Will the Religious Side with Workers?

At this moment, when the embattled US labor movement urgently needs strong community-based allies and much greater moral legitimation, there ought to be no better place to find both than among the faithful. Yet broad-based strategic and moral support from the religious side has been slow to materialize.

In saying this, I do not disparage or minimize the importance of the religious support that public sector workers, in my home state of Wisconsin in particular, have been able to marshal. The work of denominational, ecumenical, and interfaith bodies in backing and blessing the unionized workers has been crucially important. Much credit for this goes to the nimble and effective coordinating work of Interfaith Worker Justice, the Chicago-based umbrella group for dozens of local and regional religion-labor coalitions across the country.

One reason religious types have come to the defense of public sector workers is the blatant unfairness of the new attacks mounted by GOP governors like Walker, Kasich, and Daniels. Many faith leaders see how conservative GOP activists in public office use budgetary problems to strip away bargaining rights and push through governance changes that have nothing to do with balancing budgets in the short term.

Religious leaders might also be starting to draw the appropriate conclusions from the striking correlation between the sharp decline of American unionism and the sharp rise of American inequality that dates to the start of the Reagan years. It’s worth noting that Christian Century, a centrist magazine if ever there was one, devoted a two-page review this month to the book that lays out the correlation most thoroughly: Winner Take All Politics, by Joseph Hacker and Paul Pierson.

I want, however, to look at the part of the glass that’s half empty. I want to ask why many more of the faithful never took sides during the long war against unions and union workers that’s been raging since the mid-1970s—even prior to Ronald Reagan’s 1981 firing of the Air Traffic Controllers. The mid-’70s was when the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to low-wage, non-union suppliers began in earnest. It was also when U.S.-based corporations decided to start violating both the spirit and letter of the Wagner Act—the 1935 landmark legislation that gave workers their basic rights—in a systematic way. I began a fifteen year career as a senior staffer for two national unions (the Teachers and the Auto Workers) during the mid-’70s, and I was thus able to watch the systematic attack on workers and on union rights unfold at very close range.

What happened makes for a short and bitter story. Employers across the spectrum realized thirty-five years ago that they could flout the basic labor law and get away with it. They could intimidate and harass—and often fire—the union supporters; they could hold captive audience meetings to indoctrinate and frighten workers into voting against representation. Most importantly, they could hire union-busting consultants and lawyers to help implement these hardball tactics and delay union elections (often for years) with the goal of grinding down union support. If the National Labor Relations Board imposed penalties for blatant labor law violations, employers would merely chuckle and pay the fines (deducting them as a business expense, of course) in order to maintain union-free workplaces.

These aggressive new moves, combined with the capacity to shut down unionized workplaces and ship the work to the non-union American South or to the Global South, took their predictable devastating toll on private-sector unionism. Surging public sector unionism during this same period saved the American labor movement from complete collapse. But now these public sector unions are also under the gun in a big way.

So my question persists: Where were the vast majority of American religious leaders during these decades of attacks on workers and their organizations? It’s not that labor’s gospel of gaining a fair share of the economic productivity that workers help create is so very different from religion’s stated interest in shared prosperity. And it’s not that no religious figures ever took the side of unions in earlier U.S. history.

The Knights of Labor, the early American Federation of Labor, and even the IWW attracted significant religious allies. Large numbers of clergy and religiously-based lay activists rallied behind the industrial union surge of the 1930s. Yale Divinity School’s Liston Pope became a national labor advocate during the ’30s and ’40s. The Brothers Niebuhr and the Brothers Reuther spoke pretty much the same language—and I don’t mean German. During the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights heroes like King and Heschel respected the unions and understood their central political importance despite the strong taint of white racism within craft unionism. They and other religious figures helped progressive unionists begin to turn this racist legacy around to the point that the labor movement eventually became the most racially diverse major institution in American life.

Why the Arm’s-Length Relationship?

