From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Presbyterian Ministers Continue to Lead
04 May 1996 16:10:14
96099 Presbyterian Ministers Continue to Lead
Protests Against Kmart Corporation
by Julian Shipp
GREENSBORO, N.C.--The Rev. James Herbert Nelson II, the Rev. Thomas K.
Lane, the Rev. Frank M. Dew and the Rev. Zeb N. Holler are among the
Presbyterian ministers here, along with individuals, labor and civic
organizations, who remain involved in a mounting union protest by Kmart
Distribution Center workers.
Nelson, who is pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church, has been
arrested and jailed three times along with several other pastors associated
with the ecumenical Greensboro Pulpit Forum, following nonviolent
demonstrations in December, January and February at the Super Kmart Store
in Greensboro (see the January 26 edition of "NEWS BRIEFS," #96026).
Additionally, the Greensboro chapter of the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has shown its support for the
workers and dissatisfaction with Kmart's treatment of its minority
employees by returning a $10,000 tutorial program donation back to the
Nelson told the Presbyterian News Service that 31 people were arrested
at Kmart on Feb. 18 and several demonstrators, including Nelson and Holler,
have been issued injunctions by the Greensboro magistrate's office to not
return to the store under any circumstances or be arrested and jailed.
Nelson said decisions are pending as to whether or not he and others
will challenge the injunction.
The Kmart shipping workers claim to be paid significantly less than
their Kmart counterparts in other parts of the country. Those arrested said
they sympathize with union complaints that distribution center employees in
Greensboro earn an average of $4.60 less per hour than employees at the
other 12 Kmart distribution centers across the nation.
According to the Greensboro Pulpit Forum, Greensboro also has the only
Kmart distribution center where the majority of workers are minorities and
where workers receive fewer benefits than employees at any of the other
Initial negotiations last year between Kmart Corp. and UNITE (Union of
Needle Trades Industrial and Textile) representatives failed, but Maria
Seyrig, a Kmart international headquarters spokesperson in Troy, Mich.,
said the company entered new negotiations on Jan. 11.
According to Seyrig, Kmart Corp. extended its third wage proposal to
UNITE representatives on Feb. 28. The new offer includes a
According to Seyrig, Kmart offered to implement the wage increase
effective March 3 as "reinforcement of our commitment to bargaining in good
faith." She said UNITE has accepted the wage increase, that this is not an
interim wage agreement, and that Kmart continues to believe that "the
company's benefits and wages are superior to those which are offered in the
Greensboro market," adding that negotiations between UNITE representatives
and Kmart officials are still going on.
Called by faith to act
After hearing complaints from Kmart workers, many of whom are members
of local churches, Nelson said, theological reasons compelled him to act.
"This issue speaks a great deal on how we deal with the stewardship of
our nation and its inhabitants," Nelson said. "People are basically being
subjected to the worst form of greed, which is against every theological
doctrine that I have ever understood, and driven to the depths of poverty
and despair without any apparent sense of conscience from those in power.
"We have asked [Kmart] for a nearly $6 increase in hourly wages, but
Kmart comes to the table and gives these workers 50 cents," Nelson said.
"The reality is 50 cents is a long way from $6. And still these people are
paid wages which keep them below the poverty level, and there's something
wrong with that theologically. Particularly when you're talking about a $35
billion corporation and the way it treats its workers."
Lane, a Presbyterian minister and member-at-large of Salem Presbytery,
said he felt it was necessary for him to stand in solidarity with the Kmart
workers because for several years he has been involved in helping to foster
dialogue between the African-American and white communities in Greensboro
over issues of common interest.
"When it came to a point where action was required, I felt I would be
remiss if I did not take some action with the [Kmart workers]," said Lane,
who was also arrested. "I felt a responsibility as a Christian to stand
with people who were being ill-treated, were relatively voiceless at the
time and who needed the support of God."
Holler, a retired Presbyterian pastor and a co-founder of Beloved
Community Center in Greensboro, said the problem affects the whole
community and not just the minority population.
"What we have is a situation that brings up the whole issue of what's
happening to working people everywhere," said Holler, who was also
arrested. "So we're trying to engage the business and religious communities
in conversations pertaining to what kind of economic development we want in
this town. Are we going to have any standards or are we going to lay out
the community resources for big corporations who come in and trash its
From the grassroots to a national movement
In November, the Greensboro Pulpit Forum asked local residents to stop
shopping at Kmart, but Ben Hensler, a UNITE representative, said a national
public awareness campaign also is gaining momentum.
Hensler said the Pulpit Forum ministers (who originally called for the
boycott against Kmart), along with UNITE, have written to other pastors and
civil rights organizations around the nation about the situation in
Those contacted by the Pulpit Forum so far include the Rev. Jesse
Jackson of the Rainbow Coalition; the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, national chair
of the Million Man March; U.S. Rep. Mel Wyatt; and Kwesi Mfume, the
recently elected NAACP executive director.
The forum has also contacted the presidents of the four predominantly
African-American Baptist associations, the leadership of the African
Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church and the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Locally, Hensler said, an alliance of ministers in Raleigh, N.C., has
endorsed the boycott, and the Kmart workers recently met with another group
of pastors in Charlotte, N.C., who expressed interest in the situation.
"We are going to kick off a national [Kmart] boycott around the
Easter shopping season," Hensler said. "We believe the boycotts are having
a definite effect. In January through early February, for example, the
company ran a customer appreciation sale in Greensboro that they weren't
running anywhere else in the country.
"For a national company like Kmart to take that sort of step obviously
indicates that, at least in the Greensboro area, there's lots of people who
don't agree with the way Kmart is treating its employees," Hensler said.
Thomas A. Seel, assistant vice president for investments of the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation, said that as of Jan. 31, 1996, the
Foundation owned 202,000 shares of Kmart stock worth approximately $1.2
The Rev. William Somplatsky-Jarman, Mission Responsibility Through
Investment Committee (MRTI) staff member in the National Ministries
Division, said MRTI has been monitoring the situation in Greensboro for
several years and has written letters of inquiry to Kmart executives and
urged them to resolve their employee grievances. He said MRTI can continue
in this manner indefinitely and put more pressure on Kmart if necessary.
Unfortunately, Somplatsky-Jarman said, the possibility of MRTI filing
a shareholder's resolution against Kmart over this issue is remote since,
he said, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) "currently tends to
exclude any shareholder resolutions that deal with employment issues."
"We totally disagree with the SEC's position, but that's the reality,"
Somplatsky-Jarman said. "But as a [Kmart] shareholder we're very concerned
and we can continue to use our available resources as need be."
For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
phone 502-569-5504 fax 502-569-8073
E-mail PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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