Labor Day 2012: We are all in this together
Good morning. I am so pleased to be speaking to you today this Labor Day Sunday. My name is Aina Gutierrez, and my family has been attending St. Mark’s for a little less than a year now. My mom Katrina, husband Doug, and I have found this community a very welcoming place to worship. Our three kids – Eva, Asher, and Elsa – have found the coloring pages, talk about God, sweets after church and tag playing in the church lawn to also be top notch.
For the last 10 years, I’ve been on staff for a national organization called Interfaith Worker Justice. We work with communities of faith across the country to advance the rights of working people. I’m here today as part of our Labor in the Pulpits program. More than 100 congregations in the Chicago area coordinated through our affiliate organization Arise Chicago, and more than 1,000 congregations across the country are talking about worker justice in their services today.
And workers need justice right now, don’t they? It’s been a rough time for working people. We often hear the news that our economy is in crisis. I actually think there are several crises that have dramatically affected workers and their families.
We have an unemployment crisis. Nationwide unemployment is stuck at 9 percent. Underemployment is at least another 7-8 percent. Underemployment is those who have given up looking for work (so not in the unemployment figures) and who’ve taken a part time job when they really want full-time. And the unemployment and underemployment rates are significantly higher for people of color.
We have an income crisis. Even before this current economic downturn, we had an income crisis for workers in the U.S. The minimum wage doesn’t begin to support a family. Income for most workers has not kept up. I know that the Occupy Wall Street folks are a bit controversial. But they’ve gotten income disparity and the stories of suffering people on the national agenda.
We have a benefits crisis. Growing numbers of workers don’t have and need core family benefits—health care, pension, paid sick days. Every other industrialized nation has these (and don’t get me started on paid vacation and maternity leave!). We have restaurant workers going to work sick and serving food to customers; and construction workers injured and using emergency rooms for primary healthcare. This is not acceptable.
We have a wage theft crisis. One-fourth of low-wage workers aren’t paid the minimum wage. Three fourths of low-wage workers who work more than 40 hours aren’t paid the overtime premium the law says they deserve. Ten percent of tipped workers have their tips stolen. Whole sectors of workers are illegally called independent contractors and cheated of wages, taxes and protections. Wage theft is all around you.
We have an immigration crisis. Twelve million undocumented workers with no path to citizenship. Young immigrant students who are our future innovators and leaders being denied schooling. And instead of addressing the issues, we are blaming immigrants for the jobs and state budget crises.
We have an organizing crisis. We say that we as a nation believe all workers should have the right to organize into a union. But, across the board, workers believe that if you organize, you will be fired. Whether or not that actually happens, workers believe it. And enough workers are fired for organizing to confirm it.
This is currently our world, our society, our future.
I am conscious of using “we” and “our” to describe these issues, because I think it reflects the approach that we need to promote in seeking justice for workers –THAT WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.
And by we I mean all of us—as individuals and in our church. There is often hesitation when I mention the Church as an active partner in social justice. The Church in economics? The Church in social change? Yes, and yes. I see the Church as an important place to talk about labor issues because if people suffer as a result of how society treats its workers then that is where the Church needs to be.
Paul in his letter to the Philippians today is talking about humility but also about self-interest. He says - “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Paul was building a community based on the values of humility, equality and love. One that is built on the idea that we are all in this together. I’m afraid many places in our current society doesn’t reflect these values—the building of workplace community, the fair distribution of wealth, compassion for those that are suffering and hungry.
What kinds of things can we do to promote a just society for ourselves, and all those that work? One that promotes collaboration, fairness, and equity? That creates workplaces of dignity and respect?
I think some of Paul’s most powerful evangelism in the Bible is through setting by example, and honoring others that are doing the same. We can do that too. Let me suggest four ways:
1—Treat coworkers and other workers with dignity and respect. I have the illustrious history of working in food service for more than five years as kitchen help and server. My mom has been in the industry for more than 40 years, and manages a restaurant in Evanston. We speak from lots of experience that restaurant workers could use more dignity and respect in the workplace.
