Unions

Putting Some Labor Back in Labor Day Weekend Services

Labor Day weekend is often a slow time for congregations. Members are attending family gatherings. Parents are getting children ready for school. Neglected summer projects are undertaken or (like my garden) abandoned until next summer. Aside from the occasional Labor Day parade, few Labor Day activities seem to have anything to do with honoring labor. Labor Day weekend nonetheless offers congregations an opportunity to lift up the values of work and reflect on our religious [...]

Bless the Hands that Prepare Our Food

During this BBQ season we have to carefully consider what products are apart of our seasonal celebrations. Recently I attended the DC campaign kick-off for the Justice at Smithfield Campaign. "Smithfield Foods is the largest pork processor and producer in the world, the fourth largest turkey processor and fifth largest beef processor in the U.S." In the early 1990's Smithfield opened its Tar Heel, North Carolina plant, with [...]

A Slice of Life, Served with Dignity

A black-and-white movie about the bleakness of life in Watts, California—shot for $10,000 about 30 years ago and never intended for theaters—doesn't exactly fit the Hollywood formula. But Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep is a treasure of American cinema.

Made by Burnett in 1977 as part of his UCLA thesis project, the movie breaks molds in its narrative and visual style and in its vision of dignity amid suffering. The movie portrays a slice of life in Los Angeles not long after the Watts riots of the mid-1960s. The story centers on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), an African-American laborer whose job in a slaughterhouse barely supports his family.

Instead of a conventional cinematic narrative, with scenes contrived to dramatize the protagonist's fictional "journey," the movie presents vignettes of Stan's work, family life, and neighborhood. At the meat plant, workers flay slaughtered animals whose carcasses sway on meat hooks to the film's jazz sound track. At home, Stan's wife (Kaycee Moore) stirs a pan on the stove, looking at her reflection in the lid that doesn't quite fit. Outside, neighborhood boys battle each other with make-do shields and mischievously pelt fresh laundry with dirt.

With its low wages and ugly conditions, Stan's job appears to diminish his desire for intimacy. At one point, Stan and his wife dance alone in the living room, her hands resting on his shirtless body. But Stan pulls away. Later, she reminds Stan tomorrow is Saturday and invites him to bed early. Again, he declines; a close-up reveals his wife's tears.

Despite the hard work and low pay, Stan refuses moral shortcuts. When friends offer quick money in exchange for help with a crime, he says no. Later, he declines when a female liquor store owner urges him to quit his job and join her, seductively laying her hand on his.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2007
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Stories of Solidarity

"I was thinking about the disappearing American working man or woman," musician Ry Cooder told an interviewer. "The labor scene and the unions. Solidarity and unity. All the things that seem to be retreating or slipping away. We have a country here built by those people …." Then he trailed off because what more can you say? You can make some idiotic statement of blind optimism, or you can admit that it's all gone for good. That the sun has gone down on the America of Mother Jones, Eugene Debs, and Paul Robeson, and it is never coming back.

For the true believer in the dream of solidarity—even one hardened by bitter experience—that admission is just too painful to utter aloud. So, if you're Ry Cooder, you buckle down to make some songs that tell the old, old story. Just because it's gone doesn't mean it has to be forgotten.

So we have My Name Is Buddy, a 17-song Dust Bowl fable about Buddy the Red Cat, Lefty Mouse, and Rev. Tom Toad. Cooder's animal characters follow the familiar path of Dust Bowl refugees from lost farms in the southern Midwest, on a trail of tears across the burning deserts of the Southwest to the Promised Land of California. All this, only to be beaten, abused, and starved in California's farm labor camps.

It's a familiar path if you know U.S. history or the literature of the Great Depression—or if you know the recorded work of Ry Cooder. He's been obsessed with the music and politics of Greil Marcus' "old, weird America" since he was a teenager. His first album included a cover of "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," by West Virginia's Blind Alfred Reed, who, Cooder noted in his World Café interview, "literally starved to death." He also did Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl classic, "Do Re Mi."

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Sojourners Magazine July 2007
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Justice at Work

What do you think would happen if you tried to organize a union in your workplace? If you are like most Americans, you suspect that you would be fired, harassed, or penalized in some fashion for wanting a union. You're probably right.

Anti-union bullying or attacks occur in more than 80 percent of the workplaces in which workers seek to organize a union. If workers arrange to vote for a union, employers threaten to close plants, fire the union leaders (which obviously chills organizing efforts), harangue workers on paid time about how bad unions are, and occasionally beg workers to give them another chance. By the time workers finally get around to a vote, usually after months of anti-union barrages, many decide it's not worth trying to get a union.

In response to this routine bullying in the workplace, union leaders have proposed a set of simple improvements outlined in the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill passed the House March 1 and has been introduced in the Senate. Supporters believe it could win a majority vote in the Senate, but President Bush would likely veto it.

Nonetheless, as the first significant piece of labor law reform to come close to passing in decades, the Employee Free Choice Act is a bellwether for national changes likely in labor-management relations. The growing engagement of the religious community in supporting the Employee Free Choice Act reflects its recent experience in supporting janitors in Indianapolis, hotel workers in San Francisco, laundry workers in Chicago, security guards in Boston, and nursing home workers in the Twin Cities whose efforts to organize a union and get a contract were consistently thwarted by employers.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2007
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