Pennsylvania Consumer Action Network Labor Sunday Message (Long)

  1. 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
    Worker Justice.

    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
    well. "
    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
    other languages.

    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
    and benefits?

    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
    taxpayer-supported projects.

    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.

    Michael Morrill
    Delivered at First Unitarian Universalist Church, Reading, 9/2/01

    Join PCAN online at
    Help build PA's progressive voice.
    122 s. 5th St.
    Reading, PA 19602
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