Pope Francis' glaring omission: Why spiritual leaders must champion workers' rights

If it really wants to promote joy, the church must start to see the labor movement as central to a life of faith

Published March 27, 2014 3:49PM (EDT)

  (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)
(AP/Alessandra Tarantino)

In a daily mass last month, Pope Francis spoke of joy as a major aspect of Christian identity. "It's the style of a Christian," he said, quoting St. Augustine, "'Go, go forward, singing and walking!'" True enough. All of us, religious or not, could benefit from a bigger bounce in our steps.

If only it were that easy. What of the many for whom the circumstances of daily life make skipping and singing difficult or impossible? It’s a question Pope Francis himself seems to take seriously: he goes out in disguise at night to hang out with homeless people and rearranges his schedule in order to talk with random Italian prisoners. But while the destitute and the imprisoned are most obviously in need of aid, there is a much larger, much more ordinary group that remains almost entirely neglected by the ministry of the faith community: workers.

For average workers, being reminded of the spiritual joy that is glaringly absent from their lives isn’t particularly illuminating. Workers need concrete practical assistance toward improving the environment in the workspaces in which an ever-increasing amount of time and energy are spent. What is being proffered instead is, at best, frustratingly individualized. Engage in prayer, workers are told. View mundane or unpleasant tasks as a form of meditative exercise. Some suggest fasting as a means to encounter the Divine in a most profane workspace.

Even more obscene are wild claims made by prosperity gospel hucksters like Joel Osteen and new age proponents of the “law of attraction,” which suggest that lacking joy or even material abundance is the fault of individual workers. With recent data revealing no less than 70 percent of workers to be dissatisfied, such claims would be laughable if they weren’t so cruel. Gallup's 2013 State of the American Workplace Report indicates 52 percent of workers are not actively "engaged" in their work, with another 18 percent are "actively disengaged." It’s not exactly a shocker - everyone’s working (excuse me, the polite phrase is “increased productivity”) while wages have stagnated and union membership at the lowest level in a century. Faced with more work, less money, less free time, and the ability to so much as discuss these conditions with one another having been replaced largely by a culture of fear and insecurity, the blame for poorness of spirit can hardly be placed at the feet of workers themselves.

Under such circumstances, things like prayer, mindfulness, and centering can’t hurt, yet I’ve personally attempted several variations of such techniques. In fact, being alone in my spiritual practice served mostly to mirror the numerous other ways in which I was divided from my fellow co-workers, my managers, and even those in the broader community. After all, the environment of a workplace is a collective problem just as it is a material one. It must be approached accordingly. Employers are not in the habit of giving things away, regardless of the state of their employees’ souls. The role that big labor, alt-labor, and other activist workers’ organizations must play in correcting this cannot be overlooked – but neither can that of the faith community.

According to Timothy King, chief strategy officer for progressive Christian advocacy group Sojourners, these are conditions which run entirely contrary to the intent of the Divine. “God is a laborer and part of what it means to be made in the image of God is that we are co-laborers,” he says, something that gives labor inherent dignity. Just as importantly, however, it is not solely work that bestows this dignity. “God labored for six days, God rested on the seventh. The idea of a ‘sabbath’ was radical at the time. [Everyone] had time to rest. Even the land was supposed to rest and be laid fallow every seven years. While there is dignity in work, it is not all we are created to do and be.”

The Rev. Michael Livingston, public policy director at Interfaith Worker Justice, a non-profit that seeks to unite people of diverse faiths in the pursuit of worker concerns, agrees that a significant chunk of the big picture is missing. “It isn’t just wages stolen, no paid sick days, no paid vacation days,” he says. Working conditions in a broad sense “put a tremendous strain on the humanity and dignity and self-worth, which is all wrapped up in the spiritual life of the worker. It’s a failure to see the worker as a human being and a spiritual being.”

Results from the secular Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding’s 2013 Workplace and Religion Survey supports this notion. "People of all faiths,” its authors write, “including those who belong to the 'majority,' have religious needs that require a response in the workplace." The study found that while 77 percent were either somewhat comfortable or very comfortable with the discussion of religion, only 15 percent of workers reported having regularly engaged in religious discussion. It should be noted that, while white evangelical Protestants are unsurprisingly the most likely to discuss religion at 34 percent, they are closely and immediately followed by atheists at 31 percent. Further, a pattern emerges when the topic is shifted to politics, with 74 percent of workers being somewhat or very comfortable with the discussion, and only 24 percent actively engaging in it.

