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Church-led project saves jobs, helps workers.

LAWRENCE, Mass. -- In a valley that spawned the Industrial Revolution in the United States, religious groups have stitched together a labor-community-business coalition to soften the sharp edges of a new industrial revolution that has left many families behind.

The church-led Merrimack Valley Project in northeastern Massachusetts only recently held its first convention. But already it is credited with saving jobs and easing the transitions of laid-off workers.

The Merrimack Valley, which gave birth to the American textile industry, has been especially hard hit by the shift from manufacturing to low-wage service industries. The region also has suffered from a spiraling high-tech industry that went from boom to bust in recent years.

Because of the hard times, the coalition has attracted people who don't fit the typical activist profile. One of them is Eleanore Porter, a retired telephone company executive and Republican Party contributor. Porter said she got involved in the project through her church, Grace Episcopal in Lawrence.

"I didn't think I was going to get so terribly involved, to be perfectly honest with you," said Porter. "But the more I got involved, the more I saw the importance to the community."

When the Connecticut-based Echline Corp., a leading manufacturer of automotive parts, decided to close a small subsidiary here, Porter was part of a team that forced the Fortune 500 company to the bargaining table. The coalition was unable to reverse the decision or find another owner, as it had in several other instances. But it did negotiate a $50,000 "community severance" package used to retrain 44 workers, white collar and blue.

In October, Porter was elected vice president of the Merrimack Valley Project at what was billed as its founding convention. For three years before that, the group had organized and built a constituency, although it surfaced in a number of disputes like the one at the Echline subsidiary.

The convention, held on a Sunday afternoon at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Lawrence, drew more than 300 delegates carrying signs, such as "Teamsters Local 829" and "Iglesia Evangelica Hispana," a local Hispanic congregation.

"During the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the power of government to modestly redistribute wealth from the very rich to those less fortunate, and that was called communism," said Auxiliary Bishop John McNamara, a featured speaker and regional Catholic bishop of the Merrimack Valley. "During the 1980s, the forces of the elite of both parties used their power to massively transfer wealth from the poor and middle class to the very rich, and they called that entrepreneurialism."

McNamara's office of the Boston archdiocese is among 11 religious and labor organizations sponsoring the coalition, housed at South Congregational Church here. Civic and small-business groups have come on board for particular campaigns.

They all want to revive a region that has written more than one chapter of America's labor and industrial history.

Lowell, the valley's largest city with 103,000 people, was the first major manufacturing center in this country. The city's old cotton mills, now preserved as national landmarks, powered the Industrial Revolution in the United States during first half of the 19th century. In 1912, nearby Lawrence was the site of a famous and successful strike by textile workers, men, women and children. They marched for "bread and roses, too" -- not just higher wages but more free time.

Today, with the region's falling wages and double-digit unemployment, many of the workers would be prepared to settle for bread alone. Last year the coalition helped keep bread on tables when it pressured Purity Supreme supermarkets to abandon a restructuring plan that would have idled 175 workers. It also helped save 70 jobs at New England Manufacturing by negotiating the clothing company's sale to another firm. So far the project counts 11 successful drives to avert shutdowns or win other concessions.

Those efforts, though at times adversarial, have caused practically no controversy in the valley. That is because the main targets have been out-of-state corporations with local subsidiaries, said the Reverend Thomas M. Getchall-Lacey, coalition president and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Amesbury.

He and other leaders admit that the gains may amount to little more than small change in a sinking local economy. "But it makes a significant difference in the lives of people affected," said the Reverend David R. Gerner, pastor of All Saint's Episcopal Church in Chelmsford. "And that gives hope to others."

Local communities get more say in large corporate decisions

LAWRENCE, Mass. -- The Merrimack Valley Project is part of a church-based movement in different parts of the country to give local communities more of a say in decisions by large corporations.

The project is modeled after one in Connecticut called the Naugatuck Valley Project, which has intervened in dozens of industrial crises over the past decade.

For instance, when the Bridge-port Brass Co. moved to shut down its operations in Seymour, Conn., the Naugatuck coalition stepped in to negotiate an alternative. The upshot: The company was sold to its 225 white- and blue-collar employees.

Kenneth Galston, who organized the Connecticut group, is chief organizer of the Merrimack Valley Project in northeastern Massachusetts.

Both projects belong to the church-backed Federation for Industrial Retention and Renewal, based in Chicago. The federation brings together 30 local coalitions of religious, labor, civic and small-business groups. Some of these date to the recession of 1982, when plant closings dealt bard blows to communities across the country.
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Title Annotation:Lawrence, Massachusetts
Author:Bole, William
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jan 15, 1993
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