

There are no laws against boosting religion in organized labor, and unions historically have a religious underpinning, dating to the foundation of Labor Day, a federal holiday born out of a religious movement. According to National Labor Relations Board, “an employee may object to union membership on religious grounds, but in that case, must pay an amount equal to dues to a nonreligious charitable organization.”

For Edward Bizinkiewicz, a member of the Carpenters Union 157, religious differences within a union do not matter: “Anyone is welcome here.” Bizinkiewicz said that his union is full of people with different faiths and backgrounds. “I never saw anyone have a problem. It’s New York City, everyone is different,” said Bizinkiewicz.

Workers listen to the homily by Father Christopher Sullivan

And in the aftermath of a year that saw a rise in worker deaths in New York, religion acts as a source of comfort to many.

Every year for the last decade, the Steamfitters 638 union has placed a memorial at St. Patrick’s. Manny Ferrer a member of the union, spoke to the role religion plays in grief, especially in a dangerous field. “It brings us together and really helps us heal. I am a Catholic, but I would go to any memorial of any religion,” said Ferrer.

For others, religion continues to play a role in union. Louis Delgado spoke to the tradition of religion in the union “the role of religion is more just custom, it’s our history now.”