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.
–Associated Labor Unions, Manila, Phillipines
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.
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.