A Fork in the Road to Worker Justice
A Fork in the Road to Worker Justice

A Fork in the Road to Worker Justice

January 1 st 2004

Third and final in a series addressing the roots, current state, and future prospects of the Christian labour movement.

It would be easy to paint a bleak picture of the future of the Christian labour movement. In my own personal experience, there is little overall difference between Christians and non-Christians in their concern for the source of the goods they consume. Even as my husband and I work to start a fair trade store in our small town, we have an awareness that, first of all, it is impossible for us to live without contributing to unjust conditions for workers worldwide, and second, that there is far too little outrage at this situation.

As Father Sinclair Oubre, administrator of the Catholic Labour Network, states:

Already, I have received a couple of e-mails from Catholics who have bought into the capitalist, globalized, market-driven world, and then ignore papal social teachings, and anachronistically draw on St. Thomas and the Spanish scholastics to support the position they wanted anyway. They have bracketed the Church's ordinary magisterium, and have replaced it with what they find to justify their position, in the disguises of religion.

Father Oubre certainly strikes a familiar chord with me when he identifies the modern Christian's anachronistic tendencies, especially regarding our concern for the poor, the oppressed, the "least of these."

The Christian labour movement is potentially at a fork in the road, and there is much evidence to support a pessimistic view of its future. Evidence can be found in the nature of twenty-first century Christianity itself.

First, we have the failure of liberation theology to become a global religious movement that permanently freed the politically and economically oppressed. In Latin America, an area where liberation theology enjoyed initial growth and real success, calculated efforts by governments and militaries suppressed this radical Catholicism with less threatening Pentecostalism.

In his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Philip Jenkins observes of this conversion that it "represented globalization at its worst, the forcible destruction of local communities and traditions." Disturbingly, the conversion effort was allegedly supported by U.S. agencies and funded by conservative evangelical groups.

Adding to the failure of liberation theology is the failure of modern martyrs to make headlines in a world obsessed with power. Jenkins explores the golden age of liberation theology, when clergy were so respected that their voices could be heard as they spoke against worker injustice, whereas an ordinary labourer's declaration would lead to death or imprisonment. Jailing or killing a priest was a bad political move for oppressive regimes on account of the negative press attention. Unfortunately, "the church's immunity was strictly limited, and only applied when governments cared about world opinion," says Jenkins.

Perhaps oppressed people will just have to take control of their own situations and rise up for themselves. After all, Jenkins reveals an explosion of Christian churches in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the areas of major labour crises, surely the social element of the gospel will cause individuals to recognize and defend their own dignity. However, these labourers face a host of practical obstacles.

Ed Bosveld, Ontario provincial director for the Christian Labour Association of Canada, explains that practical obstacles to the success of Christian labour movements include a lack of resources, no legal protection, and a very real risk of violence against union leaders. "Out of necessity," says Bosveld, "Christian trade unions in less-developed countries spend much of their energy on survival and becoming established." They have difficulty making any headway as a result of being consumed with simply maintaining existence.

And practical obstacles to existence are only compounded by the nature of the Christianity that is thriving in areas of greatest need. Perhaps a result of memories that an external, politically involved Christianity is what motivated a culturally crippling imperialism, the Christianity that is growing fastest in Southern and Eastern countries is highly internal, placing extreme importance on faith-healing, mystical experiences, exorcism, and a personal relationship with God as opposed to outward, active social expressions of that relationship.

Jenkins attributes this quality of "new" Christianity in part to the difficulties of daily life in areas of poverty. For Southern and Eastern Christians,

the sources of evil are located not in social structures but in types of spiritual evil, which can be effectively combated by believers. . . . Taking all these threats together—disease, exploitation, pollution, drink, drugs, and violence—it is easy to see why people might easily accept the claim that they are under siege from demonic forces, and that only divine intervention can save them.