It isn’t just the purported “politeness” of avoiding public discussion of religion and politics. It’s real needs that aren’t being met.

“Religion without justice is lame,” UCC minister and author of “Healing the Divide: Rediscovering Christianity’s Mystic Roots” Amos Smith told me. “Religious leaders are called to side with the marginalized, which characterizes today’s laborers.”

It’s a sentiment that seems to rarely trickle down to the workers themselves. “It’s amazing,” Rev. Livingston says, “how mainstream religious organizations don’t see worker justice labor issues as central. There’s not a lot of company to this work.” He references the fact that low-wage, traditionally non-union employment sectors like service and retail are currently the fastest growing in the U.S. workforce. “Part of the reason IWJ was created is that there was this whole class of workers without resources to help them with their problems, resolve their issues, to better address them…Here’s a whole slice of this national community that’s taken advantage of by big companies. The idea is, can we bring the resources of the faith community to bear on this, to make the faith community an effective advocate for workers? A big part of that is attending to [their] spiritual needs.”

For IWJ, tackling this problem requires an aggressive and multi-faceted approach. It includes a wide range of activity from helping to organize Wal-Mart protests for Black Friday to applying pressure to employers accused of wage theftestablishing “workers’ centers” at which non-union workers are afforded the opportunity to informally organize to writing op-eds in major media and meeting with Labor Secretary Tom Perez.

The opportunities for faith-based action don’t end there. Prominent Methodist minister and blogger Morgan Guyton points out, “The lever we have in the political realm is that the oppressor may profess our faith.” Sojourners’ King, describing other forms of economic pressure that can be applied at the congregational level, speaks of the prophet Amos, who “warns against those who would sell the needy for ‘a pair of sandals.’ How often have we sold out regular workers just trying to make a living in order to get a better bargain buy on a pair of shoes? Churches should be having the theological conversations, but are also powerful centers for helping their members make better economic choices,” especially regarding businesses known for treating their workers with fairness.

As an example of successful intersection between faith, government, and labor, King points to last December’s Fast for Families, a pro-immigration action involving activists, members of the faith community, members of Congress, and the SEIU, which largely backed the protest. The seemingly contagious Moral Monday protest movement springing out of North Carolina may well be another.

Livingston takes these sentiments further, suggesting this intersection is as vital to the future of unions as it is beneficial to workers’ spirits. “We want to see this grow,” he says. “Unions are beginning to realize that if they’re going to grow, they’re going to have to unionize [low wage retail and service workers] and adapt. We think as you do this it’s important to focus on the faith dimension, the spiritual dimension…you need to do that. The workers you’re trying to help, trying to improve their conditions, these folks care about spirituality. They care about church.”

“It’s enormously important for workers to see people of faith joining with them – when they’re going on strike, engaged in street theater, in press conferences,” he continues, explaining that clergy from IWJ will accompany striking workers back into their workplaces to ensure there is no retaliation. “I wear a collar to all of these things – I wear a collar more now than probably any other time in my ministry. To have a person of faith standing with them, it’s important to them, it touches something profound and deep within them.”

There’s a simplicity to this idea that cuts right to the heart of the issue of workers’ spiritual needs. In today’s desolate climate, American workers are desperate to know that someone – anyone – has their back.

Whether it’s a traditional labor union, a priest, pastor, rabbi, imam, guru, faith organization or, ideally, some cooperative combination matters less than the fact that workers are tired of living adrift and helpless. With the right resources and committed individuals brought to bear on the situation, the outcome may well prove to be nothing less than sheer revival – the kind of soul-stirring that makes a person even more likely to stand up in solidarity and demand a better life.

If working people are to clearly see the light of the world, if the joy referenced by Pope Francis is to be felt in the Wal-Mart, the warehouse, the factory, the restaurant, and the office, unions and activists need to link arms with people of faith, and spiritual leaders need to recognize the concerns of workers not as an abstract political issue but as a problem central to a life of faith. The goalposts, at present, may barely be visible on the horizon, but a boost to the collective heart and soul of workers, the labor movement, and the church could be the only available avenue for us, as a society, to change the way we do business.

By Jay Monaco

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