The Common Good
January-February 1998

From Pews to Picket Lines

by Julie Polter | January-February 1998

Labor activism as an expression of faith?

Labor activism as an expression of faith? This is an unfamiliar or expressly ludicrous notion to many Christians, even in denominations with a history of such activism on behalf of worker justice. Highly publicized union financial scandals that led to the disqualification of Teamsters President Ron Carey from running for re-election don’t encourage such involvement. Even at the best of times, bringing workplace issues to church can make for an uneasy mix.

A plant manager and an assembly-line worker might share the same pew, sing from the same hymnal. Should "worldly" business—contract negotiations, talk of a buy-out or a strike—be acknowledged in the midst of spiritual communion? How could bridges be built between blunt-talking, secular union organizers and participants in a weekly prayer meeting—and for what possible reason? And what might happen to the tithe fund if better-off church members feel the sermons or Sunday school lessons go too far in drawing present-day parallels with Jesus’ teachings on wealth or the prophets’ words on exploitation?

Despite the questions and risks, a growing number of people of faith find that solidarity with working people is a vital part of living out the gospel in their community:

  • In Morganton, North Carolina, a church was the strike headquarters for local poultry workers.

  • In Los Angeles and several other cities, a key to successful passage of living-wage ordinances has been large-scale involvement by religious individuals and institutions.

  • This past Labor Day weekend, more than 500 congregations throughout the country had worship services focused on the dignity of work and God’s call for justice in the workplace through the organizing efforts of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.

People are making the connection between job losses on Main Street and global shifts in economic policies. The falsehood that what is good for major corporations is automatically good for the people (American or otherwise) is steadily unraveling. Welfare reform, especially experiments in workfare, has forced many local communities to "see" the poorest among them for the first time in a long time—and to wrestle with the complicated causes and effects of un- and underemployment.

We are Christ’s body on this earth, and Christ’s presence—hands, feet, and voice—is needed in our workplaces and community. And the gospel—Jesus’ words of compassion, of justice, and of challenge to all who hear—are needed as well.

THERE is prophetic work to be done: Telling the truth about unsafe working conditions in the nearby manufacturing plant. Holding unions to respect the culture, beliefs, and autonomy of the community in which they are organizing. Raising questions about economic inequity within one’s congregation—even if that puts at risk some large contributions to the building fund.

And there is pastoral work: Listening to the cares, fears, and rage of the woman who works for low pay in the local nursing home, or of the suddenly laid-off man who thought his white-collar job would last forever. Providing donations of food and clothing for strikers at the plant across town. Helping congregation members who are managers or business owners and members who are line-workers or low-wage employees actually hear each others’ concerns, providing a place where the economic interdependence of a community might be recognized and respected.

What about union corruption? Doesn’t this taint all labor activism? Some unions have been seriously compromised by ties to organized crime. Many U.S. unions have nearly collapsed, top-heavy with bureaucracy and self-interested leadership that diverted attention from the needs and voices of the rank-and-file membership. And especially at the macro level, how groups get involved in the labor movement is worth real caution. The respected advocacy group Citizen Action has been seriously hurt by a financial scandal related to major funding it accepted from the Teamsters.

But Christians have continued striving to live their faith with integrity and to stay active in local churches despite bureaucracy and at times even corruption in the institutional church. Likewise many union leaders and members continue in the labor movement because they believe in the need for worker justice and the power of solidarity. An engaged, supported, rooted working force, with as broad a base of community support as possible, only helps strengthen and hold accountable internal union reform elements who fight for the highest union principles.

Unions, for their part, have been so long in a bunker mentality that they are suspicious of outsiders who want to support a strike or other action. In a workshop on bringing labor issues to churches, a Catholic woman from Detroit described the first time she brought donuts and cider to striking newspaper workers there. The strikers watched warily as she unloaded food and drink from her car trunk, and demanded to know who she was. Trust, even for a simple gesture, took time.

But it was worth it, as she and others strengthened their church’s ties with neighbors who were suffering for the cause of justice—and strengthened their witness to the gospel in the process.

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