Money is a big part of it – providing generous tips for good service. Tipped workers don’t make minimum wage and the tips are a huge part of what they do take home.
But wages are not the only way to promote respect in the workplace. In my case, I also wanted people to be kind; look me in the eye when they ordered their meals; and listen to me when I had questions. To compliment me if I did a good job. And, if appropriate, get to know me. I had an elderly couple that came into the restaurant every Tuesday for lunch. I waited on them dozens of times before they even asked me my name (which, incidentally, was written on my shirt). I deserved better; all workers do.
So, think about the people that provide you with a service in the course of a day. The barista, car wash worker, dry cleaner, and nurse. The parking garage attendant, babysitter, crosswalk guard and teacher. How do you treat them? Are there ways you could do more to treat them respectfully?
2—Intervene on behalf of coworkers, or in workplaces where you see injustice. If we are in this together, we have to speak up when others are being treated poorly. In scripture, we are called as individuals to act with God and his commandments. But I also think we have a responsibility to act with others when something is not as it should be. This is solidarity. This is caring for your brother or sister. This is treating someone as you would like to be treated.
This is fundamentally what labor unions are all about. Unions put in place a system of checks and balances to make sure that workers are treated fairly. Union contracts try to reign in stubborn employers that won’t give people a second chance.
Those who put their jobs on the line to organize colleagues and push for contracts to set in place just systems for workers are worthy of our admiration. Those who approach an angry boss and urge forgiveness for a colleague is to be praised. Those who help employers welcome and treat workers respectfully are doing the work of God.
I have been approached by folks over the years questioning the value of and integrity of labor unions. I would never argue that unions are perfect, just like I wouldn’t try to argue that churches are perfect. My non-profit organization has a staff union and I represent management at the bargaining table – so I am not naïve to the challenges and hair pulling that occurs in the course of negotiations. But the goal - the big goal – is to get people out of poverty, and to provide workers with a voice in the workplace. And unions do that, no question.
3—Affirm and praise those doing good work already. Pastor Debra has mentioned the happenings of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church earlier this summer. One important development for the Church was the passage of three labor-related resolutions—one condemning the practice of wage theft; one on acknowledging and reaffirming the rights of workers to form into unions and have a strong voice in their workplaces; and one raising concern about hiring temporary employees at sub par wages. I am proud and thankful to be part of a community that has talked about and voted on issues that affect so many people in this country. They are steps in the right direction.
As individuals, there are lots of things we can do to support those doing right by workers. We can spend our dollars at businesses that treat workers justly – the ethical employers. We can tip generously, and in cash – making sure that restaurant workers, nail technicians and other tipped employees get the tip (unfortunately, many don’t). When contracting with any business – for lawn care, construction, or cleaning, inquire about how their employees are classified or paid. The last time my family moved, we had to interview several moving companies before finding one that hired employees, not contractors, and that guaranteed workers compensation and benefits. But it’s worth it to know that we are spending our dollars in the right place.
4—Vote for those that reflect your values. I would be remiss a few months before an election to not mention the importance of voting. There is a lot of work happening in the state of Illinois and nationally to change policies on issues such as immigration reform, paid sick days, and raising the minimum wage. The passage of such policies would positively transform the lives of thousands of workers. There are serious budget problems in most states and nationally. We need leaders who will work to close those gaps but also prayerfully consider the human costs in some of those numbers.
Labor Day provides us with the space every year to reflect on worker issues and an opportunity to start building new practices into our lives. Treat workers and those that work for you with respect and dignity. Treat them as brothers and sisters in your life. And when you see injustice and unfairness in the workplace, intervene. Be willing to step outside your comfort zone and speak up for your colleagues. Affirm those already doing good work for justice. And participate in our society by voting for those that are working for all of us.
We are the beloved community. We are the Church. We are all in this together.