Tag Archive: justice

The case against “rent a collar:” religion and workers’ rights

Workers Prayer

Lord Jesus,

We offer you this day our works,

Our hopes and struggles,

Our joys and sorrows.

 

Give us and all workers of the world

The grace to work as you did

So that everything we do

May benefit our fellowmen and

Glorify GOD, our Father.

 

Your Kingdom come

Into all factories, farms, offices and into our homes.

 

Give us this day our daily bread,

May we receive it without envy or injustice

May those of us who, today, may be in danger of sin

Remain in Your grace, and

May those who died in labor’s field of honor rest in peace.

 

Teach us to be generous,

To serve you as you deserve to be served,

To give without counting the cost,

To fight without minding the wounds,

To work and pray as our right and duty, and

To spend our life without expecting any return

Other than the conviction that

We are doing Your holy will.

AMEN

–Associated Labor Unions, Manila, Phillipines

Union Prayer
Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Billy Bragg

I hear that prayer and praying
Will change this world around
I fold my hands I bow my head
I kneel down on the ground

I prayed and prayed by nite & day
And then I prayed some more
I prayed till my tongue was dry as dust
I prayed till my knees had sores.

Will prayer change shacks to decent homes?
Will prayer change sickness into health?
Will prayer change hate to works of love?
Will prayer get me my right to vote?

Will prayer give jobs at honest pay?
Will prayer bring stomach full of food?
Will prayer make rich treat poor folks right?
Will prayer take out the Ku Klux Klan?

Will prayer cut down the hoodlum bands?
Will prayer stop the lynchbug hands?
If all of these things my prayers can do,
I’ll pray till I am black and blue.

If prayer will bring us union love,
I’ll pray and pray and pray some more.
I’ll pray all day from door to door
And fall at nite to pray some more
My prayer with a union label.

When I worked in Congress, my boss was MUCH more comfortable in a union hall than in a church, and I think the labor leaders he worked with appreciated that.

I’m comfortable in both. And I remember how uncomfortable I made my boss during my interview when I told him that after working in Congress, I planned to go into the ministry. But I finally realize that my comfort in both the union hall (well, on the picket line) and in the church actually puts me in sync with a lot of the workers I’ve gotten to know over the years. It turns out they’re not just workers; they’re people, and often people of faith. And I think that matters as we reflect on the intersection of faith and labor.

 

The relationship between organized labor and labor-friendly religious leaders has been an awkward one for as long as I’ve known about it, and I think there might be a few reasons for that:

  • Our perceptions of each other limit our capacity to support each other. We think of them as no-holds-barred anything-goes ends-justifies-means folks, and they think of us as not understanding how much is at stake, being dreamers instead of realists and not being particularly good strategists. Both of us might be a little right.
  • We’re both used to be treated with authority and being heard, so it is less than comfortable for either of us when the other group expects at least as much (and usually more of) the same courtesy.
  • Many high level labor leaders are not convinced that religious leaders bring anything to the movement other than symbolically blessing what labor has already put in the works.
  • Many clergy are squeamish not about the goals or even the tactics of a given labor campaign but get squeamish about dehumanizing the opposition (which frankly can be the most uplifting and energizing part of a labor rally), and sometimes that single thing stops them from participating more fully in the work of solidarity.

The biggest tension in the movement is around what clergy petulantly refer to as “rent-a-collar,” by which they mean they have no voice in the process of the movement or the strategy or the goal setting; they’re called the night before to show up at a rally to offer a prayer.

Clergy often resent this because they feel a little used. But the truth is, I’m not sure that most labor leaders see us as bringing much to the table—in the work, those who bring financial resources and people power make a campaign successful, and that’s not always the faith community.

At the Interfaith Worker Justice conference I attended this week, I’ve met people from organizations across the country who really are bringing “faith people power” to campaigns and as a result ending up with a seat at the table. I’m also meeting faith organizers who brought the people power and still got left out of the decision-making process because at the last moment labor leaders got anxious that pie-in-the-sky religious leaders would ruin a compromise bill by holding out for something better. I’ve even met a faith-student-community organizer who connected workers into a union through his work with faith leaders and then found out that the union wasn’t ready to go to bat for the particular workers who had joined the union. (And while my stories are focused on the faith community, I suspect my friends in labor could point to times the faith community sold out or abandoned or just messed up campaigns over the years.)

Our relationship, labor and faith, is a mixed bag.

 

There’s something I’ve begun to reflect on deeply, though, of late. I think there’s something the faith community brings to the workers that labor leadership doesn’t always recognize, and I want to tell a story and then share what I think it’s about.

I spoke at a fast food workers’ rally a month ago. A labor leader translated for me—most of the workers were primarily Spanish speakers. She was fierce and amazing and led chants and actually got us enthusiastic even though we had been up since 4 or 5.

I told the story of Passover. When she got to that word in her translation, she said, “I don’t know that word.” Five people at the front said, “Pascua.” I continued with my story and said something about Pharaoh. She paused in the translation, and even before she could ask, fifteen people stage whispered“faraón.”

 

She didn’t know the story of Passover. It did not carry power for her. It did not inspire her.

