Who will stand up for the workers?

St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers. I learned that today during a tour of the Franciscan monastery in DC. It makes sense of course. Joseph and his stepson Jesus were both carpenters. The word “worker” has a specific connotation in our culture. We immediately know that Joseph is not the patron saint of doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, or even pastors, because “workers” are people who work with their hands. “Workers” have jobs that deal with the real world instead of the virtual world which has increasingly become the “real” world for people in the white collar professional class like me. The more that our society defines the virtual world as the space that is relevant, the more that the work of those who actually deal with physical matter is taken for granted. So here’s my Labor Day question for today: what would St. Joseph call on Christians to do to stand up for the workers who are his people? Because the one thing that’s clear today is that Joseph’s people are getting shafted.

Let me give you an example that has been eating at me ever since I learned about it. A certain political candidate recently wanted to do a photo op with some blue collar workers behind him so he staged a rally at the Century Coal Mine in Beallsville, Ohio. The mine was closed for the day, and the workers lost that day’s wages despite the fact that they were required to attend the political rally. After several workers called a local radio station to complain, the mine’s chief operating officer Robert Moore said: “Attendance was mandatory but no one was forced to attend the event.” If you’re wondering how someone can say that attendance at an event is mandatory while claiming nobody was forced to be there, yeah, I wondered the same thing. The full story can be found here. The workers who were forced to attend the political campaign rally without pay do not have any recourse because they don’t have a labor union. The Service Employees International Union has filed a complaint on their behalf with the National Labor Relations Board.

So how should Christians respond to a situation like this? My denomination, the United Methodist Church, officially affirms in our Social Principles that “we support the right of all public and private employees and employers to organize for collective bargaining into unions and other groups of their own choosing” (Discipline 2008, 119). Even so, the church has a tendency to be squeamish about union organizing because it points to a lack of common good will between employers and their employees. Shouldn’t Christians aspire to peace, unity, and reconciliation instead of “class warfare”? Shouldn’t we be encouraging bosses and their workers to sit down together and figure out reasonable expectations and compensation without having a (a-hem, secular) labor union get in the middle?

This seems like the tacit argument many Christians make in their minds as to why (secular) labor unions are bad, corrupt, and unnecessary. Of course, this line of thinking echoes the arguments that were made in Europe when the emerging middle class started to revolt against monarchy. Shouldn’t a Christian king like George III of England who fears God be trusted to rule his colonial subjects with benevolence and equanimity just as they accept their station as his subjects out of obedience to God in keeping with the unequivocal Biblical command to submit to earthly authorities in Romans 13? Incidentally, kings who tax their subjects without representation are like bosses who force their employees to attend political rallies without pay; both show that, whatever religious beliefs they profess, they don’t really fear God because God gets mad when His people get cheated. When in the course of human events, kings and bosses show contempt for God by how they treat God’s people, then it becomes necessary for God’s people to stand up to their masters and redefine their relationship.

Now I’m not oblivious to the way that power can corrupt the leadership of labor unions no differently than it can corrupt a corporation’s CEO. One of my favorite films is the 1954 Marlon Brando classic On the Waterfront which was about a Mafia-dominated longshoreman “union” that controlled the New York harbor waterfront. In the film, one of the most critical characters is the waterfront priest Father Barry who risks his life to stand with the workers against the mob union boss Johnny Friendly. We need pastors today who are willing to stick their necks out like Father Barry did, which would of course require finding out what’s actually going on with workers in our communities.

Perhaps it’s because I’m insulated in a sea of suburbia, but I haven’t met anyone like Father Barry among the clergy I interact with. It seems like all of us are focused on building up our own congregations since we’re so paranoid about our dropping attendance. When we do engage in ministry to help others (which is almost always charity and not justice work), it seems like the underlying purpose is still to build up our congregations by giving them meaningful community service tasks to do. Right now, it doesn’t seem like I have any room on my plate for anything that isn’t directly related to the discipleship of the members of my church. Maybe that’s where my focus needs to be for this season of my ministry. Or maybe my priorities need to shift. I just know that St. Joseph needs someone to stand up for the workers.

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