April 21, 2016, Adrian, Michigan – Sister Mary Priniski, OP, who has long been involved in labor issues, will have the opportunity to study development and labor issues in the light of mercy with activists and experts from around the world. She will be participating in the May 2-5, 2016 Global Seminar on Sustainable Development and the Future of Work in the context of the Jubilee of Mercy, to be held in Rome.
“The main objective of the seminar is to deepen our understanding of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church in relation to the concept of decent work, its constitutive elements, and its significance, especially with a view to contributing to the eradication of poverty,” according to a letter that Sister Mary received from Cardinal Peter K. A. Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Sister Mary said that she received the invitation on the recommendation of Father Clete Kiley, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, who has also been active in ministry with labor unions. He had been asked by the organizers of the seminar to recommend some labor representatives from the United States. “He invited me because of my long history of involvement with labor issues,” Sister Mary explained. “To have a conference co-sponsored by the International Labor Organization and the Vatican is an amazing thing. I want to be there – and fortunately I was invited.”
The conference was scheduled to coincide with May 1, the International Workers Day and the Catholic Feast of St. Joseph the worker. The feast was established in 1955, most likely as a response to the Communist establishment of Workers Day on the same date. Cardinal Turkson will celebrate a special Mass for the feast day on Sunday, May 1 – an optional part of the conference, followed by the Angelus. The conference itself will open on the evening of Monday, May 2. The two full days of May 3 and 4 will include group sessions on such topics as transformation of the world of work, youth and access to employment, ethics and values in the workplace, and peace through social justice and development. Panel discussions will focus on such themes as critical issues of the world of work and innovative solutions. Sister Mary has volunteered to serve on a panel.
Sister Mary said she is particularly interested in discovering the Pontifical Council’s perspective on future engagement with workers, and on what people in the international community are doing in terms of promoting workers’ rights. Because of Pope Francis’ emphasis on standing with people in the margins, she expects that the conference will discuss lowest-wage workers, the future of work, and “how religious people can be supportive of those who are most hurt by the economic system as we have it now.”
Sister Mary has been involved in labor issues since 1979, when she moved to South Carolina to work with Southerners for Economic Justice. Her role was to engage the Church and the broader community to support the workers of the J.P. Stevens textile plants during a major labor dispute between the textile company and the workers, members of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTW). The famous movie, Norma Rae, was based on this dispute, she said.
In the early 1980s, Sister Mary participated in a coalition between unions and churches to support the efforts of low-income workers to be treated justly in their work. Sister Mary was the director of the Research Center and then the Commission on Justice for Glenmary in the 1990s; served on the board of Interfaith Worker Justice; and was the director of the Labor Guild for the Archdiocese of Boston, where she was responsible for the education of union workers and helped to run union elections.
“I went to South Carolina knowing little about labor organizing,” Sister Mary said. “What I learned was that it was through the labor movement that in the United States we have an eight-hour work day and no child labor. Because of unions, the middle class developed.” She noted that many people have the stereotyped view that unions are corrupt, yet unions are basically only the organization of workers. The unions are “not some outside force that’s coming in to wreak havoc but the workers getting together to ensure their rights. I really do believe that when unions are at their best and the Church is at its best, we are all working for a better world, the transformation of society.”