Advocates for workers and immigrants on Long Island said Friday that they are winning some battles locally on issues including transportation, and are gearing up for other challenges including immigration reform.
About 200 nuns, priests, labor leaders and community activists attended a daylong conference in Central Islip that focused on a range of topics including the superstorm Sandy recovery, minimum wage increases and public bus service on Long Island.
"It's about organizing and winning," said Charlene Obernauer, executive director of Long Island Jobs with Justice, which put together the third annual "Working But Still Poor" event at Touro Law Center.
She said the coalition has contributed to some important victories recently. Suffolk lawmakers and County Executive Steve Bellone agreed this week to extend public bus service on Sundays.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has pledged to raise the state's minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour by 2015, she said. Obernauer said it should go even higher, but the plan still represented an improvement that could help working families.
Doreen Quaranto, parish outreach director at Most Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in East Hampton, said that even though some signs point to economic recovery, she has seen an increase in the past four years in people coming to her church for assistance with food, clothing, housing and paying bills.
"My work has not gotten less, it's gotten more," she said. She added that the majority of clients are not immigrants but longtime parishioners who in some cases have lost their jobs.
Other speakers talked about how people of faith need to move beyond charity work to look at the root causes of poverty and at how what they call unjust social structures can be changed. The Rev. William Brisotti of Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church in Wyandanch said it is often difficult for ministers to raise such questions without offending parishioners.
"It's always a tension," he said. "You have to pay the bills. You have to please people, but you also have to challenge them."
The event's keynote speaker was Sister Simone Campbell, who gained national attention last year when the Vatican criticized her and other U.S. nuns for being outspoken on issues of social justice while remaining silent on issues the church considers crucial: abortion and gay marriage.
Campbell later launched a "Nuns on the Bus" tour in part to focus attention on the work of U.S. religious sisters. She said Friday that she will kick off another national bus tour on May 28 with a new goal: immigration reform.
"The current immigration system is broken. The challenging part is how do we fix it," said Simone, head of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Network.