The Common Good
March-April 1997

Good News and a Living Wage

by Julie Polter | March-April 1997

Building relationship between people of faith and the workers' rights movement.

The South has historically been hostile to organizing among workers, and overall the church there has not been a friend to labor either. The church often reflexively aligned with company owners in disputes. It was not uncommon for Paul’s words "if you don’t work, you don’t eat" to be misapplied from the pulpit to striking or unemployed workers.

But Chris Sanders, a Baptist lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky, who began his law career working for a union, believes that those who pray and those who organize for workers’ rights are natural allies. He has founded Workers’ Rights Outreach in an effort to help build relationships between people of faith and the workers’ rights movement in the South.

"Part of a new way of doing things in the labor movement is an understanding that workers’ rights need to be a part of the whole fabric of a community. It’s not just about the relationship between one company and one group of workers," explains Sanders. "It’s building an understanding that fair wages, workplace dignity, and good jobs affect the whole life of a community."

For such an approach to work in the South, a key is building relationships and coalitions with white evangelicals, who are a dominant cultural and religious force there. For Sanders, who earned a seminary degree before going to law school and is a deacon and Sunday school teacher, this is a natural outgrowth of his own background, skills, and beliefs.

"This means networking with the people I know best," he says. He describes the approach of Workers’ Rights Outreach as "Bible-based and southern-fried." Materials build on scripture verses and an emphasis on the fruits of conversion and discipleship. Scripture, from the prophets to Jesus’ parables, support and illustrate the place of one’s faith in economic life, standards of fair and nonviolent behavior on the part of both managers and workers, and justice in the workplace.

Connections emerge as stories and teachings from the Bible meet anecdotes and statistics about the current condition of workers in America. People at all different stations in life can then begin to see how their own experiences fit into the picture.

One example is organizing among nursing home workers. "For people in the church this should be a pastoral care issue," says Sanders. "Pastors spend a lot of time visiting people in nursing homes, and can begin to see the impact of low wages and poor management on those who bathe, feed, and care for our loved ones." Likewise, the people doing that work begin to see union organizing as part of fulfilling their mission to take care of people.

ALSO KEY TO WRO’s goals is taking seriously the concerns, fears, and needs of the entire community. For instance, when Latino immigrants arrive to work at poultry plants in rural communities that are predominantly white and African American, it means abrupt changes for all involved. Part of the challenge is helping those who were first in the community to see that organizing for better conditions for the new arrivals—who may be viewed with hostility and suspicion—is not a special interest, but ultimately benefits all.

"Some working-class white men may feel that they have always had their backs against the wall," explains Sanders. "Our history in this country is one of hating the last ones in. But an appeal to economic justice can cross divides of race and culture. Part of what we say is ‘everyone needs a raise.’ When we get better employment laws, all jobs improve."

Sanders tells of a pastor friend calling to see if any laws allow a person not to work on Sundays for religious reasons. His church couldn’t find enough volunteers to teach Bible school because so many people were either working two or three jobs to make ends meet or busy with mandatory overtime. The power of organizing for a living wage standard in a community isn’t just about money, but people’s social and spiritual health.

WRO will be having a trial run of a "Faith and Work" briefing at its advisory group meeting this spring in Louisville. This will be a participatory learning experience bringing together pastors, lay people, workers, and union representatives. "The context will be the issues of the workplace. But we want to make it fun and wide-ranging too," says Sanders. The hope then is to find churches or other groups that would bring Faith and Work briefings to their town as a community event.

In the long run, WRO aims both to change attitudes toward workers’ rights and increase active involvement in labor issues. As church people, Sanders says, "Employment problems—a lost job, harassment on the job—shouldn’t just be something we pray about at Wednesday night prayer meeting. We need to pray, but we also need to embrace these as community issues. When there’s a public event connected to workers’ rights, people of faith should be there."

For more information, contact Workers’ Rights Outreach, 1815 Fernwood Ave., Louisville, KY 40205; (502) 451-5764.

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