With apologies to Buffalo Springfield, something's happening here. And it is
very clear what that something is, if one cares to see. There is a new
democracy movement that is growing worldwide. From Geneva to Bangalore to
Seattle, Philadelphia, Prague, Genoa and Cochabamba there is a new level of
activism that is rejecting the growing concentration of corporate power.
The ravages of corporate rule are bringing people together across previously
unbreached boundaries. Labor organizations and environmentalists are no
longer accepting the false dichotomy of jobs versus the environment. Both
sides have begun to recognize that by working together they can create
innovative solutions that keep our air and water clean while providing decent
jobs at livable wages. Likewise, women, racial and ethnic minorities,
indigenous peoples, human rights activists, religious people, farmers, are
finding their commonality in the face of the repressive anti-democratic
forces of global corporatism. Millions of people are joining this movement,
joined by a vision of a future that is guarantees the rights of all human
beings and is respectful of nature.
If this new pro-democracy movement is to succeed, it will need the active
involvement of two institutions that have often been on the wrong side of
liberation struggles-organized religion and organized labor. As someone who
has been intimately involved in both, I have grieved as unions and the church
have far too frequently worked to thwart democracy. But I can also point to
that faithful remnant, the prophets in our midst, who keep calling us back to
fulfill the promise of a just society that is the basis of those
institutions. Those prophetic voices--people like Mother Jones, Cesar
Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day-give us hope that the union
movement and our churches, temples, synagogues and mosques will lead the way
in creating that just society.
In previous Labor Sunday addresses, I have tried to paint a picture of the
struggle of workers throughout history. I have tried to appeal to our
emotions, to help us empathize with the plight of people around the world. I
have told you stories of unjust firings, of towns devastated by plant
closings, of environmental catastrophes both here in Pennsylvania and in
other places. I have provided statistics of increased poverty, the rise in
domestic violence, suicide and layoffs. I'm sure that your own observations
and reading have verified those stories and statistics.
So instead of spending my time this morning appealing to your emotions, I'm
going to take my time to tell you what you can do to bring about the justice
envisioned in our religious traditions and embodied in the labor movement.
The following ten suggestions come from the National Interfaith Committee for
1) Come "out of the closet" in your own faith community. Let people know if
you are a union member or a union leader. Many of us are afraid to talk about
our union affiliations. Some of us are embarrassed to admit that we are
workers, as if there is something humiliating about manual labor. Dr. King
said, "If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even
as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote
poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and
earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job
There is dignity in all work, and there is even more dignity in standing up
for workers' rights by being active in a union.
2) Acquaint yourself with your faith body's teachings on the dignity of
labor and the role of labor unions in society so you are equipped to talk
with people in your congregation. Mother Jones' advice is "Sit down and
read. Educate yourself for the coming conflicts."
The National Interfaith Committee has great resources, as do most
denominational offices. The AFL-CIO also has online and printed materials
for you to understand what workers are facing today.
3) Join the organizations that are working for economic justice such as the
National Interfaith Committee and, to plug my own organization, the
Pennsylvania Consumer Action Network.
4) Include "Worker Rights Inserts" in your congregation's bulletins. Jointly
produced by the National Interfaith Committee and the U.S. Department of
Labor, this series of six bulletin inserts helps workers understand their
rights and how to file complaints. Available in English, Spanish and six
5) Pray for low-wage workers, especially farmworkers who harvest and process
our food, childcare workers who nurture our youth and nursing home workers
who care for our sick and elderly family members.
6) Offer to speak in your congregation (during or after service, depending
on what's appropriate) about the shared values between religion and labor.
Outside speakers can be informative and inspirational, but nothing touches
people as much as hearing from people they already know and care about.
7) Invite your congregation's religious leaders to join you in labor support
actions throughout the year. Very few religious leaders have been at a labor
rally or joined a picket line. Doing so will help them understand the issues
and gain a greater appreciation for unions. This congregation is fortunate
to have John Morgan as its pastor. John understands the issues and has been
on the front lines with labor. In fact, this afternoon at 3:00 John will be
leading an Interfaith Service at 3:00 at the workers' Memorial, 6th and Canal
Streets here in Reading. I hope you will all join us there.
8) Talk with local union organizers. Find out how they are building
partnerships with the religious community in organizing drives and contract
campaigns. Offer to help make contacts with leaders in your congregation or
9) Invite someone from the Department of Labor to talk with your
congregation about ways to partner to reach out to workers about their rights
in the workplace. Several cities across the country are developing
partnerships that train leaders in congregations on workers' rights and how
to assist workers in filing complaints about illegal activities.
10) Establish an Employment Ministry in your congregation that assists
members of the congregation to find jobs and practice their faith and values
in the workplace. Consider how your congregation is as an employer. Does the
janitor or church secretary receive a living wage and family benefits? If
not, can you work with the budget committee to move toward more just wages
These are all great ideas, but I think that the National Interfaith Committee
left out a very important action that we can take. That is the need to get
involved in the political and legislative agenda for protecting workers.
Every day the rights of workers are being eroded. And when workers' rights
are harmed, it means the dilution of our democracy. We need to take strong
stands on the issues before Congress and the General assembly in
Pennsylvania. Here are some of the most important issues facing labor today.
1) In 1886, in one of the most its outrageous decisions, the United States
Supreme Court gave corporations equal protection under the 14th amendment to
the Constitution. This decision, known as Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific
Railroad, came at a time when women, Native Americans, and most African
Americans didn't have the right to vote. The 14th Amendment was written to
provide for equal protection of freed slaves. But, incredibly, the 14th
Amendment has been used more for the protection of corporations than the
protection of freed slaves and other minority human beings. This perversion
has to stop.
