Unions

What Would Yeshua Wear?

American business leader Adam Neiman, founder of Bienestar International, which produces union-made, sweatshop-free apparel under the No Sweat label, has started a fair trade clothing business in Bethlehem with Palestinian Christians and Muslims. He was interviewed by Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger in November 2006.

Sojourners: What got you started on this project?

Adam Neiman: Well, it was really serendipity. This young man, Joe Turner, wanted to import fair trade T-shirts into England. He heard there was a union factory in Bethlehem, and he called me up for advice. I said, "My God! We just answered the question 'What would Jesus wear?'" I arranged to meet him and the factory owner [Elias Ibrahim Alarja, the Palestinian-Christian owner of Arja Textile Co.] in Bethlehem to see if we could do business.

Sojourners: How did Alarja respond to your offer to work with them on producing fair trade organic cotton T-shirts for export?

Neiman: I arrive. We talk. He wants to do business. But he's confused. He doesn't get how I can turn his problem into an opportunity. He's sitting on a gold mine. But also everyone over there is severely traumatized.

Sojourners: How many people are employed in the factory, and what does "unionized" mean in the Palestinian context?

Neiman: There are about 70 people working there. First of all, they don't have collective bargaining yet, so they have an individual contract. All the workers are members of the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions. While I was there Shaher Saed, the PGFTU general secretary, came to meet with us. He drove through six hours of roadblocks from Nablus to Bethlehem.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2007
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Mr. Peabody's Coal Train

Beginning with churches near the coalfields, more than 750 local and national religious leaders have put forth “A Call for Justice at Peabody Energy” that backs miners seeking to organize with the United Mine Workers of America. The campaign includes miners employed in Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, and Kentucky by the St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, the world’s largest privately owned coal company.

“Our religious teachings say that we are to treat others as we wish to be treated, and that laborers deserve their just reward,” leaders said in the statement. Concern over recent mining accidents has rekindled religious leaders’ support for the miners’ struggle to choose a union without harassment or fear of losing their jobs, June Rostan, an AFL-CIO community organizer working with the UMWA campaign, told Sojourners. “We hope that the company will open their hearts and be moved,” Rostan said.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2006
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Blessing the Hands That Harvest

Bumper stickers found in many college dormitories and church parking lots during the recent boycott of Taco Bell featured a Spanish-speaking Chihuahua—playing off the chain’s ads—turning down the fast- food chow to demand a penny more per pound for tomato pickers.

Heading the campaign was the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farm worker-led organization based in Immokalee, Florida, with more than 2,500 members, most of whom are Latinos, Haitians, and Mayan Indians. The nearly four-year boycott put worker concerns—low wages, poor working conditions, and discrimination—in front of many consumers and led to an agreement with Yum! Brands, Taco Bell’s parent company.

The campaign is one of several recent examples of tapping into the power of consumers. Through education, boycotts, and other methods, farm workers can make those who eat the products they grow and pick aware of the conditions they experience—and ask for their help in changing those conditions.

“The life of an agricultural worker is one of exploitation,” said Lucas Benitez, a worker and organizer with the coalition who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager. Farm laborers work long hours, with no benefits, health care, or overtime pay, he said. “The imbalance of power is tremendous.”

The agreement reached by the coalition and Yum! Brands established important precedents of increasing wages coming down the supply chain and involving workers in the monitoring of conditions in the fields, said Brigitte Gynther, an organizer with the coalition. The change for workers has been immediate, Benitez said, after more than 20 years of receiving the same salary. Each week, he said, “depending on how much they harvest, they receive between $15 and $40 more.” Also essential, Gynther said, are the safeguards against what the coalition believes to be inhumane working conditions the pickers have suffered.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2006
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Mining Truths

When the Sago mine explosion trapped 13 West Virginia miners 250 feet below ground in January, I was deep into Kettle Bottom, a stunning collection of poetry by Diane Gilliam Fisher that is inspired by the mine wars of 1920-21. The coincidence was sobering and horrifying.

The world prayed for rescue and watched the families go through the surreal roller coaster of first being told that the miners were alive, and later that all but one had died. The Sago mine was a small, nonunion mine whose 208 safety violations in 2005 alone included roof falls, power-wire failures, and inadequate ventilation plans. The flurry of investigations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration may result in stronger safety standards and more vigilant enforcement. But Kettle Bottom hits us with this reality: The essentials of coal mining have not changed in 85 years. The companies resist organizing in favor of profits, the mountain takes the men, and the women raise what’s left.

Fisher knows this terrain. Her family was part of the out-migration of Mingo County, West Virginia, site of the violent mine wars that marked some of the first union organizing. Fisher sketches out that tumultuous history at the beginning of her collection, and then plunges us into a poetic narrative of the people of Mingo County. Each of the 50 poems is in the voice of county folk. White, black, and Italian miners speak. Their children and wives speak. The owners, the preacher, and the teacher brought to the company school all have their say. Many of the poems are based on real lives and incidents.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2006
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Pickles and Football?

