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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Labor Day Blues

Once again it is blame the victim.  No, I’m not talking about the Strauss-Kahn case.  I’m talking about how workers and their unions are taking the heat these days for all the economic woes challenging the country.  At a time when the concentration of wealth is growing at the top, when the number of people paying no federal income taxes is rising, not because they are wealthy and benefit from lavish Bush era tax cuts, but rather because they don’t earn enough to reach the taxable threshold, and when wages for blue collar and middle class Americans have remained stagnant for years, thus shrinking against inflationary indexes, the anti-labor, anti-union rhetoric is as high as it has ever been.

The governors of Wisconsin and Ohio may be slightly chastened by the push back to their overreaching efforts to undermine basic principles of workers’ rights, but only slightly.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its powerful allies in Congress are gleeful today because the term of the current head of the National Labor Relations Board is ending.  Her crime?  She and her colleagues interpreted labor laws in ways that made it a level playing field for union organizers and, worst of all, challenged Boeing Corporation’s decision to move production of its newest jet from a union to a non-union state.  South Carolina Tea Party senator James DeMint is not happy!  He and others are threatening to block any new appointments to the NLRB, rendering it powerless to function.  After what we have watched in Congress in the last few months, no one should doubt the seriousness of that threat.

Unions shouldn’t be given a free pass.  Some are their own worst enemies when it comes to the battle of public perception, appearing obstructionist and out of touch with the fiscal realities being faced by mayors and governors today.  And, to be sure, there are abuses among the leadership in some places.  But there were abuses at the top of the banking system as well, abuses that plunged the country into a deep recession.  Banks may not like Dodd-Frank reforms, and some of the leaders of Wall Street need to be called to account.  But no one is seriously arguing that banking per se ought to be abandoned.  Unsustainable benefits and retirement programs need to be addressed, but should workers who were promised these benefits when they signed on be vilified when they cry foul at unilateral attempts to revoke those benefits?  It’s hard not to believe that some are being expected to bear far more of the burden of solving our economic problems than others.

The well-financed spin against labor can easily cherry pick abuses to make its case.  But as I watched sanitation workers picking up garbage in the parks on Lake Shore Drive one hot, steamy morning, the stench almost overpowering as I glided by on my vacation day bike ride, it became a little harder for me to see these sweating neighbors as the enemy.  In a few days we’ll be remembering 9/11 and, especially in New York, hundreds of first responders – firefighters, police officers, EMT’s – will be remembered for their heroism.  All union members.  The anti-labor rhetoric will be suspended for a day.  But not, I suspect, for much more than that.

The real tragedy in this is the impact the war against labor is having on the lowest paid, most vulnerable workers in our country – hotel workers, car wash attendants, airport shop workers, etc.  With reasonable efforts to organize thwarted at almost every turn, the chance that these workers will ever gain even a toe-hold on the American dream remains elusive.  And here the Strauss-Kahn case is relevant.  We may never really know what happened in that luxury hotel room in New York.  What we do know is that Nafissatou Diallo, like hundreds of thousands of hotel maids around the country, worked long hours for low wages risking injury hauling increasingly heavy bedding around to ensure that, at least when we’re traveling, we have clean sheets every night (along with a heavy duvet, superfluous pillows, and an endless array of towels we’d never consider necessary at home where we have to wash them).  The day I hear wealthy hotel chain owners say, “Yes, we do need to raise the national minimum wage; yes, we do need to monitor the work load of our staff to ensure that they are not injured; yes, we do need honest evaluation of supervisors to ensure that our employees are being treated fairly, with dignity and respect,” and then follow through on these statements, is the day I’ll start trusting their animosity toward union organizing.

For over a century Papal encyclicals have dignified labor and have inspired countless priests, nuns, and laity to support the labor movement.  And there have been many Protestant churches, as well as Jews, joining in this effort.  But, in truth, many of our congregations harbor considerable hostility toward workers and unions, with attitudes shaped more by the market place than the Gospel.  Whenever our United Church of Christ Sunday bulletin service printed a strong pro-worker message for its Labor Day weekend cover, we received a number of bitterly hostile letters from good church folk heaping abuse on the labor movement.  So I’m not expecting many of our Sunday services to look like union rallies this weekend.  But this year we might hope that some will at least be singing the Labor Day Blues.

John H. Thomas

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