There is a growing movement to revoke corporate charters and revise corporate
law to hold individuals civilly and criminally responsible for their actions.
This is neither a new nor a radical concept. The idea of revoking corporate
charters for corporate wrongdoing is based on the original understanding of
corporate law. As originally envisioned, corporations were to be organized
for limited purposes and were not meant to protect individuals form civil or
criminal penalties. If a corporation was responsible for the deaths of
people, then all responsible parties within of that corporation could be held
liable. This concept of corporations is enshrined in many state
constitutions, including Pennsylvania's. We need to enforce this
constitutional provision and enact laws which mandate the revocation of
corporations which do not act in the common good.
2) Amend the Constitution to include a Right to Free Association . There is
no provision in either the Pennsylvania or the United States Constitution
that guarantees the right of free association. We need to amend both to
bring us into compliance with international law on this matter. The words of
the 1948 Convention Concerning Freedom of Association and Protection of the
Right to Organize would be a great guideline for these amendments.
"Workers' and employers' organizations shall have the right to draw up their
constitutions and rules, to elect their representatives in full freedom, to
organize their administration and activities and to formulate their programs.
The public authorities shall refrain from any interference which would
restrict this right or impede the lawful exercise thereof. Workers' and
employers' organizations shall not be liable to be dissolved or suspended by
administrative authority. Workers' and employers' organizations shall have
the right to establish and join federations and confederations and any such
organization, federation or confederation shall have the right to affiliate
with international organizations of workers and employers."
3) Repeal Taft-Hartley. The Taft-Hartley Act, known by unions as the "Slave
Labor Act," was passed in 1947 to severely limit the rights of workers to
organize. The Taft-Hartley Act has been cited by the International Labor
organization as a severe impediment to workers' rights. Among its many
anti-worker provisions are making sympathy strikes and secondary boycotts
illegal, allowing the president to force strikers back to work, allowing
state legislatures to ban union shops, allowing only employers the right to
speak freely in union elections. This law must be repealed and replaced with
a bill which guarantees the right of free association by workers.
4) Ratify the 1948 "Convention concerning Freedom of Association and
Protection of the Right to Organize" cited above. This right to organize is
almost universally accepted. Only the United States and a handful of
undemocratic nations have not ratified it. So far it has been passed by 134
nations. It is time for the United States to join this list.
5) Unjust firings law. Workers today can be fired for any reason. It
doesn't matter how good a job he or she has done. A worker can be fired for
belonging to the wrong political party, for associating with the wrong people
outside of work, for being gay. Unless someone is protected by a union, a
worker can be fired for virtually any reason. This can be rectified by an
unjust firings law.
6) Stop the sale of public wealth to corporations. Commonly known as
privatization, the transfer of public wealth into private hands has to stop.
There are some things that just do not belong in the realm of private
enterprise. Does anyone really think that corporations should control our
water, our education, our health? When we turn public services over to
corporate ownership we also give them control over our lives.
7) Living Wage. We need a minimum wage that will allow a family to survive.
Current proposals for a minimum wage will bring it up to $6.50-7.00 an hour.
Studies have shown that a wage of around $11.00 is necessary to support a
family in Pennsylvania. We need to pass a living wage immediately, and tie
it to inflation. Politicians play games with the minimum wage by passing a
bill that they know will be inadequate. This gives them the ability to bring
the issue up every two or three years and tout their support of a higher
minimum wage. If they really cared about assuring decent wages they would
pass 1) a living wage that is 2) tied to inflation. This would guarantee
sufficient incomes for all workers for years to come.
8) Pennsylvania needs to protect the prevailing wage. "Prevailing wage"
means that contractors hired by the state, must pay its employees what is
prevalent in the marketplace. That means a fair wage is guaranteed for all
people working on taxpayer money. Contractors bidding for projects know that
they must pay predetermined wages for their employees or they cannot be
awarded state contracts. Prevailing wage gives the contracted workers a fair
wage and prevents the undermining of a community's wage structure by
9) Protection and expansion of Project Labor Agreements. Project Labor
Agreements, or PLAs, are binding agreements between contractors and specific
projects being built with taxpayer money. The agreement says that all
employees on the project will either be union employees or will be paid union
wages. PLAs discourage companies from fighting union organizing since they
will have to pay union wages if they want these very lucrative contracts. It
discourages companies from underbidding their competitors on the backs of
workers. And it encourages workers to form unions because they see how much
more unionized workers make.
10) All state contracts must require "neutrality agreements." As a condition
of signing a contract with the state all providers must agree to not fight
union organizing drives in their workforces. A neutrality agreement allows
the workers to decide among themselves whether or not they want to form a
union, free of employer coercion. The decision to organize a union should
be the workers' alone, with no outside coercion. Neutrality agreements
recognize this basic principle, and put it into the form of a contract.
That's my list of some of the current labor issues. If we really want to
support workers we need to do more than just provide lip service once a year
at Labor Day. We need to take up labor's struggle and labor's issues-year
round. We need to take some risks and get up from the comfort of the four
walls of our sanctuary.
Samuel Gompers, former President of the AFL, identified Labor's agenda when
he said, "We want more schoolhouses and less jails, more books and less
arsenals, more learning and less vice, more constant work and less crime,
more leisure and less greed, more justice and less revenge."
That is Labor's agenda today as well. And if we are to be the people we
claim to be it must be our agenda as well.
There's something happening here. Let's make sure this time we're part of it.
Delivered at First Unitarian Universalist Church, Reading, 9/2/01
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