The Imperative Right to Organize
Honoring the Dignity of All Means Empowering Workers
Work in the modern industrial era is broken. Companies are focused on the bottom line, trying to drain as much work from employees and workers as possible, while also tightening budgets. The futurists in the mid-19th century theorized that with the advent of new technologies American workers would have too much leisure time. But unfortunately, the opposite has happened with productivity increasing by about 400 times more than it was in 1950 for the average worker.
Labor unions are one of the best ways workers can advocate for their rights in the workplace. The prevailing approach by many companies and corporations is to get as much labor as they can from workers with the least amount of expense. The right to unionize helps make workplaces more equitable and restructures the power dynamic. While stories of the need for labor unions originate from the rise of the industrial revolution, like the “mill girls” in Lowell, Massachusetts and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, we have plenty of examples of unsafe working conditions today that fail to recognize and honor the dignity of every worker. From rideshare drivers, to factory workers, to people working in offices, stores, farms, schools, and health care facilities, we see that unions are needed as much today as they were one hundred years ago.
Bolstered by the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 unions began to flourish in many industries, leading to improved workplace equality. This helped usher in a middle class with better wages and benefits. Safe workplaces, higher wages, and improved leave are all results of union organizing. The evidence shows us that unionizing workplaces leads to improvements in historic wage gaps associated with race, sex, and ethnicity. However, the laws put into place to allow for unions and to encourage collective bargaining have over time been diminished. It has become harder and harder for workers to form unions and pushed the power imbalance between the workers and the companies into harsh misalignment.
The United Church of Christ General Synod has affirmed, many times, the right of workers to organize to collectively bargain for wages, benefits, and working conditions. Scripture teaches us that God will be quick to judge “those who oppress the hired workers in their wages,” (NRSV, Malachi. 3.5) and the UCC has worked to stand in solidarity with workers unionizing for fair and just working conditions. This summer the UCC spoke in support of the United Mine Workers strike at Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama, joining with other faith communities of the Interreligious Network for Worker Solidarity saying, “the company has a moral obligation to provide fair compensation to the workers who created such great wealth.” The UCC also joined with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, committing to fasting and organizing for farm workers who were experiencing violence, abuse, low wages, and long hours with no recourse. Supporting the work of organizers to unionize and advocate for fair and just workplaces is part of the economic justice ministry of the UCC and one of the ways we live into the call to love our neighbor.
There is a growing need to renew and strengthen the ability of workers to unionize and collectively bargain. Over the past few years, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act has been considered in Congress as a way to repeal harmful anti-union practices and empower workers to effectively exercise their freedom to organize and bargain. The legislation strengthens the National Labor Relations Board by helping it hold corporations accountable for retaliating against workers who are planning unions and strikes. It also repeals “right to work” laws, which are a harmful remnant of Jim Crow. The PRO Act is more than labor reform it is civil rights legislation.
The truth is, without a deep examination of the rot embedded in the American economy rooted in white supremacy and the exploitation of workers, we won’t get to the heart of the issue. When there is no enforcement or regulation in the workplace, the working class is forced to accept stagnant low wages and unsafe working conditions. We must ground our economy in solidarity with working people. One of the great joys of faith is that it offers creativity and the imagination to envision a world restored – one that honors the dignity of each person and their gifts. Allowing workers to collectively bargain and unionize helps pry open the mechanics that keep the economy working only in favor of the wealthy few and gives constructive power to workers.
We know that the inequality in our workplaces most often impacts people of color and women, doing the most harm to historically marginalized people. If we are to make real progress in closing the gender and racial wage gap or establish workplaces that are safe, fair, and just we must first empower workers.
Katie Adams is the Domestic Policy Advocate for the UCC Washington D.C. Office