Feature from the Fall 2010 Epistle:
Working Together - Religion and Labor
by Joy Heine, (2003, M.A.) Diaconal Minister
Human beings are created “in God’s image” (Genesis 1:27) as social beings whose dignity, worth and value are conferred by God
“Sufficient Sustainable Livelihood for All,” 1999 Social Statement, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
In 2001, I began my seminary internship with Interfaith Worker Justice. My internship goals were to educate, organize and mobilize the religious community to help improve wages, benefits and conditions for workers.
I was assigned to the labor union UNITE, which was advocating for women who worked at BBJ Linen, a fine linen laundering facility. They were fed up with constant changes to their work hours and low wages with no increases in pay after eight years of employment. Several of the women had sought help from the local congressional representative. He recommended they talk to organizers at UNITE about forming a union. They did, and were fired.
Working for sufficient and sustainable livelihood
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America lays out a moral imperative around economic life in the 1999 social statement, “Sufficient Sustainable Livelihood for All.” The statement affirms that we, as people of faith, are called to be part of an economic system which includes all of God’s children, especially those living in poverty. This system includes a sustainable livelihood. People should be able to work and receive compensation, which, at the very least, provides for their basic necessities. At the very most it is sufficient -- enough, but not too much. Finally, it creates a sustainable environment for people and the rest of creation to survive now and in the future.
In recent years, the economic gap between rich and poor has been widening and the U.S. is losing its middle class. Many top CEOs now make 400 times more than the average salary of their company’s employees. This gap has occurred since the last century, when CEO’s salaries averaged 20 times more than the company’s average worker.
When pay increases are given to employees, they do not keep up with the cost of living. Labor statistics show gains in productivity without commensurate increases in compensation. At the same time, the cost of basic necessities like food, clothing and gasoline have risen.
Working for dignity and respect
When I began my internship, all I knew about unions came from newspaper articles where unions were viewed as a negative force that upset people by creating conflict and tension. I quickly learned that through union organizing many traditionally low-wage jobs turn into good, family-sustaining, middle class jobs.
I saw parallels between unions and religious communities. Like religious communities, unions want the best for those who work hard for a living: fair wages, safe working conditions, healthcare benefits and respect for workers. Labor unions, like religious groups, are not perfect. They are comprised of human beings. Organizers desire to empower workers to stand up for themselves and, united, to change their working conditions. People of faith want to end poverty and wage theft. Kim Bobo, in Wage Theft in America (2008), offers this definition: “Wage theft occurs when workers are not paid all of their wages, workers are denied overtime when they should be paid it, or workers aren’t paid at all for work they’ve performed.”
Labor unions are the most powerful antipoverty and anti wage-theft vehicle around. Both union organizers and people of faith desire a world where livable wages are the norm and workers can do more than just provide for their basic necessities.
Working together for change
My work with Interfaith Worker Justice and various labor campaigns has convinced me that in order for us to have economic stability in the U.S., labor laws will need to change and employers will need to be held accountable to respect their workers through compensation and fair treatment. I’m also convinced that partnerships between labor and religious communities can make a difference.
Several years ago, during Easter season, over 150 religious leaders organized by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice in Los Angeles and directed by Lutheran Pastor Alexia Salvatierra, walked down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills with a banner reading, “All Religions Believe in Justice.” They stopped in front of two hotels, which, after a long struggle, had agreed to negotiate a fair contract with their workers. Here they placed bowls filled with milk and honey – biblical symbols of the promised land – along with baskets of Easter lilies. But to a hotel that had refused to sign the new contract, they instead brought bitter herbs, the Passover symbol of slavery. Within three weeks, all of the hotels they had called to accountability had signed new and fair contracts with their low-wage workers.
We all deserve to make enough money to support our families. Religious communities have a powerful moral voice which can support workers struggling for jobs that pay living wages and benefits to support their families. Together, we can ensure that there is a sufficient, sustainable livelihood for all.