The Common Good
May-June 1996

A Mandate for Justice

by Julie Polter | May-June 1996

Churches stand with those who labor.

Pat Buchanan spouts friend-of-labor rhetoric. Other politicians mouth "let's get America moving again" platitudes, while taking in corporate campaign contributions with one hand and passing out corporate welfare with the other.

Working women and men need more than political bombast. The union movement is showing a renewed commitment to grassroots organizing and signs of repentance for past excesses. Is there a role for the church in the midst of economic upheavals and labor struggles?

In general, religion and organized labor haven't been strongly linked during the past several decades (with the notable exception of the Catholic Church and some of the African-American denominations). Much faith-based work on issues of poverty, homelessness, and violence somehow has been done in detachment from workers and workplace justice. But historically many religious bodies strongly supported workers' rights (such as collective bargaining) long before legislation guaranteed such rights.

During the past couple of years, hopeful examples of new links between churches and worker activism have emerged around the country. People of faith are showing renewed awareness and commitment on issues of corporate responsibility, the fight for a living wage, and worker safety.

In January, black churches joined with the Georgia State Employees Union in an Atlanta demonstration protesting a plan to privatize state jobs. In the midst of the Detroit newspaper strike, Readers United has organized religious-based direct actions against the company and pushed the union to publish an alternative newspaper. In Louisville, Kentucky, and Chicago, new campaigns of faith-based support for workers' rights have emerged.

An ongoing story in Greensboro, North Carolina, illustrates the unique and positive role church people can play in labor issues. Workers at a Kmart distribution center there approached members of the city's African-American ministerial alliance, the Pulpit Forum, requesting support for the workers' efforts to address wage and policy inequities. The pastors listened, investigated the situation, and prayed for discernment.

They concluded that the workers at the Greensboro center (many of whom were members of their congregations) had justified concerns. Issues included wages more than $4 an hour less than the average at the 12 other North American Kmart distribution centers; more restrictive personnel policies; evidence of harassment; and nearly 18 months of fruitless negotiations between the company and the workers' union, UNITE. Because this is the only center with a majority non-white work force, it seemed possible that racial discrimination was a factor in some of the problems.

THE PASTORS DECIDED that the Bible called them to stand with the workers publicly. They met with executives from Kmart to discuss the problems and submitted a petition with 10,000 signatures urging Kmart to negotiate in good faith.

When Kmart responded in the negative, the pastors joined with union workers in a "Don't buy at Kmart" boycott. In December 1995, the ministers led a public protest, with eight of them (along with a state representative and a national NAACP board member) arrested for civil disobedience. To date the total number of arrests in this and related actions is more than 1,700.

The Pulpit Forum has succeeded in raising the profile of the workers' concerns. Perhaps more important, the ministers also have helped framed the issues affecting the Kmart workers as ones that should be of concern to the whole community.

"You ask, 'Why are preachers sticking their noses in?' Because it has to do with the quality of life in our community," Rev. William Wright, the Pulpit Forum president, preached to his congregation the Sunday after being arrested at a Kmart protest. "It may not be your job now, but it might be your job tomorrow."

The ministers also contacted their colleagues in white churches. At the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, faith-based working groups that had gathered to examine issues of atonement in the white community following the Million Man March decided to familiarize themselves with the Kmart workers' situation. Several members of the groups, which include local business people, came to serve as neutral liaisons between the Pulpit Forum and the local government and business community. In the traditionally anti-union South, and in a town with a history of sharp and violent race divisions, this was a vital pastoral role.

The church has a role to play in bringing economic health and justice to individual communities and to the nation. While the specifics of that role will change from situation to situation, our scripture and tradition do give us certain mandates.

As Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, a Presbyterian member of the Pulpit Forum, said following the December protest, "The union has a role....The workers have a role....And we as clergy have a role: to help bring some clarity to this issue in this community and to stand on the side of the poor and oppressed."

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