The Reaper, the Sower, and the Union | Sojourners

The Reaper, the Sower, and the Union

Nabsico workers with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 364 strike outside their bakery owned by Mondelez International in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 21, 2021. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA

The latest headlines are filled with news of worker shortages, delayed supply chains, and labor strikes. Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations strike tracker reports more than 181 strikes so far this year, with 38 of them taking place in the first two weeks of October, spurring the AFL-CIO to name this month “Striketober.” These strikes span all kinds of industries, from hospital workers to bourbon makers.

Workers are mounting an economic resistance, refusing to fill underpaid, dangerous jobs. Many are calling it the “Great Resignation,” as workers reevaluate their priorities and relationship to work, while others say it’s a reckoning of decades-long corporate greed and poor working conditions. Essential workers, who were considered heroes at the onset of the pandemic, are now demanding changes to workplaces and, according to Robert Reich’s recent opinion piece, “a total reevaluation of the very nature and quality of work.”

“No one likes to go on strike, let’s be clear,” Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO recently told CNN. “Strikes occur when people are pushed to a limit where basic fairness and equity are violated.”

As just one example, at John Deere, negotiations in 1997 created a two-tier system: New Deere employees were brought in with lower wages, no health care benefits after retirement, and pensions at about one-third less than their predecessors. A current Deere contract proposal amounts to 6-cent raise from what the “pre-1997” workers made 10 years ago and proposes to cut pensions for all new hires; it essentially creates a third-tier future workforce. In a new video, John Deere workers cited demands for fair pay and retirement benefits as they shared why they are striking for the first time since 1986.

Kellogg’s and Kaiser Permanente employees are also fighting two-tier wage and benefits proposals. The impacts of two-tier systems go beyond the individual hiring conditions and often lead to a slow dismantling of unions by causing divides among the workers and gradual erosion of solidarity. But the strikes of 2021 are bucking that trend with radical solidarity.

“Twenty-two years, and I finally got a job where it’s comfortable and I make decent money. But there are other plants; other people in this plant aren’t making the money they should,” says Rick Boer, a Deere employee of 22 years, in the video. Toby Munley, an employee of 18 years, said he’s fighting, “for the people that are out on the floor building these machines; I’d like to work around people that are happy and feel like they’re valued.”

For many of us, our workplaces are where we do the “good works, which God prepared for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). Whether those works include producing goods, providing care, or serving our community, our work is vital to fulfilling the call to be part of God’s renewal of creation — and to fulfilling God’s purpose for each of us. Protecting working people today and in the future is holy, purposeful work, and strikers this month and throughout history are part of that mission.

To get a sense of how strike leaders tie their experiences on the line with their Christian faith, I reached out to my friend and colleague Theressa Harvey-Council, staff director of UNITE HERE Local 54, president of Local 54’s Black Leadership Advisory Committee, and a union member for over 32 years.

“My faith in the union and my religious beliefs are the same: ‘No weapon formed against us shall prosper,’” she told me. “It's gonna form, but not prosper. One day longer! One day stronger! When we fight, we win.”

Typically, when Christians think of scripture that supports working people, we go to, “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of the laborer until morning” (Leviticus 19:13) or, “The laborer deserves to be paid” (1 Timothy 5:18). But quoting Isaiah 54:17 and weapons formed against us? Not so much. We often hear sermons on the theology of work that convert Ephesians passages on the relationship between masters and servants/slaves to the modern work relationship. But those passages center the power of the wealthy, not the power of the working person.

Harvey-Council’s faith invites us into a new power dynamic where, in all spheres of our lives — including our workplaces — we have the “power at work within us … to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can as or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). Working people with the courage to think larger and ask for more — more justice, more equity, more safety — are doing more than exerting a right to strike or negotiating a singular contract; they are setting possibilities for the future.

Striking workers, the working people organizing work stoppages, or the people creating new bargaining mechanisms beyond the traditional workplace, address the conditions of today and set vision for what the future of working can be. They also have an impact on the past. Jesus shares this time-bending paradox in the parable of sower and reaper in John 4:36-38:

The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.

The passage has poignant significance for me in the light of my father’s unexpected passing earlier this year. He was a machine operator in a union shop for over 35 years. I have memories of him attending union meetings, telling me about contract negotiations, and showing up for his union siblings in times of trial and celebration. When I had the emotionally taxing responsibility of going through his belongings and redistributing them to family, neighbors, and charities, I really only wanted to find one thing among his effects: his uniform shirt. Growing up I’d occasionally see him wear the shirt with his name, Tito, embroidered on it as he did handyman tasks around the house. He retired four years ago, and I hadn’t seen him wearing it since. I sorted through boxes of clothes and packed up yearly awards for perfect attendance, safety awards, the lamp he got when he completed 25 years of service — but no shirt. Then on the second-to-last day of emptying his house, I found a red tool bag in the corner of his storage shed. There, crumpled among socket wrenches and mismatched die pieces, I saw the flash of light blue: the uniform shirt. Overcome with emotion, I grabbed the shirt and held it close to my heart and sobbed. Fresh, body-shaking tears ripped through my body as I grieved his short retirement, that he didn’t get to retire until he was 70. Then those tears gave way to deep gratitude that he had the union that fought to make the working conditions better; in the end, that is actually where he spent most of his time. Like the reaper in the parable, my father entered into that which he did not labor, and life was better for it. He became part of the working people’s legacy by participating in the union and fighting for all workers. For the first time I experienced the spiritual power of that participation.

As Christians, we are called to model our work upon the life of Jesus who challenged unjust power structures and radically centered people. He calls us to a deeper unity in him, and that unity is present in the working people and communities that support them. The people on the picket line are our siblings in Christ, fellow pilgrims on the journey to justice and making straight the way of the Lord. When we show up in solidarity, we are bringing a living, breathing community of believers into this labor moment that will have generational effects. This “Striketober,” and this dynamic year of worker power, is defined by the people the movement is organizing for: the worker who is struggling now, and for future generations of working people who will take on these same jobs after current members clock out for the last time. As they say on the picket line, “One day longer! One day stronger!”