Liturgical Labor Dispute: Episcopal Church Irks Unions

In early February, a 100-strong group of labor activists angrily gathered in front of the Manhattan headquarters of a prominent national organization to protest. The offense they protested was a recent contract change at the headquarters, from a unionized housekeeping services crew to a non-union one, and the effective dismissal of long-serving personnel.

But the organization which had earned the ire of organized labor wasn’t a business, it was the chronically liberal Episcopal Church.

More amazingly, the director of the Communist Party USA’s religious outreach, himself a prospective Episcopal priest, is trying to negotiate a labor-friendly accommodation with the Episcopal Church.

Long the supporters of union-friendly policies, Episcopalians have a record that should please even the most hardened union bosses. Once known as “the Republican Party at Prayer,” the 2.1 million-member denomination’s leadership long ago completed a political U-turn that now situates it on the Democratic Party’s far-left flank.

Not content with the government-directed mandates of Obamacare, the church narrowly adopted an endorsement of union-backed “single-payer” healthcare at the church’s 2009 General Convention. An endorsement of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would permit unions to be recognized without a secret ballot, came at the same time, highlighted by purple-clad bishops who led a march of convention deputies to support unionized Disney hotel workers.

It came as a surprise then to union activists that the Episcopal Church Center would choose to drop a union contractor in favor of a non-union one, part of a cost-savings measure at the headquarters.

According to the Episcopal News Service, at the time of the contract renewal, church Chief Operating Officer Linda Watt issued a statement saying, “Budget constraints have prompted the Episcopal Church to review all contracts and to implement cost-cutting measures where possible.”

Watt told the church’s Executive Council during their February meeting in Omaha, Neb., that her office “re-competed” the church center’s contract for cleaning services after the 2010-2012 budget was cut “very severely in that area.” Watt said bids, including one from Paris Maintenance, had been requested from both union and non-union companies and all were considered when the decision was made.

Like many old-line denominations, the Episcopal Church’s finances have increasingly tightened with the economic recession and declining membership. Funds have also been needed to support property litigation against conservative dioceses and parishes that have chosen to part ways with the liberal denomination.

“The charge of hypocrite sticks,” said Tim Yeager, a union attorney and organizer for the United Auto Workers, who addressed a recent luncheon of liberal church activists in Chicago about the controversy. Yeager sits on the board of the Consultation, an umbrella organization of liberal groups within the church.

“We [the denomination] look really bad as a labor movement right now,” Yeager said.

Denominational officials seem to have been caught off-guard by the controversy, unaccustomed to receiving criticism from the far left. In addition to being on the clergy ordination track in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, Yeager is also a member of the Communist Party USA. In June, Yeager was named chair of a newly established Religion Commission within the party.

“We want to reach out to religious people and communities, to find ways of improving our coalition work with them, and to welcome people of faith into the party,” Yeager said in the Communist publication People’s World. “We invite questions and responses from people who would like to dialogue with us on matters pertaining to religion, Marxism and the struggle for more peaceful, just and secure world.”

Yeager’s wish to dialogue with Episcopal Church leadership appears likely to be granted. After penning a letter on behalf of the Consultation about the labor controversy, Yeager has received an invitation to speak with Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori and Watt. As endowments left over from a more affluent era dwindle, the Episcopal Church’s utopian pronouncements may increasingly run head-on into economic realities.

Yeager indicated that even if the situation at the Church Center is successfully resolved, it may not be the end of controversy. In 2006, the Episcopal Church adopted a policy to hold future conventions in union-staffed hotels, when possible. Indianapolis, the 2012 General Convention site, does not have any major unionized hotels. A non-union Hyatt hotel has been selected for the General Convention.