A growing sense of class conflict has emerged in the United States from the economic and political trends of the last 40 years: severe inequality, declining life expectancy, and the decimation of organized labor. The recent wave of labor strikes and elections of socialist politicians point to the exhaustion that many have with financial precarity and workplace exploitation. In this ongoing struggle, Christianity has held an inconsistent role. While some Christians speak up about economic injustice, many display apathy or explicit support for capital over workers.
Rev. C.J. Hawking, Executive Director of Arise Chicago, has worked at the intersection of faith and organized labor for over 30 years. Arise Chicago helps organize religious communities in support of union campaigns and advocates for workers’ rights and dignity in the workplace. For Rev. Hawking, the co-author of Staley: The Fight for the New American Labor Movement, this activism is an essential part of her faith and the church’s call to be faithful to the gospel. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Rev. Hawking about Arise Chicago’s work, and how churches can support the labor movement in their fight for workplace democracy and a more equitable economic order.
The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Adam Joyce, Sojourners: What is the story of Arise Chicago’s creation? What work and campaigns has Arise been involved in?
C.J. Hawking: During the Reagan administration, there was a rapid and insidious decline in unionization as well as an uptick in union-busting law firms — currently a $19 billion a year industry in United States. Employers were aggressively fighting against unionization. In response, an organizer at Midwest Academy, Kim Bobo, gathered a rabbi, a monsignor, and a bishop in 1991, aiming to stand with workers who were experiencing harassment, intimidation, and illegal firings.
The religious leaders knew that gains made by union members could be made by non-union workers as well. The modern U.S. labor movement began in late 1930s with industrialized workers organizing into unions. Through their struggle, they gained increased wages, health care coverage, vacation days, paid holidays, the 8-hour day, etc. Eventually, many non-union workplaces followed suit. Workers who fight for a union often do so to benefit themselves, but it is also with an eye towards the broader community and improving the workplace for everyone.
Ultimately, Arise seeks to uphold the sacred worth of a person, just as Jesus did. We are calling on those in power to honor the inherent dignity of each person, just as Jesus did. We are advocating for just balance of power and lifting the voices of those on the margin, just as Jesus did.
In 2002, we expanded, and Arise Chicago opened a worker center for non-union workers. The center partners with workers experiencing wage theft or dangerous health and safety conditions. In 17 years since, our workers have recovered $8.3 million of stolen wages and we have trained thousands of workers how to organize their coworkers and negotiate with their boss. Entire industries are run on the business practice of exploiting workers. Arise surveyed one third of the luxury, hand-based car washes in Chicago, and found that of the 81 businesses, not one paid their workers lawfully. Many forced workers to work for tips only, which is illegal. At one car wash, workers had to pay the boss $14 a day to work there, just for tips. Restaurants, non-union construction, manufacturing – you name it, we have found bad employers in every industry, which hurts the ethical employers.
Then in 2013, Arise Chicago ventured into public policy. In a recent campaign we advocated for Chicago to establish an Office of Labor Standards. Established and funded in late 2018, the office is responsible for investigating worker complaints, and enforcing compliance with a range of workers’ rights city ordinances (e.g., the city’s minimum wage, paid sick days ordinances, etc.). It was invigorating to see a lot of unions supporting this campaign, even though the office wasn't going to benefit them directly. They wanted to support and help nonunion workers. Since 2013, we've had six laws passed at the city, county, and state level.
Joyce: You act as both Executive Director of Arise Chicago and Harry F. Ward Pastor for Social Justice at Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church. What brought you to this work? What prepared you for it?
Hawking: In 1993 I met the union workers who had been locked out of the A.E. Stanley corn processing plant in Decatur, Ill. I temporarily moved there to support the workers and help organize the religious community, an African American caucus, and women’s caucus. We held a march on April 4th in memory of Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed as he was advocating for the sanitation workers in Memphis. This was a uniting moment in the struggle. It was the first interracial march in the history of Decatur and, in its wake, white and black workers saw that their future was tied together. This struggle was like labor’s last stand in the 1990s, and after two and half years of fighting, they tragically lost. Before this, I had been working with LaSalle Street Church on the issues of homelessness and poverty, and the union’s labor struggle deepened my analysis. I saw injustice and poverty through a new lens, concluding that the workplace should be center stage when solving for social and economic justice, and organizing workers is key to this solution.
Joyce: What does Arise Chicago hope for workers?
Hawking: Until exploitation in the workplace ends, Arise Chicago will be in ministry. Currently in the U.S. we're seeing the result of capitalism on steroids. There has been a 50-year war on labor — a war beginning in the 1970s that has led to deregulation, deindustrialization, and deunionization. And our 11 percent unionization rate is what creates the minimum wage economy of today where people work two and three jobs in order to survive. The weaker unions are, the more concentrated the wealth is at the top and the more exploited everyone else is.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to uphold that everyone has been created in the image of God. When you cross into the workplace, that core belief doesn't cease. Yet, most workplaces operate like a dictatorship. Someone's the boss and they're going to tell me what my hours wages, benefits, and conditions are. For some workers, they are told when they can go the bathroom or that they do not deserve safe working conditions. God's intention is not that we surrender our sacred worth at work, nor suffer indignities and harm to our bodies.