According to Jenkins, a very popular verse among African Christians comes from Paul's letter to the Ephesians: "Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America can be easily construed as structured escapism that allows believers to tolerate injustice in their daily lives with the hope of rich blessings in the life to come.

If the traditional church has been rendered lame and the emerging church has no interest in improving social circumstances, can there be any hope for the worker? Given the above claims, the answer is a resounding, "No!"

Fortunately, the negative evidence does not compose the exhaustive answer to that question. To label emerging Christianity as escapist or as "a refuge from real-life struggles, a 'haven for the masses'," is easy and inaccurate. Jenkins writes: "Even when not politically radical, Pentecostals are often heavily involved in community organizing and social action, and it is misleading to see them as necessarily quietist or submissive."

Pentecostals, who compose a large majority of newly converted Christians in the developing world, are enthusiastic about social improvement, and their focus on an inward relationship with Christ often manifests itself outwardly in ways that improve the social structures. "Studies of Latin American Pentecostalism note how believers gain a new sense of individual respect and responsibility, together with habits of thrift, sobriety, and literacy, and similar observations can be made of their African counterparts," says Jenkins.

The social message of Christianity is also having a positive effect among lower caste citizens in India, who especially claim the idea that "what human beings reject, God chooses as his very own." The distinct sense of human beings as the image of God has enormous potential to inspire positive progress in areas of grave worker abuse.

Among Christians in developed countries, the challenge of postmodernism is proving positive, leading churches to take action that coincides with ancient principles. In the late twentieth century, the church's seeming emphasis on doctrine and theology without much attention to practical action led many to disregard the Christian church's claim to truth.

However, the church is formulating a strong response, reminiscent of the Industrial Revolution, when secular movements inspired it to mobilize on behalf of workers. Kim Bobo, director of the National Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice (NICWJ), sees practical evidence of this movement. "I have seen a dramatic increase in Christian involvement in labour issues," she says. Bobo observes that with the destruction of the social safety net, starting with the Reagan administration in the 1980s, a new generation of Christians has come to realize that soup kitchens and hospitals are not enough—they need to address the root causes of poverty and worker injustice.

Bobo also says that in the past few years, the language of the religion-labour movement has changed from specifically Christian language to a broader interfaith language, acknowledging the shared values among Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews, which can inspire collaborative efforts against injustice. When you're dealing with both Muslim immigrant workers from Somalia in the Twin Cities and Vietnamese Buddhist workers in poultry plants, "it just makes sense" to be an interfaith movement, says Bobo.

While NICWJ is clearly interfaith, Bobo does admit that their most successful organizing is done through Christian churches because of the high level of structure. They can work through Christian denominations, and through Jewish synagogues (85 per cent of Reform synagogues have social action committees), in ways they cannot work through less-organized Buddhist temples. But the success of the interfaith philosophy is clear—NICWJ has 60 groups throughout the United States who are committed to organizing alongside of and on behalf of struggling workers.

NICWJ has also proven itself a leader in cooperating with secular movements. In October 1999, it organized a conference to bring together labour and religious leaders for discussion on how they might work together on behalf of underprivileged people in the United States. Of this seemingly strange union, "labour priest" Monsignor George Higgins said, "When labour was riding high in the 40s and 50s, it wasn't interested in coalitions, it had 35 percent of the workforce. Earlier experiments were cosmetic, public relations efforts. This is something new. It shows the possibility of surviving."

And survive it has. A direct result of the 1999 dialogue is the Labour in the Pulpits program, which encourages churches to take Labour Day seriously and bring labour leaders into their churches in honour of the September holiday. Labour leaders and Christians with a passion for social justice are realizing how badly they need one another if they are going to make real progress against calculating, well-armed forces who zealously worship the proverbial bottom line.

Chuck Collins, co-director of United for a Fair Economy in Boston, writes of the partnership between religion and labour: "What other configuration will serve as a countervailing moral and political force to the concentrated power and immorality of global corporations?" If there's another answer, I can't imagine what it would be.

