Under banners stressing solidarity, hundreds of union members processed into St. Patrick’s Cathedral Sept. 9 for a Mass celebrated before the annual Labor Day Parade. They represented dozens of unions for steamfitters, ironworkers, electricians, trades traditionally associated with organized labor.
They were joined as well by teachers, government employees and actors. Also seated in the front pews were representatives of Obreros Unidos (Workers United), part of the Day Laborer Center in Yonkers sponsored by Catholic Charities.
During his homily at the Mass, Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, told the unionists that their presence indicates their strength, “one of the reasons why this is a great town.”
Obreros Unidos is my community.
He spoke of the Church’s historic support for labor, noting that it shares a belief in the dignity of work and the right to decent wages. He added that during a time of economic stress, “We need strong organized labor more than ever,” a line greeted with applause.
Still Monsignor Sullivan challenged labor leaders and union members, much like St. Paul challenged the Colossians in the Scripture reading for the Saturday morning Mass.
“We are not good enough,” he said. “Labor needs to step up even more so in these dark, difficult times.”
An example for a polarizing, divisive time can be found in labor’s work in collective bargaining. It is a process, when done correctly, which brings labor and management together for a common purpose and goal, he said.
“We don’t shout at each other. We don’t vilify each other. We come together and sit at the bargaining table,” noted Monsignor Sullivan.
Collective bargaining, he said, is a process where “people with different perspectives can sit down together and reach an agreement for the common good of unions, business and society as a whole.”
The Mass is a traditional opening for the Labor Day Parade, which in recent years has fallen on the weekend after the traditional holiday. Much of the press attention at this year’s parade focused on the actors and screenwriters, who are part of a well-publicized strike in the entertainment industry. Relative newcomers at the Mass this year were the Obreros Unidos workers, who credited their organization with defending their rights in the labor force as immigrant day laborers, a group historically vulnerable to exploitation.
Speaking in Spanish, Obreros Unidos members at the Mass praised the organization which, while not a union, plays a role in defending the rights of immigrant workers.
Pastor Figueroa, a native of Mexico and construction worker, said that Obreros Unidos has helped him with education on federal work safety rules. In her two years with the group, Reina Morales, who works in childcare, has found that the organization is a support going beyond work issues, bringing together immigrants in Westchester for social gatherings and education.
“Obreros Unidos is my community,” she said.
Fidel Bolanos, also a construction worker who immigrated from Mexico, said that the organization assists across a wide set of concerns for immigrants in Westchester County. One is to interact with local police, to assuage fears of new immigrants that they could be targeted due to immigration status. He praised the organization for providing English classes and for legal assistance in claiming unpaid wages.
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