But the workers knew the story of Passover. They knew what it meant to be Israelites working hard for an Egyptian overlord, and when they looked like they might be a threat, their work was made even harder.

And the workers knew how that story ends. It ends with liberation by a God who cares about their conditions and their families and their dignity.

Plus, she might not have known why it was really funny for me to say that Ronald McDonald reminded me of Pharaoh, but they sure did.

 

We share a common story of hope, one that touches the most intimate parts of our personal struggles in life and can also offer us support and courage in the larger battles we have to face; even a struggle against a global corporation that has no desire to keep its workers happy and healthy members of the community at virtually no expense to the corporation.

The labor leader doing translation for me is heroic. She puts in work hours that would put me in the hospital. She stands with workers in scary times. She wants nothing in this world more than to see them paid what they are worth (although she’ll have to settle for $15 and a union).

Her union is also amazing in that they are pouring so much of their limited resources and limited people power into supporting workers who are not currently dues-paying union members and very possibly never will be. Obviously the union hopes that will change, but they’re investing themselves in this campaign with the awareness that it probably won’t, and they’re standing up for non-unionized workers anyhow, because who else will stand with them? The unions I work with are embattled and struggling against great odds they’ve struggled against since they were founded. The power of the union is more faithful and hopeful than that of most churches, and it often embodies the kind of community we in the faith community only talk about.

But the moral of the story is this: The union leaders may not find comfort and inspiration in their shared struggle with bible characters, but the underpaid fast food workers knew that story better than I do, and in two languages. And in that lies a connection.

There is something about the power generated between faithful workers and labor-loving religious leaders that feels different than anything else, because it allows all of us to bring our whole selves into the fight.

Many of the “rank and file” members of unions, many of the low-wage workers who have not yet been unionized, are deeply faithful people. And some of them attend churches with pastors and priests and imams who won’t stand with them when they’re being mistreated because those religious leaders want to avoid “politics” (except the politics of respectability). That is wounding to a person of faith; it can even cause a crisis of faith. So when a different religious leader shows up and lets them know that their commitment to justice IS part of their relationship with God, redemption and healing can occur.

 

I have seen religious leaders contribute to the strategy of a campaign. I have seen religious leaders strengthen coalitions and hold them together when tension mounted. I have seen religious leaders get better conditions in an agreement from politicians than labor would have gotten sheerly because those politicians had been shamed into being their better selves. So I think there are a lot of reasons for labor and religion to work together better; I think we bring a lot to the larger work for justice and equity.

One of the most prophetic workers/leaders I know, walking with me from a 6AM rally to a 9AM action.

But there’s one particular and yet incredibly ephemeral reason for us to be plugged into campaigns over the long term: we share a story with workers who face fatigue and a lack of institutional support. When they feel beaten up in their private lives, they pray and read scripture and turn to God. When they feel beaten up in their work for justice, they should have the same outlet. And on a good day, a courageous pastor or priest or imam can bring that opportunity to a fellow sister or brother in the faith.

Ekklesia: Are you just somebody that I used to know?

Is Christian Privilege killing the church?

At what some of my colleagues saw as the breaking point of Occupy Oakland, January 28, 2012, one of my friends said, “Ah, Occupy Oakland, now you’re just somebody that I used to know.” For a lot of folks committed to seeing a justice-filled peace in Oakland, Occupy was a roller coaster of deep love, deep pride and deep disappointment. On January 28, we witnessed some of the most awful police actions of a months-long movement riddled with awful police actions, but it was also a reminder, as another friend of mine pointed out, that OO suffered due to a lack of intentional non-violent commitment and also intentional non-violent strategy.

(I later spoke on a panel with Erica Chenoweth, whose book “Why Civil Resistence Works” showed quantifiably how nonviolence is strategically more effective in creating lasting change at the national level when used consistently within a movement. If you don’t want to read a very dense book, she sums it up in 12 minutes in her now famous Ted Talk. A number of OO folks that day wrestled with the elitism that often shows up in accusations against people who participate in property damage or violence and also the fact that OO’s “diversity of tactics” strategy reduced safety particularly for people of color who were less likely to engage in the movement, among other complex issues.)

Long story short, the Gotye song captured a feeling about Occupy Oakland among some of us movement types: we loved you, we gave ourselves to you, you broke our heart; now you’re just somebody that we used to know. (Two years later, I believe the Occupy movement had a lot to do with creating space in the public discourse for addressing wealth inequality in America, the fast food and WalMart workers’ movements, and the gap between poor working people and the ultra-rich. However, I still regret that Occupy Oakland didn’t become the unifying strategic nonviolent movement that our city needed and deserved.)

 

All of this is a long prelude to my reflections on the church today. Occupy Oakland was a flash in the pan compared to my relationship with the church. I have loved Jesus like he was my best friend since I was three. When I was in fourth grade, my mother and the church’s Christian ed director said that when I grew up, I would either be a nun or a Jesus freak. Church folks have loved me and nurtured me and cultivated me for leadership. When I moved to a new school, my church youth group loved and supported me when I would have otherwise felt incredibly awkward and alone.

The church did such a good job of this love and nurture that I eventually followed my calling to become an ordained pastor. So why do I sometimes feel like the church is just somebody that I used to know? (more…)