I firmly believe that the Christian church is in a unique moment of decision: will we keep our eyes shut, our mouths closed in the interest of maintaining the profitable status quo, or will we make the sacrifices necessary to fight for worker justice? We could choose either way, given both the positive and negative evidence, and I will not hide my bias in favour of the second option.

I believe that, despite evidence to the contrary, it's entirely possible for the body of believers to become a major force for the alleviation of poverty and insecurity among workers worldwide. The question then becomes, if we want to expand the influence of Christians in the area of worker justice, how? It's a complex question, but an attempt at some suggestions follows.

Support Fair Trade—While there is nothing inherently evil about large corporations, our allegiance to brand-name, mass-produced products has become imbalanced. The simple acts of buying local and buying fair trade support individual communities in life-affirming ways. Organizations of all shapes and sizes are working to cut out middlemen from the marketing process and return more of the profit to the producer under the principles of fair trade. Ten Thousand Villages, SERRV, UPAVIM, Marketplace of India, Global Crafts—the list of fair trade retailers goes on. (For more information on buying fair trade, see the Fair Trade Federation's website at www.fairtradefederation.com.)

Promote Common Cause Solutions to Worker Injustice—The movement to bring justice to the oppressed will have the broadest influence if it appeals to common values of human dignity and justice. Like Paul explaining the altar to an unknown god in Athens, we must look for cultural and religious common ground in order to actualize the truth that God is a God who loves justice. As Kim Bobo reveals, however, organizing through Christian churches is by far the most successful.

Interfaith efforts, then, ought to be firmly rooted in organized churches with distinct and intentional outreach efforts to those of other religious backgrounds. Movements that remain distinctly Christian should be inclusive, expressing a distinct desire to work for the justice of all, as the successful Christian Labour Association of Canada has done.

Interfaith efforts to aid workers will also serve another purpose in deterring violence in areas of high tension between Christians and Muslims. Philip Jenkins creates a rather frightening picture of the potential for conflict between these two religious groups who, in many parts of the developing world, are fighting for the same land, the same governments, and the same people. Both groups have already shown a willingness to resort to violence on behalf of their causes.

The now disbanded Neighbour-to-Neighbour, a community action organization that mobilized volunteers on behalf of oppressed people around the world, provided a helpful, successful model for addressing this type of conflict. Dale Hasenick, a volunteer for Neighbour-to-Neighbour in the late 1980s and early 1990s, related the story of his involvement with a letter-writing campaign to end U.S. government funding to the oppressive regime in El Salvador. Once stated goals were achieved, supporting organizations, including Oxfam and Equal Exchange, were faced with a need to ensure positive peace between Salvadorean rebels and the government, and so they started a coffee co-op. The product of that co-op was the coffee blend Café Salvador, which is still sold through Equal Exchange today.

The underlying principle of this project was that conflicting groups who have a positive common goal will experience a constructive interdependence, fostering understanding and deterring conflict. Given strong values in both Islam and Christianity that encourage just treatment of the individual, an intentional effort to unite these two major religions on behalf of the worker could prove to be generally positive for the future global political and religious climates, while allowing both religions to maintain distinct identities.

Network!—The international movement to exploit poor workers should be met with an equally organized, international movement to aid workers in the pursuit of fair wages, safe conditions, and the right to organize. However, like many involved in religion-labour movements, Kim Bobo expressed a sincere frustration at the lack of time and resources to truly work with other groups around the world. For example, NICWJ is currently addressing issues for laundry workers, a large group of whom are operating in Toronto, but it has few leads on what organizations might be working in that area on the same issue.

In corresponding with several individuals for this article, I found a general tendency, out of necessity, for local organizers to have limited knowledge of what is going on around the world in the area of worker justice. Because there is so much to be done and so few resources to apply to immediate tasks, an international faith-based movement is a vague possibility at this point. But, as Bobo says, "The potential is enormous and it needs to happen."

