Labor Sunday 2002

That They All May Be One – Solidarity Forever

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight; I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. — Isaiah 65: 17-23

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will be believe in me through their work, that they may all be one. — John 17:20-21a

Isaiah may have been focused on the violence and destruction of warfare, but he could have been referring to the economic violence and destruction that exists in the U.S. today.

  • Farm workers – those who plant – often don’t eat. Nearly two-thirds of farm workers live in poverty.
  • And those who build don’t always inhabit. In Washington, DC, unemployed men travel from W. Virginia to seek work on construction projects during the week — while living under the bridges – then return home on the weekend. These people are building but not inhabiting.
  • And although for most people physical safety at work is not a concern, each year about 6000 workers are killed on the job from the equipment and other hazardous conditions in which they work.

All workers are made in the image of God, the worker, and have dignity and value. All work that makes a contribution to the community has dignity and is not degrading. But many jobs are degraded.

A degraded job is one that pays too little. It is one of the over one-quarter of all jobs that pays a wage so low that even someone working full time, year round, earns too little to lift a family of four above poverty.

A degraded job is one that is potentially unsafe. Each year some 5.7 million workers are injured on the job or become sick due to their job.

A degraded job is one where the worker is treated unfairly or illegally. According to the Department of Labor, essentially all poultry processing plants and 60% of nursing homes fail to properly pay workers for overtime hours worked, pay less than the legally-required minimum wage, and/or violate of child labor laws.

A degraded job is one where the employer discriminates in hiring and promotions – abuses that occur even in apparently respectable firms like BellSouth and Texaco.

A degraded job is one where a worker has too little autonomy or control over her work, resulting in high levels of stress and even physical illness.

US labor law provides few protections against these abuses.

But workers need jobs, even bad jobs, if that is all they can get. How can workers improve their workplaces and gain dignity on the job – especially the three-quarters of all workers who don’t have a college degree and have less bargaining power with their employers?

One important way that workers can address workplace injustices is by joining and participating in a labor union.

All of us are indebted to union struggles of the past for many of the workplace benefits we take for granted. Yahweh gave us the Sabbath but unions brought us the weekend, the 8-hour day, paid vacations and holidays, health insurance, and pensions.

Unions continue to work for justice today.

Unions reject the notion that any work is demeaning and remind us that all workers have value. Janitors, nursing home attendants, hotel and restaurant workers, and many other workers on the bottom of the hierarchy of jobs are trying to join unions to get dignity on the job, fair treatment, and just compensation.

Unions are working to bring living wages, health insurance, pensions, paid vacations, sick leave, and holidays to workers who formerly had none of these.

Unions are working to give employees a greater say in how their jobs are structured and the way workplaces operate day to day.

And through legislative action, unions are working to reform immigration laws, raise the minimum wage, and improve workplace safety.

Unions are some of the most democratic and diverse organizations in the US today. They can be avenues of empowerment that give workers the means to become active in their own liberation from unjust structures of domination.

Like all institutions including churches, unions are not perfect. But this is not a reason for us to fail to work with our union sisters and brothers to support their struggles for justice.

The church has a special role to play in workers’ struggles for justice.

A problem in the workplace is not just a problem for an individual worker and it is not just an economic problem. It is also a theological problem. The author of the book of John quotes Jesus praying that people “may all be one” (John 17:21).   But how may we all be one when some eat very well and others do well just to eat? How may we all be one when some are safe at work and others are at risk?  How may we all be one when, on the job, some people’s views are sought out and others are ignored?

God gave us a world of abundance. Unions are helping some of the most oppressed workers in the US and around the world share in this abundance. And in ways not unlike the church at its best, unions are sometimes providing support and avenues of growth where workers move toward greater wholeness.

In whatever ways we can, may we join with workers and our union sisters and brothers in their struggles for justice and greater wholeness.