To me, there is no more morally urgent movement than the movement for worker justice.
My hope is to share words that will deepen and strengthen that movement. So it seems to me important to address a basic question from the outset: What would drive religious leaders and people of faith to work closely with labor unions? The answer is threefold:
In the first half of the 20th century, an organic relationship existed between religious leaders and workers, in no small measure because workers made up a significant part of many congregations. Workers learned about their rights in Presbyterian settlement houses and the basements of Catholic churches. Labor Priests and organizations like the Jewish Labor Committee and the Catholic Worker played an active role in the movement for worker justice. Key religious leaders like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta championed worker movements.
As people of faith ascended into the middle class, these natural ties eroded. Today, a powerful relationship between religious leaders, congregations and unions can happen when we take deliberate steps to build strong relationships.
• Righteous anger about what’s happening to workers in our economy.
All major religious traditions have powerful things to say about the rights of workers in both sacred scripture and religious teaching. It is little wonder, then, that many religious leaders and people of faith feel anger when they see that employers are violating basic moral values and principles. When we tell the story of workers who have been downsized, when we talk about employers who steal wages from their workers, when we talk about immigrant workers being intimidated as they attempt to organize, people of faith know at their core that something is morally wrong.
• Practical pastoral concerns.
Religious leaders and people of faith seek out relationships with unions for very practical reasons as well. For some, the movement for worker justice is a movement for people they pray with every week. Particularly in immigrant congregations, there are workers who face routine injustices on the job, and organizing in solidarity with unions makes sense as an important part of the journey to justice for workers in their congregations.
Others have different practical concerns. For many congregations, the works of mercy are an inadequate response to poverty. When politicians slash funding for child care or housing, or when employers fail to provide a living wage or affordable health care, these congregations do not want their ministry to be limited to offering food from the food shelf or a bed to sleep on for a night.
These congregations want to address the systemic and structural problems that lead to poverty. They want to hold elected officials and employers accountable for creating a society where prosperity is shared by the many rather than claimed by the few. And when it comes to holding employers accountable for creating a better community, these religious leaders know that there are important lessons to be learned from union leaders and union members.
Moving forward, together.
All of these things – history, moral anger and practical pastoral concerns – set up tremendous possibilities for building the movement for worker justice. That movement can only grow when we begin a new public conversation in which people of faith begin to talk about their expectations as workers – and when union members begin speaking up in their congregations about the expectations they have of their congregations in the broader struggle for worker justice. Interested in being part of that conversation? Give us a call!
Matt Gladue is director of Workers Interfaith Network. For more information on the organization, go to www.workersinterfaith.org, or call 612-332-2055. This column is reprinted from The St. Paul Union Advocate.