Ohio State University head football coach John Cooper put himself in a pickle when he agreed to endorse a company that the Farm Labor Organizing Committee AFL-CIO (FLOC) says engages in unfair labor practices. FLOC president Baldemar Velasquez invited Cooper to discuss his endorsement of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, located in North Carolina, a company the union plans to boycott until a collective bargaining agreement is signed.

In a letter to Cooper, Velasquez wrote that the company's workers live and work in "squalid conditions" and are paid "less than one-third of what workers in Ohio and Michigan get for doing the same work." They are regularly exposed to toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, Velasquez said, and they have no readily available health care.

In 18 months, FLOC has signed up more than 2,000 migrant workers who harvest pickling cucumbers for the company. The union's organizing drive is endorsed by more than 60 religious, labor, and community organizations that are now being contacted to support a pickle boycott scheduled to begin on St. Patrick's Day, 1999.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1999
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Resisting a Bitter Harvest

With shouts of "Si se puede! (Yes, it can be done!)," strawberry pickers, labor activists, church members, and even some berry growers are joining the United Farm Workers (UFW) campaign to unleash justice on strawberry fields across the United States (see "Between the Lines," Sojourners, May-June 1997). Unfortunately, anti-union forces are violently fighting back.

On July 2, 1998, following a failed attempt by anti-union workers to shut down the Coastal Berry cooler (one of the largest growers in Santa Cruz County, California), a foreman at Coastal Berry Co. was arrested after he and an estimated 150 others attacked 75 strawberry pickers and several sheriff's deputies with lead pipes and scraps of wood. Three farm workers were hospitalized after being shoved to the ground and severely beaten. Pro-union Coastal Berry workers are calling for the dismissal of the Coastal employees arrested for inciting violence and for a national mobilization to hold Coastal Berry president David Gladstone accountable to the earlier neutrality agreement he signed with the UFW.

Coastal Berry is a subcontractor of Driscoll Strawberry Associates, suppliers of 25 percent of U.S. strawberries. Driscoll has hired professional union-busters, fired pro-union pickers, plowed under crops, and shut down plants rather than bargain for union contracts. The UFW recently won a class action suit against Driscoll that resulted in $575,000 in back wages for workers who were forced to work "off the clock" without pay. The UFW has also filed legal actions against 10 Driscoll growers for failing to notify workers when they were exposed to cancer-causing agents.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
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Captive to Capital

The American church and organized labor appear to have core values in commonùa call to justice, equity, dignity for individuals. So why is it that church-owned or connected institutions are arguably among the most difficult to organize?

Institutions connected to churches in name or by financial ties are usually in a class of "human services" that include schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and child care centers. These institutions emerged from the Puritan belief that when one was in need, Christian men and women would, as God would have it, respond. Indeed, the earliest colonial social policy, that of "kith and kin," meant that if one of your own was in need, it was your job, as a Christian, to respond with aid. This view informed the development of social services for the next three centuries.

Schools, likewise, came out of the early Puritan community's desire to train children in the ways of God. American colonial schools met in the church or in a common building also used by the church, and the early textbook was often the King James Version of the Holy Bible.

So the connectorsùphysical, financial, psychologicalùbetween the church and social services are long and deep, with the work of the early church becoming the work of social services, the human-care arm of the state. It follows, then, that institutions which emerged from church systems would continue to carry the names of the churchùSt. Mark's School, Methodist Hospital, Baptist Retirement Centerùeven once significant relationships with the church faded, further implying an environment of caring.

But if these are places of caring, why then are they so darned hard to organize? Better yet, why is organizing even necessary in such a caring place?

It's About Money

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
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From the Bottom Up

Many Americans' hopes for social justice were lifted in October 1995 when new leaders took the helm of the AFL-CIO, promising great things for working families. The "New Voice" team led by John Sweeney, Rich Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson called for "a new progressive voice in American life...changing the direction of American politics....a vibrant social movement." Perhaps now, many hoped, the overly bureaucratic organization could again take its place alongside other progressive movements.

For many, prospects for a more inspiring union movement were dashed two years later when a government monitor uncovered corruption in the Teamsters, the union that had most symbolized the changes in organized labor. President Ron Carey, who had swept mobsters out of the union and led UPS workers to a stunning strike victory, was accused of diverting union funds to his re-election campaign. Was Carey's downfall a sign that the labor movement was incapable of reforming itself? Were "labor bosses" destined to remain just that and no more? Was this 16 million-member force doomed to be its own worst enemy, incapable of rousing itself to fight alongside other movements for social justice?

The answers to these questions are not simple, and give reason for both optimism and doubt. Mostly, the state of reform in the labor movement reminds us what we knew all along: Real and lasting change must come from below, from the rank and file. Despite necessary changes occurring at the top of the AFL-CIO, the labor movement is still a long way from living up to its potential, in part because it has not unleashed the power within.

In the forthcoming The Transformation of U.S. Unionism (Lynne Rienner Publishers), Herman Benson, longtime head of the Association for Union Democracy, argues that the AFL-CIO's new commitment to "organize the unorganized" is not likely to catch fire as long as unions remain in their current bureaucratic state. He writes:

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
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Called to Stand with Workers

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."

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
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