Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Labor Day as a Call for Repentance

Just a brief question. When will Christians support the labor movement? I don’t mean Hoffa-style mobsterism. I mean when will Christians work to stop so-called “right to work” laws in their states (which really mean “right to work for less”) that undermine union membership? When we vote to repeal the Hart-Taftley[Update: OOPS! I meant “Taft-Hartley Law” of course. How embarrassing.] law which is used to defang labor by shutting down strikes? When will Christians support campaigns against Wal-mart and other anti-union companies who make billions through virtual slave labor abroad, low wages here, anti-union tactics (some illegal), and shutting down local businesses?

In the 1950s the unions were strong and America had the best products, the highest paying jobs, and some of the best benefits in the world. We also had a thriving economy and families could become middle class on one salary in manufacturing jobs. Now we make virtually nothing, are even shipping hi-tech jobs overseas (and giving corporations tax credits to do so), labor is incredibly weak, most jobs are “service industries” with low wages, often in dangerous conditions, and it takes 2-3 jobs for middle class families to enjoy the same lifestyles their parents did on one salary. Meanwhile, wages are stagnant except for CEOs which have climbed 350% since 1994 (Source: National Priorities Project)–regardless of whether a corporation does well or not.

This is a justice matter. Why do the churches treat Labor Day as just a time for barbecue? Should we not instead treat it as a time of repentance and rededication to economic justice for all?

Cross-posted from Mainstream Baptists’ group blog.


September 4, 2006 - Posted by | labor


  1. When unions became corrupt (and many continue to be so — my family has quite a bit of experience in this arena), they lost their ability to actually advocate for worker’s rights. This also turned Americans and especially Christians who saw a moral collapse in the union system against unionized workers. Finally, the outright support of unions for the Democratic party (regardless of whether or not those they supported actually were working for them or not) has led many Christians to turn away from union support. Unions must separate themselves from political parties and political campaigns. Once they do so I think they will be listened to more by those who can finally find common ground fighting truly for the rights of workers and not to fatten up the union bosses.

    Comment by D.R. | September 4, 2006

  2. You have brought up a great point Michael. The labor issue is a matter of justice and is something that should really be taken more seriously. I am referring to all peoples, however, I like you think that the Christian community, irregardless of denomination or theological leaning, should stand up and address this issue. I needs to published about more; it needs to be preached about more; it simply needs to be addressed more.

    Also, I think that D.R.’s comment is very well taken: unions need to de-politicize themselves, I believe and become more neutral. Once a movement like that becomes more one-sided it is going to offset others who have a valuable input in assisting the situation.

    Comment by kyle | September 4, 2006

  3. “When unions became corrupt, they lost their ability to actually advocate for worker’s rights.”

    This would be true of political parties, too, I’d suggest. Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world with sometimes corrupt unions and sometimes corrupt political organizations. It is a reflection of our human nature.

    Ought we throw out Unions and Political Parties due to corruption? If so, what’d we replace with?

    There comes a point when political parties, unions and other entities are so corrupt that they must be done away with or replaced. But in the meantime, I know of poor workers who benefit from their unions watching out for them and are harmed when unions are weakened.

    I’m not ready to toss them out, nor am I convinced that they’re any more corrupt than any other human organization. (Can anyone say Jerry Falwell? Catholic pedophile priests?…)

    Comment by Dan Trabue | September 4, 2006

  4. At my church, Jeff Street Baptist Community @ Liberty, the volunteer Minister of Music has an M.Div. but works as a union organizer. I remember hearing Paul preach a Labor Day sermon a few years ago in which he said, with sources to back it up, that from the industrial revolution onward the majority of the churches had despised the unions–calling them all Communist. This disjunction between the churches and Labor, Paul argued, hurt both. The churches need to be connected to the Labor movement, not as blind, knee-jerk supporters, but in order to know the plight of workers–folk with whom Jesus spent most of his time, remember?
    But, Paul continued persuasively, Labor also needs the influence of the churches. It keeps them from wanting to go the mobster route, or the corruption route, and reminds them to be both nonviolent and to love their adversaries in management even in the midst of struggle.
    But after years of not speaking, the gaps between churches and Labor are wide and hard to bridge–but no harder than any other missionary situation. (I am speaking not of an imperial form of mission, but of one in which missionaries are prepared to learn as much as they teach–even to learn something about God.)

    I have held both management and union positions. I am currently a Teamster since my “tentmaking” job which pays enough benefits to allow me to do right by my family while spending so much time in writing and Christian peacework is for UPS. The Teamsters are NOT a very progressive union. Their history is some of the worst in Labor. But I owe much to them–so do the non-Union workers at UPS whose salaries and benefits are better because of the Union contracts–even though the non-Union workers pay no dues.

    So, despite my limited time, I try to attend meetings at the union hall once a month, vote for reformers in the union, etc.

    I am glad that I have this connection to Labor (although I could wish for a better Union). My paternal grandfather was a union organizer in the South during a time when this was very dangerous.