Joyce: Churches seem more comfortable talking about labor and laborers in the abstract. Yet as soon as there is a strike or workers fighting for living wages, churches — even progressive churches — get tentative or silent. How should churches respond?
Hawking: The way we've been divided against each other has been relentless and effective. Regardless of income level, faith tradition, or race, we all care about the same things —our families, our health, having time off to have a picnic or visit family. The church needs to speak boldly against this divisiveness and instead offer the vision that our futures and our hopes and our dreams are tied together. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. captured it best when he stated, “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied into a single garment of destiny.”
Pastors need to be aware of how workplace conditions are defining the life and self-worth of their congregants. I knew one pastor who made it a point to visit their church members at work. Pastors then need to take it a step further and let their members know that workplace exploitation is contrary to God’s intention of how we are to live together. Congregants need to hold their pastors accountable to make sure they are addressing workplace issues.
Of all the industrialized countries, the U.S. has the worst labor laws, which severely hampers the power of workers to organize and make workplace gains. In contrast, 90 percent of workers in France are covered by collective bargaining agreements. U.S. workers do not have to accept exploitation. Pastors need to engage with workers in their pews and neighborhood to see if an injustice exists and then act to end the injustice.
Joyce: Supporting workers and organized labor means churches are going to have to engage in actions they are uncomfortable with. It will require taking sides in fights, talking about building power, and start naming enemies. In this era of ecclesial and union decline, it’s understandable that churches might be averse to engaging in unfamiliar or risky actions. What would you say to ministers and congregations that are averse to taking sides in the class war?
Hawking: Jesus took on the powers and principalities and so must we. Rather than see it as being political or taking sides, I think the church’s foremost call is to be faithful to the gospel. The teachings of Jesus call for a radical collective mass movement, not individualistic piety filled with irrelevant doctrine. Rather than fearing that standing for workers’ rights will polarize the congregation, the church needs to be on the forefront advocating for working people.
In specific workplace conflicts, being faithful means hearing from workers and management. When a company’s management is exploiting their workers, they are living outside the gospel. In these moments, we are inviting management into a fullness of relationship with God that they currently don’t have. Some people will say, “Oh, you're being too political.” This is not about politics, this is about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I believe that Jesus came to start a movement, not an institution. If we want to be faithful followers of Jesus, we must be a movement that isn’t wedded to simply maintaining the institutional church. Too often the church renders itself irrelevant because its approach is fear based, hunkering down and hoping to keep what it has rather than speaking out. Virtually all major denominations have statements that support organizing workers and collective bargaining rights. They are excellent statements, but often they don't live them out.
The church needs to cast a vision for how our economic system could and should run. I’m not so naive as to believe that we can abolish the “winner takes all” system that capitalism has created. But, within the parameters of this system, we can create protections to end exploitation and build greater equity for all participants. Imagine a “Decision Day” as they have in Belgium — one day a year is set aside where non-unionized workers can decide if they want to freely join a union, without retaliation. Imagine bargaining sessions being open to pastors and rabbis and imams, so religious leaders can openly advocate for fairness. Imagine that during “joys and concerns” at church, a member says, “I’m a teacher and we just won smaller class sizes in our union contract and I want to thank you all for marching with us during contact negotiations.” The teachers’ struggle is related to the parents’ struggle, which is related to community’s struggle to combat violence, unemployment, drug use, etc. We need to bring workplace issues into the light and share each other’s burdens and successes.
Joyce: In this moment, what provides you with hope?
Hawking: In a recent Gallop poll, 62 percent of Americans view unions favorably, revealing that it's the intimidation and harassment — the possible firing factor — that prevents many workers from unionizing. The next generation sees that the system doesn't work for most people, and many Millennials are stepping up and organizing for workplace gains. Nationally, in 2017, of the 262,000 new union members, 76 percent were under age 35. If we look locally, we see how Millennials reshaped our local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America over the last two years, endorsing DSA candidates for Chicago’s city council and then winning six seats.
Joyce: Chicago is undergoing a budget crisis, yet with the election of six Democratic Socialists of America members to city council, there does seem to be a growing rejection of the politics of austerity — the idea that the poor and working class are the ones who should make sacrifices. Residents recognize that resources, even abundance, are available. But the question is whether this abundance is being distributed to corporations or to communities.
Hawking: Each Sunday I preside at the communion table. After breaking the bread, lifting the cup, and blessing it, I say: “Let these gifts give us strength and vision to create a world where everyone has a seat at the table and we all share in the abundance of creation.” That is what God is after. The world is meant to be a communion table where everybody gets a seat, no one is groveling for crumbs under the table. Right now, the way our economic system is set up, many are forced to grovel and fight for the crumbs under the table. That isn't what God intended for anyone. We are each to have a seat at the table.