In August 1996, several hundred Latino workers at Case Farms, a poultry processing plant in Morganton, N.C., walked off the job. They'd voted to form a union, management refused to recognize the vote and the workers, a large percentage of whom were illegal immigrants from Guatemala, bolted. Two workers staged a hunger strike; others held a candlelight vigil over them in shifts. Led by a group of interfaith religious leaders, the group marched with protest banners through the staid middle-class town.
Crucial support for the strikers came from a most unlikely source: 38,000 pounds of food was trucked in by Operation Blessing International, an arm of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, which is based in Virginia Beach, Va. That's the same Pat Robertson, head of the Christian Coalition, who normally embraces the hardest of hard-right Republican -- and decidedly non-union -- positions.
"It wasn't a political statement," says Patti Silverman, a spokeswoman for Roberston. "We simply responded to a call for help from the local Catholic church. They distributed it. We don't ask who receives help."
In fact, Operation Blessing well knew who was getting help. "The 700 Club," produced by the Christian Broadcast Network, sent a camera crew to Morganton and aired a segment on the strike that month. Robertson's involvement in union causes is not unprecedented. 1n 1993, Operation Blessing sent food and clothing to striking miners in Pittston, W.Va., and in southern Virginia.
Robertson observers say the televengalist is motivated in part by compassion for workers in dire straits and in part by references in the book of Isaiah, which, in biblical terms, calls for fair employment practices. But there is pragmatism at work, too, because Robertson has grasped a grass-roots reality: The people who religiously attend church and donate a tithing are frequently either union members or low-wage earners open to the union message.
"You often find in places like Appalachia that it is union members who are passing the collection plate on Sunday," says one former mineworkers organizer who asked not to be named. "It's union members who won't have money if they get busted by the company. So the denomination may have one (official) policy, but if you go to the clergy, they'll support the workers -- whether it fits with stated policy or not. (The workers) are cousins or neighbors and they know it's in the interest of the church, which won't get support if its congregants aren't making a living. The church is a business, too."
Publicly, both sides play down the relationship. Robertson does not want to alienate fellow conservatives, many of whom equate worker justice issues with pro-choice, anti-school prayer and other liberal positions they find untenable. Unionists are chary of jeopardizing future help with publicity that Robertson may find embarrassing. They are content with help at a local level, which they say not only puts food in strikers' stomachs but puts pressure on recalcitrant factory owners.
At Case Farms, Robertson's support didn't budge management, but it boosted worker morale. "You're up against a big employer in a small town in western North Carolina," recalls a union leader who solicited Operation Blessing's help, "and one of the leading evangelical leaders in the country, who is normally seen to be on the conservative side, gives food to these workers -- it's a physical boost, but it's also big psychological one. It challenged the people of Morganton to re-think their position. Would Robertson say, 'Yes, I did all that'? I doubt it."
Indeed, Operation Blessing is structured to shield Robertson from appearing to help unions. It sends supplies to local agencies, which take care of actual distribution. And, Robertson's spokespeople are quick to point out, he is not involved in every aid decision. According to an Operation Blessing press release, since 1978 the organization has helped 130 million people, supplied $95 million, and provided aid in all 50 states -- and, since 1989, in 71 countries.
Robertson's involvement in labor issues is part of a broader trend among religious organizations. The Chicago-based Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, formed in 1996, has 30 chapters in 21 states. While most pro-worker religious activists lean leftward, some Southern Baptist churches in Virginia displayed support for strikers. In September 1996 in Nashville, conservative minister H.A. Beasley, the Southern Baptist head of the New Zion Church, spoke on behalf of Bridgestone/Firestone workers engaged in a two-year battle against the Japanese-owned company.
Kim Bobo, the Interfaith Committee's executive director, says that the religious right's support for workers is not that paradoxical if seen from a theological viewpoint. "People frequently correlate theological and political conservatism, but that's not necessarily right," Bobo observes. "The Assembly of God, the Church of God and Robertson are often good on economic justice questions. It's in line with Biblical teachings. To the extent they consider themselves fundamentalists, it's because they're fundamental about the Bible."
Theology aside, there is little question that, at least insofar as mine owners are concerned, Robertson stands with labor.
"There's been a relationship between Robertson and the miners," says Morris Feibush, a spokesman for the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, a Washington, D.C., group that negotiates on behalf of management. "The miners tend to be socially conservative but are also laborers. They're also National Rifle Association members. Rural people. It's an interesting amalgamation of forces."