    The Unions gave us the 40 hour week (now almost nonexistent as Labor has weakened), the weekend, the end of child labor, safer working conditions–and probably helped avert a Communist revolution in this country during the Depression. Although some unions were segregated earlier, by the time of the Civil Rights movement, the bigger unions, especially United Auto Workers, were some of the largest champions of racial justice–while white churches turned blind eyes and deaf ears.

    Maybe the repentance needs to be on more than one side, but shouldn’t the churches take the first step? What would Jesus the Worker do?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 4, 2006

  5. Unions are great, but I do not think someone should be required to join one in order to have certain jobs. Yes, collective bargaining is vital, but so is freedom of association.

    If unions want members to join, they need to make it worth their while. I support the right to collective bargaining. The government forcing someone to be a member of a certain group to obtain a certain job, never.

    Comment by Chance | September 5, 2006

  6. Chance,
    We require attorneys to have passed the bar before putting out a shingle. We expect doctors to have gone to medical school. Unions for skilled labor are similar.
    Further, if a person can get the job without being part of the union, they are freeloading. They get the benefits (“worth their while”) of the better contract, higher wages, safer conditions, better benefits, without paying the dues to enable the union to negotiate.

    Further, if the union needs to strike to keep management from dropping health care from the next contract, the non-union employees will not strike. Thus, they enable the management to continue without the union workers and this undermines the ability of the union to negotiate for all of them.

    Freedom of association is not a guarantee of a job for which one takes on none of the burdens necessary to make it a good job, a job with which one can support a family. Union-busting “right to work” laws are incompatible with the right for collective bargaining.

    It’s like a home owners’ association, Chance. You can’t segregate racially or anything stupid like that. But neighbors have the perfect legal right to say, “We have worked hard to make this neighborhood what it is. If you want to live here, you have to take on certain responsibilities. Otherwise, you are free to live somewhere else.” The same with union jobs: You want this job with its great benefits, good pay, safe working conditions? You want it to be impossible for the employer to fire you for no reason? Then join us, pay the monthly dues, be prepared to vote for officers and on contracts, be prepared to authorize strikes when needed. You don’t want those responsibilities, you are free to seek employment elsewhere.”

    Management makes those kinds of demands on employees all the time without anyone crying that their rights are violated. If you work here, we expect you to take a cell phone and be on call. We expect you to be ready to relocate if we need you elsewhere. (The joke used to be that IBM stood for “I’ve Been Moved.”)

    Finally, the govt. isn’t forcing you to join the union, the union is requiring it as a condition of employment. Rather, in “right to work for less” laws, the govt. forbids unions to make such demands–and thus sides with management against the union.

    You get enough employees exercising their “right to work” without the union and the management keeps winning the contract negotiations and wages fall, benefits dry up, etc. For unions to be able to produce the results for which they exist, they have to be able to say, once they have succeeded in unionizing a company and addressing the injustices of low pay, no benefits, etc., that to work in these jobs, you have to join and keep us strong. Otherwise “collective bargaining” is just a theory.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 5, 2006

  7. Argh, I am having problems with comments! Not just on your blog, but on others as well.

    “Finally, the govt. isn’t forcing you to join the union, the union is requiring it as a condition of employment. Rather, in “right to work for less” laws, the govt. forbids unions to make such demands–and thus sides with management against the union.”

    That is the key point, and I think it is something I misunderstood. In that case, I would oppose some “right-to-work” laws.

    If union membership for a workplace is something agreed upon by labor and management, I am all for them having that right. I thought that it was some law that someone had to be a union member to work in certain places. I am against that. But I am also against gov’t passing laws saying that management and the union cannot form such an exclusive contract, which seems to be the case you mentioned.

    However, I bet that many state variants are different, some that allow exclusive contracts, others that don’t, but I could be wrong. If the purpose of “right-to-work” is to limit the kinds of agreements between management and labor, then I am, in fact, against it.

    Thank you for clarifying this misconception of mine.

    Comment by Chance | September 5, 2006

  8. Chance, I sympathize with the difficulty about comments. Blogger seems to be having problems.

    To say that management WANTS the union arrangement is too strong. In very cases does any management want a union representing their workers. Almost ALWAYS, a company does whatever is legal (and often that which is illegal) to stop workers from unionizing. Failing that, they try make congrat negotiations fail and undermine union strength. Managements work to get “right to work for less” laws so that they have a way to lure workers away from unions and break the union.

    But, yes, almost always the first or second contract a union wins has a clause whereby the company agrees that everyone who is hired, must join the union.

    Govt. can pass laws saying that all plumbers or electricians must belong to their union as a way of guaranteeing their high quality. But right to work for less laws don’t touch this. This kind of requirement is usually a substitute for having a state licensing requirement and still ensuring quality for customers.

    I have mixed feelings about these kinds of laws.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 5, 2006

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