Associated Press

Union Leader Says Mission Is Comparable To Religion

Cadonna M. Peyton
October 11, 1999

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told churchgoers Sunday they must fight "peacefully but passionately" to protect the future of their children by extending health coverage and increasing minimum wage.

Outside, a group of about 50 union workers picketed, claiming Sweeney refuses to hear their complaints and contending his messages were "full of hot air."

Sweeney, in town for the AFL-CIO's 23rd biennial convention, told thecongregation at Phillips Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church that all people want equality, freedom and respect and his mission is to bring the goals of unions and religion closer together. "I have been inspired by how the people of faith and the people of union movements can walk common ground ... towards social justice and human dignity," he said.

Other labor leaders and Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa were on hand to support Sweeney and urge people to work together to improve working conditions. "We have to start organizing again," Villaraigosa said. "The union movement is here because they're coming together around the idea that working people have a right to a quality of life, have a right to a living wage, have a right to that American dream." Working people are entitled to improve conditions by organizing unions and their employers should "hear their voices and respect their choices," Sweeney added.

Outside, church leaders held back protesters who were carrying signs with messages like: "Gore, Bradley and Sweeney, stop stealing our money," and "One union, one vote." "Stop the corruption," they chanted as they surrounded the car carrying Sweeney as he tried to leave. "We are rank-and-file workers who are getting crushed by the AFL," said Jeannete Gabriel, of Workers Democracy Network, based in New York. "The AFL is doing everything it can to ignore us and are cutting deals with the bosses who hurt us." Because so many members are being denied the right to be heard nside the meetings, "we've had to come to the streets," she said.

Steve Zeltzer, another member of Workers Democracy Network, said "union workers who try to fight back are "threatened and terrorized." Sweeney heads an organization that is trying to stamp out union democrac", he claimed. "What kind of labor movement do we have when members are afraid to speak up at union meetings?" he asked.

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