(This post originally appeared as an article in my local’s newsletter.)
Why is a priest and chaplain writing an article for a union newsletter? Well, first of all, I am a proud union member just like you. Second, I am simply following a long line of people of faith who have believed in and supported unions and workers throughout history.
Way back in 1893, Terence Powderly, the founder and president of the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, wrote about labor history up to that day: “Trade-unionists, members of guilds, leagues and other organizations of workers embraced Christianity and proclaimed its doctrines as being especially advantageous to the welfare of the toiling poor.”
Another important historical story is that of Father Thomas Hagerty, a Roman Catholic priest, who co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union in 1905. Fr. Hagerty wrote the following powerful words in the preamble of the IWW constitution: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.”
It is my firm belief that these great men of labor history were simply following the tenets of the faith which they avowed. From the original believers in the book of Acts, to the English Diggers in the 1600’s, to the Social Gospel and Liberation Theology movements of the 20th Century, Christian faith has consistently witnessed to the need for justice in the workplace.
Because bosses, landowners, and “lords” have long oppressed workers, the prophets of the Bible spoke out strongly against them. Jeremiah warned those who acted unjustly towards workers saying, “Woe to the one … who forces his own people to labor for nothing, who refuses to pay them for all their hard work” (Jer 22:13). St. James would write as well to the rich, “Listen! Hear the cries of the wages of your workers. These are the wages you stole from those who harvested your fields” (James 5:4).
Unfortunately, fairness in the workplace and equitable wages and benefits for all has yet to be achieved in our country. In fact, the union movement is under attack from just about every corner. Worker rights that were hard won by the fighting unions of the early days are slowly being stolen from the workers. We need to return to the fighting spirit that characterized our faithful union brothers and sisters of old. We need to have faith in the union again!
So, what motivates me to be in the fight for worker rights, to continue to have faith in the union? It is the mission statement of Jesus that inspires my union activism: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 4:18-19).
I hear the lowly carpenter saying to you and me today, “Now, go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37).
© Paul Dordal, 2018