Today is a day that historically acknowledges workers and the struggle for basic human dignity for low-wage workers. Since around 2006, it has particularly lifted up the ways in which immigrant workers deserve greater dignity than our society affords them. In honor of workers, here is an excerpt from chapter two of Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines.
I met Francisca when a handful of religious leaders joined with some workers protesting the Castlewood Golf Club in Pleasanton, California. The management had locked out some workers for not agreeing to a new contract where the workers had to pay all of their own health care (consuming up to 40 percent of some employees’ paychecks) in what the club had described as a record-breaking earnings year. I didn’t learn it until later, but Francisca was the janitor who had found a memo in the new manager’s trash can saying that his primary objective was to shut down the union (which had functioned without any conflict for over twenty years). And fight they did, almost imperiling the future of the club out of management’s belief in their right to not provide health care or fair wages.
What struck me about this campaign was that the union working with them had assumed U.S. citizens would be the most upset and willing to stand up for fair treatment. Instead, it was mostly immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, who stood on the picket line for month after month. “Most of the white people had good positions, like bartender,” Francisca explains. “The only two white people on our side, it was just because they knew better. One day one member told Miss Peggy, ‘You old hog; go home and die.’ We grew a thick skin. We Mexicans put up with everything. I told people I put Vaseline on my face every morning so what they would say will slide off me.”
Most of the workers on the picket line were from the kitchen or served as janitors. They were mostly Latin@. When Francisca reached out to one of the White servers to join their protest of the unfair working conditions, he responded, “With all due respect, what am I going to do there? I’m in front of the members serving them their food. If I join you, they’re going to know who I am. And with all due respect, it’s a bunch of Mexicans and Michael and Peggy.”…
On the picket line one day, a member bicycled by with a stroller attached in back. As they biked by, the toddler stuck its hand out of its fabric enclosure and gave the workers a “thumbs down.” The mother turned around and biked by again, and the toddler stuck out the other hand to do the same thing. I’m partly just impressed by the commitment to biking in such uneven terrain just to get your kid to harass picketers, but Francisca noted that the saddest thing to her was a parent teaching her child to hate because “we were on their land.” (Maybe it’s because I’m an immigrant or maybe it’s because I’m a Christian, but the notion that any of us have the right to claim stolen land as ours more than the people working it is a weird one to me.)
I joined the workers in a three-day fast over Mother’sDay weekend, where they tried to remind club members that many of the workers were mothers or were supporting mothers, and that this protest was taking food out of the protesters stood quietly with flyers about the conflict with management, and a woman came up to another worker, Maria (who had adopted two little children two days before she was locked out of her job; the theme of this weekend was very personal to her) and spat at Maria, “You are TEARING APART FAMILIES!” The woman’s son had refused to eat at the country club for Mother’s Day because of the workers’ protest. Maria had to work really hard to extend Christian love in response (although by then the workers were used to being catcalled and threatened with phone calls to Immigration and jeers to go back to Mexico).
Francisca had to fight the urge to not yell back, “Because, when you go back you need to go back with your head held high. They also called us uneducated and dumb and you don’t know what you’re fighting for. I wanted to be able to show them who had the education. I knew we were going back and I wanted to be able to look people in their eyes and not be ashamed.”
Rev. Dr. Alvin Jackson was the reason I became a Disciple of Christ, and I still consider him my pastor. I remember him, an African American addressing a mixed group of White and Latin@ and Asian people and saying of America, “We may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.” Some of us actually inhabited this land for thousands of years, but most of our forebears came here as slaves or indentured servants, or they came here to establish a better life. Like the Israelites, we came onto others’ land by choice or by force and had to find rules to live by that honored each other and hopefully created a better place for all of us. Like the Israelites, we did better by some people than others, and we did best when we were ruled by hope rather than by fear.