NEW YORK — James Hadley, in a high-collar shirt that says he'll soon be a Roman Catholic priest, approaches an office building in the heart of Wall Street, his union "Local 100" sign drooping after two hours of marching in the rain.
Accompanied by a nun, a rabbi and Bree Kessler, 20, a college student who plans to become a rabbi, the 22-year-old seminarian walks through brass doors into the cavernous lobby. They are a religious delegation, he tells the receptionist, and they want to see the company's chief executive officer to ask him to support the rights of food service workers to unionize.
"He's out of the country," the receptionist tells him.
How about other executives? Unavailable, she says.
Finally, Hadley walks outside, makes his way through a crowd of about 100 and jumps on the back of a
flatbed truck. Grabbing the mike, he announces that management had refused to meet with workers and now the religious community. But he vows to "continue the struggle for the right to organize."
Hadley and Kessler are among 25 interns in Seminary Summer, a 10-week program in 15 cities to teach future religious leaders the ins and outs of community organizing.
In Chicago, for instance, Paul Graham of the Evangelical Lutheran Church is working with day laborers.
In Little Rock, Alan Jenkins, who is Presbyterian, is organizing poultry workers.
"In our seminaries we study the theology," says Kim Bobo of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, which sponsors Seminary Summer with the AFL-CIO. "What is often not (taught) is how you live out your faith in the world."
Seminary Summer, the sponsors say, is the latest phase of an old partnership between religious leaders and labor that has brought together ministers and meat packers, rabbis and janitors on picket lines nationwide.
It was Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical, affirming the right to organize, that strengthened the bond between Catholics and unions. In the late 1800s, Jewish leaders began organizing garment workers in New York City. And in the early 1900s, pro-union Protestant ministers faced the wrath of company guards in the West Virginia coal mines.
In the 1970s, disagreements over the Vietnam War divided liberal clerics and union leaders, but relations have warmed again. And so today labor can reach out to budding religious leaders, including some who never gave unions much thought.
Despite growing up in Detroit, Kessler, a University of Michigan religion major who hopes to become a rabbi, did not know union members. Studying labor history led her to see a need for collective bargaining.
Judaism had taught her the importance of demonstrating faith through actions, so she jumped at the chance to join Seminary Summer.
Hadley, the son of a union carpenter, converted from evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism in part because of its commitment to social justice. "As business becomes more faceless, the religious community is the only one left to stand for the worker," he says.
Not everyone shares this enthusiasm. When Hadley spoke to a parish men's group about the AFL-CIO, "the heat went on in the room," he says. Kessler's Detroit friends kept bringing up union corruption. Undeterred, the Seminary Summer interns trained for a week before moving to their assigned cities.
Graham went to Chicago, where he is trying to organize a team of day laborers. He spends mornings at a shelter talking to workers who sleep there. "Some get up at 4 or 5 and sit around for hours," not knowing if they will get work, he says.
In Arkansas, Jenkins is meeting with poultry workers while enlisting the support of religious leaders. He has attended Latino, African-American and Vietnamese churches, he says, where workers "let their guard down and tell their stories." They've told him about losing fingers in the machinery and poverty level wages. "There are no bathroom breaks," he says, "so workers sometimes have to urinate on themselves."
In New York, the interns' target has been Goldman Sachs — the Wall Street firm where Hadley asked for the CEO. The AFL-CIO's Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union is trying to organize workers in the company cafeteria, run by a subcontractor called Restaurant Associates.
Kessler, who has friends at investment firms earning more than $100,000, says some cafeteria workers couldn't afford company health insurance. "I met a food service worker who has to go on Medicaid to have her baby," she says.
Cafeteria workers were skeptical at first. Abby Saez, 34, says: "Most young people just want to party. They don't care if we have a job or not. It's good to know young people are out there helping."
Goldman Sachs spokeswoman Kathleen Baum says the firm supports "the workers' right to decide for themselves whether they want to be represented by this union." A lawyer for Restaurant Associates did not return phone calls seeking comment.
When the interns' training ended, expectations were high, Hadley says. "It all seemed so glorious: labor prevails."
Organizing in the real world proved more complex.
Hadley and Kessler approached local clergy people to try to enlist their support. Some offered their signatures, but others were hesitant to sign, worried about offending congregants who worked for Goldman Sachs.
"It's too close to home," Kessler says.
Still, she says, quoting a Hebrew prayer, "We don't have to complete the task before us. We just have to begin."