A potential solution might be two-fold, consisting of an actual group of individuals who compose an international religion-labour secretariat and a virtual world of Internet-based programs that allow for the constant exchange of relevant information and ideas. Before this vision can become a reality, however, there is a desperate need for leadership and funding, which, with the growing consciousness of worker justice issues among First World Christians, could possibly be met in the next 10 years.

Encourage Your Faith Community to Become Educated and Involved—The organizing philosophy of the NICWJ states: "People of faith want to help low-wage workers, but generally do not know how to get started." But what can we do about it?

The notion that we don't know where to start is profoundly true, but the obstacle can be easily overcome. The NICWJ website ( www.nicwj.org) has many resources for churches, and they are trying to add one denominationally-specific booklet each year. The AFL-CIO site ( www.aflcio.org) also has resources for getting involved in the Labour in the Pulpits program.

The most effective organizing tool in congregations, says Bobo, is having workers tell their own stories, which makes their dilemmas real and deteriorates the common fear of unions among people of faith. Fair trade organizations such as SERRV ( www.serrv.org) and Equal Exchange (www.equalexchange.com) also have an abundance of resources for getting your faith community involved in worker justice issues in practical ways, including fundraisers and educational materials.

Many people around the world would say that Christianity is dying. One reaction to the news is to turn inward, to insulate the dying culture in blankets of trite ritual and exclusivity. However, as Jenkins explores in The Next Christendom, the assertion of Christianity's death is unfounded and untrue. In areas of greatest growth, "Christianity is far more than an opium of the disinherited masses: it provides a very practical setting in which people can improve their daily lives."

Churches are providing a means of upward mobility in societies in which individuals are generally condemned to the class they're born into. Churches are providing a place where the voices of women can be heard in traditional societies. Churches are providing alternative networks of social support in rapidly expanding poor urban areas. And in developed countries, a new generation is stirring, a generation of people who are not content with the social structure as it is but who are willing to lay down their lives in order to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God.

In the coming years, Jenkins predicts "tens of millions of new urban dwellers will in effect be living and working totally outside the legal economy or any effective relationship with officialdom." Someone must rise up to meet the needs of these masses and all of the oppressed, under-employed, abused workers in the world. If not the church, then who?

The biblical imperative for social justice is not just a call to detached and occasional participation in easy solutions. Rather, it is an all-encompassing call to pursue justice at all times and in all ways, to make choices that benefit those who have no choice, to speak for those who have no voice, to show radical love to those who would easily be forgotten. We can confidently make daily, individual choices that reflect our faith and honour the worker, and we can support those for whom fighting worker injustice is a lifetime vocation. Honestly, what do we have to lose?

Recommended Reading

  • Rose Marie Berger and Jodi Hochstedler, "How Much Does 'Free' Trade Really Cost?," Sojourner's Magazine (January-February 2002, vol. 31, no. 1, 13).

  • Kate Bowman, "A Deafening Silence: In Israel, Is it Now Okay to Kill Americans?," Sojourner's Magazine (July-August 2003, vol. 32, no. 4, 18).

  • Chuck Collins, "Restoring Labor's Voice: A Movement for a Fair Economy," Sojourner's Magazine (January-February 2000, vol. 29, no. 1, 57).

  • Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002).

  • National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice Organizing Philosophy (available online at http://www.nicwj.org/pages/aboutus.ophil.html).

  • "The Qur'an and Worker Justice," PDF resource available online from NICWJ at http://www.nicwj.org/pages/materials.quran.html.
Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma
Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma is the editor of catapult magazine, a bi-weekly online publication affiliated with the organization *culture is not optional (*cino). She and her husband Rob are the co-founders of a non-profit, volunteer-run fair trade store called World Fare in Three Rivers, Michigan, where *cino purchased a historic school in 2009 for future college and community development programs. Their *cino internship program offers them the opportunity to live in community with young adults exploring themes of small town dynamics, home economics, imagination, rootedness, and practical theology.


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