On Sunday morning, a preacher of a different sort took the podium at St. Joseph the Worker Church in central Berkeley.
“Every day, I ask God to help me to know my rights at work,” Marta Jimenez told the Roman Catholic congregation in Spanish.
Jimenez, a Mexican immigrant, has labored for 14 years as a home health care aide. To her elderly clients, she is something of a godsend: she cooks, cleans, bathes and feeds them, and drives them to doctor’s appointments. Thanks to her union card, she said, she earns $8.50 an hour with medical benefits.
In honor of Labor Day, workers like Jimenez took the pulpit at some 50 churches in the Bay Area to talk about how union membership has improved their lives.
The sermons, a joint effort between labor and religious leaders nationally, are part of an effort to improve union membership, which has declined sharply in recent decades.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that today only one in seven workers is a union member, compared to nearly one in three 50 years ago. In response, unions are reaching out to sectors that they have traditionally alienated, including community groups, women and immigrants. Churches, synagogues, and mosques often serve as a gathering place for these groups.
“Many times, the people that could be on the picket line are the same people going to church on Sunday,” said Amaha Kassa of the East Bay chapter of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. “But we haven’t yet come together on issues of common concern. When we do, like in the Civil Rights movement, it gets results.”
“When I pray, I give thanks to the union,” said a teary-eyed Jimenez in an interview. “When I lived in Los Angeles, I used to work from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and I earned $125 a week. I ironed, I washed, I did everything.
“With the union, I have health benefits,” Jimenez said. “As a diabetic, that’s critical.”
Immigrant workers like Jimenez face obstacles to union membership. They are often isolated from each other, and fear retribution from an employer if they demand a wage increase.
Five years ago, Jimenez might not have even been able to sign a union card. Historically, home health care workers have not had the legal right to organize.
Classified as domestic workers working in individual homes, they were exempt from the National Labor Relations Act. In response, the Service Employees International Union waged an arduous campaign to create a public authority within Alameda County, an entity that would give home health care workers status as county employees.
Once the county agreed, labor organizers made individual house visits to thousands of workers, encouraging them to join the union. As of 2001, 7,000 home health care workers in Alameda County were unionized. In July, they won a wage increase from $7.82 to $8.50 an hour. An increase to $9 takes effect in January.
An Associated Press poll released last week found that the U.S. public sides with unions in contract disputes by a 2-1 margin over companies. At St. Joseph the Worker, about a fifth of the congregation heeded Jimenez’s call to sign postcards in support of a living wage for Port of Oakland workers.
Francisco Ramos, 36, a construction worker from Guatemala, said he had never really heard any talk about a union on his job, but that Jimenez had inspired him. He earns $12 an hour, and pays $1,300 for an apartment in South Berkeley to house his family of four. “Of course it would be better to earn more money,” he said. “Maybe a union could help.”
Father William O’Donnell, pastor at St. Joseph the Worker, has always been active in the labor movement. “It’s part of my faith to support organized workers,” said Father Bill, who was a farmworker as a child. Cesar Chavez often stayed at the church while visiting Berkeley. Today, O’Donnell regularly incorporates workers’ issues into the service.
“There is a strong body of documents in the church’s history that show support for workers and those who are exploited,” added Father George Crespin.
How do the priests think Jimenez’s talk influenced the congregation? “She got applause,” said O’Donnell. “That’s very unusual in a Catholic church.”