Explaining why most of American religion walked away from labor during recent decades is a complex matter. For space reasons, I offer some reasons by way of oversimplified bullet points:

  • An unpleasant aftertaste: As noted above, today’s labor movement is tremendously diverse, both ethnically and racially. Women and people of color run some of the biggest unions. But many religious leaders of a certain age are more likely to recall the older exclusionary craft unionism. They remember cranky George Meany and his ever-present cigar. They remember the building trades—Meany’s crowd—raining both bricks and brickbats down on an early anti-Vietnam War demonstration in the streets of New York.
  • A whiff of foreign-ness: From the 1890s onward a huge quantum of trade union energy came from new immigrant groups that brought their social solidarity with them to the new world. Jews and Italians, both already despised and feared, were foremost among these. Think Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Think Sacco and Vanzetti. So very scary and alien. Imagine trying to kill Henry Clay Frick or blow up the Los Angeles Times building? Surely no real American would attempt crimes like that: everyone knows we don’t have home-grown terrorists (ahem).
  • A whiff of socialism/communism: See above. An allergic reaction to Left ideology has always been a major factor in maintaining a distance between American religionists and American trade unionists. In the minds of many of the faithful, taking collective action to raise a barn is just fine, thank you. Taking collective action to preserve your dignity and make advances at the workplace is an entirely different matter. It smacks of an un-American and vaguely socialist mindset. See below.
  • A still-active “Protestant Ethic”: There’s a reason why Max Weber didn’t call his big book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Socialism. Weber believed that Calvinists have a particular anxiety about making it on their own, but the historic reality is that most Protestants share this anxiety and share an apprehension about throwing in with their workplace comrades to make things better. Nowhere more so than in these United States. There is also some status anxiety at play, and it too has deep historical and sociological roots. Which is to say, the more that Catholic leaders like New York’s legendary John Cardinal Hughes (“Dagger John”) would side with immigrant workers and with unions, the more Protestant leaders would elevate their noses and side even more strongly with the bosses. This pattern continued into the second half of the 19th century and beyond. As noted earlier, some Protestants did indeed step out on the workers’ side, but they remained a distinct minority. Today the cohort of American religious leaders who side unequivocally with unions is still thick with older Catholics who remember and revere traditional Catholic social teaching (especially Rerum Novarum and Laborem Exercens, pro-union encyclicals issued by Popes Leo XIII and John Paul II respectively). These staunch Catholic friends of labor are usually joined by some liberal Jews and liberal Protestants. But moderate and evangelical Protestants? Among the white ones, not so much. White evangelicals have even been known to create their own entities (e.g., the Christian Labor Association) specifically for the purpose of thwarting labor organizing drives. No one should forget that the powerful and secretive fundamentalist organization called The Family had its roots in anti-unionism. My colleague Peter Montgomery nails the anti-union ideology of a range of religious right groups in his own piece here on RD.
  • Identity politics among religious liberals: The Christian Century review of Winner Take All Politics quotes the authors’ spot-on analysis of progressive religious leaders’ conspicuous lack of interest in worker struggles in recent decades. In a word, these leaders had other priorities: women’s rights, LGBT issues, environmentalism, etc. “The result,” say Hacker and Pierson, “was a boon for the post-materialist causes of more affluent liberals, but it left traditional material causes with only a handful of energetic backers.” I couldn’t put it any better. In my own work, I am sometimes asked why I, as a gay clergy leader, remain so committed to worker issues. The implication: Don’t I know what’s really important?

And Now What?

What will be really interesting is to see what comes next. It’s never been clearer that without strong unions there can be no effective counterweight to the corporate power that now dominates both national political parties. So will Protestant leaders other than the energetic “handful” cited by Hacker and Pierson finally soften their finicky aversion to trade unionism? The key swing constituencies are Hispanic and African-American evangelicals, who are far more likely to embrace unionism than their white brethren. Faith communities serving immigrant workers and their families completely understand that unions do more than anyone else to offer protection and a better way of life to new Americans.

But even if theologically moderate Protestants begin to swing more toward a pro-union stance, what about other religious groups? Will younger members of the contemporary Jewish community who “live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans” (in Milton Himmelfarb’s still-apt phrase) abandon American Jews’ traditional allegiance to trade unionism? Will increasingly affluent Roman Catholics likewise begin to ditch the solidaristic ethic that has meant so much to earlier generations of US Catholics? There is some evidence that growing numbers of white Catholics share at least some of the negative views of unions that more typically characterize white Protestants.

I can’t predict what will happen next. I do know that week after week in their worship services, people of faith recall the sufferings of an oppressed workforce that caused JHWH to lead their ancestors out of Pharoah’s Egypt. I do know that week after week millions of the faithful break bread and drink wine together and invoke the idea of shared abundance: the common table where all will have enough.

Whether all of this liturgy and preaching ever gets connected to the real world of oppression and want that the unions are specifically constituted to address is anyone’s guess. I still take the Gramscian position toward social change: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. And I never cease to hope for new light and new energy from the heart of faith around the rights and dignity of working people.