The Common Good
September-October 1998

Called to Stand with Workers

by Julie Polter | September-October 1998

This morning's Washington Post said it is a "workers' market." A
booming U.S.

This morning's Washington Post said it is a "workers' market." A booming U.S. economy and high demand for skilled workers is causing corporations (after nine years of economic growth) to share the wealth, in the form of perks, raises, and bonuses.

On another front, as we go to press General Motors and

the United Auto Workers have reached a tentative accord to end a 54-day strike. What isn't clear is whether the agreement addresses for the long term a seemingly irreconcilable difference: GM's insistence that it must cut costs to survive in the global marketplace and the union's desire to save jobs.

Astonishing profits on one hand, and the specters of downsizing, outsourcing, and production shipped overseas on the other; stagnant wages in the midst of economic boom. Which is reality? It depends on where you are standing. The same flood of prosperity that is lifting some boats high is wrecking others. There is evidence that the working poor are being sacrificed to fuel the boom.

In this special issue of Sojourners we make the case, as Bill Wylie-Kellermann writes, that "it is incumbent upon the church to stand with workers, to be with them in the struggle for justice, to join them in holding corporations accountable to human community." Whichever way the economy goes—up, down, global, or local—we are called to look not to the bottom line, but to the circumstances of our brothers and sisters.

Why should churches connect and work with the labor movement? Rev. Wayne Stumme, coordinator of church and labor concerns for the Institute for Mission in the U.S.A., asserts that "in a society where so much power is weighted on the side of the wealthy and of corporations, there must be a countervailing power. The only available power for working people (aside from the individual ballot) is the labor movement."

THIS ISN'T A CALL for religious institutions to merge their identity with the labor movement. Rather, it is a call for Christians to seek out alliances with union people and others working on economic justice, and to see what can be done together. At our mutual best, the church and the labor movement have much in common, especially around the primacy of human dignity and a mandate for a just ordering of human community. We have a rich history of Christian involvement in labor issues. And in many parts of the country, as you will see in this issue, religion and labor are again coming together in innovative—and effective—ways, thanks in part to organized labor's new leadership.

But we also are not far removed from decades of estrangement between the church and the labor movement. By the 1970s much of the labor movement was institutionalized, removed from the struggles of the average worker, and apathetic to organizing. The virulent union-busting of the Reagan administration also took its toll. Organized labor generally was absent from the civil rights struggle, and outright hostile to the Vietnam anti-war movement. The AFL-CIO's intense international anti-communist agenda put it on a collision course with former allies in the progressive church, especially over U.S. policy in Central America during the '80s. Many church activists— taking the baby with the bathwater approach—rejected organized labor wholesale.

Now both the labor movement and the church have what Stumme describes as a "helpful sense of humility. The so-called mainline churches have lost considerable membership and influence. Labor has taken its knocks, and understands that it needs allies." Both are poised to ask, How will we build a healthy solidarity that stays focused on protecting human dignity and creating justice? There can be paralyzing gaps between church and union representatives in regard to class, culture, and means of expression. Union organizers often tend to be confrontational in approach to an issue; clergy and lay leaders often tend to be conciliatory and mediating. The trick is getting them to work together.

How do the church and the labor movement bridge differences while staying true to their respective and shared callings? Much depends on simple respect and the slow building of relationships, both personal and institutional. The point is to build relationships now that can last through future struggles.

That Washington Post article on perks for workers notes, "The good times for workers could end abruptly, of course, if growth slows significantly." The truth is that the good times have never come for millions in this country and around the world. We cannot both reflect Christ's love for the world and turn our backs on those suffering gross economic disadvantage, whether they share our pew, walk the picket line, or make our shoes on the other side of the world. As Christians, we are called to stand with working people when they are in need.

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