This article will appear in the November 2022 issue of Sojourners. Subscribe today!
Why the recent surge in union activity? The nationwide shortage of workers is one factor, to be sure, as is the COVID pandemic. But another contagion might be even more important: Hope. “You see it most clearly with the Starbucks campaign where they won those initial two victories, and it was like a switch going off for people: ‘We can do this!’” labor attorney Alex van Schaick told Sojourners. “There was a contagion effect, in a positive sense. Hope is contagious — I think that’s really true.” Clayton Sinyai, executive director of the Catholic Labor Network, agreed that the confidence and resolve of workers is making a dramatic difference. “It seemed for a long time that employers had gotten so skilled at manipulating the union election process that a lot of people had become very discouraged about trying to form unions,” Sinyai said. “Now we’re seeing a generation of workers who are not taking no for an answer.”
Politics has also played a role. President Trump, true to form, appointed an anti-union lawyer, Peter R. Robb, as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, which is supposed to serve in effect as “umpire” to prevent unfair labor practices. Needless to say, Robb’s office was anything but neutral, and President Biden fired him the day he took office. The difference was “night and day,” according to van Schaick: “That change literally facilitates Starbucks workers being able to do what they did. That unlocked a pathway for organizing that probably wouldn’t have been opened” — another illustration of why (electoral) politics matters.
People of faith, of course, have a long history of supporting worker’s rights, including the right to organize and collectively bargain. The Catholic Church has championed the rights of working people for more than a century, particularly since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on capital and labor, and Pope Francis has furthered that rich tradition. Other Christian and faith-rooted entities — from denominations to the Poor People’s Campaign — have gone to bat for worker justice.
But individuals, too, can play a role. “All of us can make an effort to choose with our dollars to support enterprises that respect workers’ right to organize,” Sinyai said. Sometimes it’s just a matter of showing up: Labor organizers point to what van Schaick called the “huge morale boost” when faith and other community leaders come to support and accompany workers in picket lines or a union election vote count. Others add the reminder that the most helpful support isn’t a one-time thing. “One of the old ways people of faith got involved in labor issues was the ‘rent a collar’ method,” Brother Ken Homan, SJ, told Sojourners, where “a priest or clergy person shows up, says a prayer, and then leaves.” Homan—a Jesuit brother, doctoral student at Georgetown University, and organizer with the Interreligious Network for Worker Solidarity — emphasized the importance of consistently participating, not just showing up for one-offs. As the church, Homan said, “We have to be dedicated to the whole of people’s lives — that includes economic justice.” That will entail being more proactive for worker justice — which to Homan means “not just another book study in the parish, but truly engaging” in the struggle.
That brings us back to the hope thing. Who better than followers of Jesus to collaborate with these hopeful efforts to bring about justice for working people? After all, we’re in the business of spreading good news. What’s more hopeful than that?