Only A Few Predicted It

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by Paul Sherry

In early June, dozens of low-wage workers confronted members of the Democratic Platform Committee as they entered the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC for a meeting. The protesters were there to demand that the committee add explicit support for a $15 minimum wage into the party’s official platform.

What happened next, as reported by Isaiah J. Poole in a discussion with Joseph  Geevarghese, Executive Director of Good Jobs Nation, provides a clue as to the rapidly changing national political landscape. These are Pooles’ words:

As a few of the protesting workers wearing blue shirts with the word ‘strike’ emblazoned on the front managed to commandeer a row of seats inside the platform committee hearing, Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser was speaking. When she mentioned that she had just unanimously agreed to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by the year 2020, the workers erupted in cheers.

What a great day for the city’s struggling working people and families! And a great day for all of us committed to stand alongside working people as they seek justice for themselves and their families!

Just a few years ago, nobody could have predicted that day. Nor could we have predicted similar days in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and beyond. Indeed, what was considered wishful dreaming just two years ago is now, thanks to the committed work of our country’s new working class, an achievable reality. Victories have been won, and these victories give promise of far more in the days that lie ahead. The national political landscape is changing. A better future for so many is possible.

But not without struggle.

The change we need will not come easily. Opposition remains strong and unyielding. There is much more work to do.

In her important new book, Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will  Transform America, Tamara Draut speaks to this issue and places the recent  “Fight for $15” in its larger context. This new working class is comprised of far more women and people of color than ever before. And while the new working class has over the years been marginalized, if not ignored, it is now flexing its muscle. Using a variety of examples, Draut argues persuasively that despite the fact that these new members of the working class continue to be severely discriminated against because of their race or gender, they are the harbingers of dramatic and positive change. And they are not going away. They are in for the long haul. They are committed to take their rightful place at work and society and they will not be deterred.  

This new working class is far more female and racially diverse and it is no longer confined to the assembly line. Rather, “today’s working class watches our children and cares for our parents. They park our cars, screen our luggage, clean our offices, and cook and serve our meals. They are us.” This huge, sleeping giant of fast food, retail, health care, and other service industries is awakening, and in its awakening, writes Draut, the future of this nation will change in ways not imagined but a few years ago. She is convinced that not only will it change America, it will change America for the better.

Draut tells us that she, by nature, is not an optimist. Rather, she says that she tends to vacillate between cynicism, pessimism, and downright despair about the state of this country.

But, she continues, “In the past several years I’ve become steadily more optimistic. I’ve seen the steady emergence of a new generation of activism and leadership focused squarely on revitalizing working-class power, weaving together issues of economic, social, and racial justice … the examples of a newly organized working class defeating attempts to scale back workers’ rights or restrictive voting laws are too numerous for a cynically inclined person to ignore … the victories bubbling up in towns and states across the country on minimum wage and paid sick days  are big enough to chip away the pessimism that has gripped so many progressive activists for decades. The sleeping giant is awakening and our nation will be all the better for it.”

The phrase, “a newly organized working class,” is key to understanding the path to renewal that is at the core of Draut’s argument for constructive change. She is rightly convinced that organizing is energized both by the vision of a more just future and by the pain and anger of those who hurt. It is the fuel needed for renewal.

The new working class is changing the national political landscape. They are leading the way. What can people of faith, people of good will, do to be of help?

There is much we can do. We can help get out the truth about the conditions which so many working people, particularly women and people of color, face every day of their lives and what they are doing to change those conditions. If professional journalists can’t or won’t do it, it is up to us. We need to make the invisible visible. And in doing so, we will be speaking truth to power.

We can support workers and families when workers strike to demand a decent salary and better working conditions. We are all aware that there is great risk involved for workers who choose to strike in protest of unjust working conditions.  It takes courage to do so. Firings are not uncommon. Strikes can go on for long periods of time and families are often in danger of going hungry for lack of sufficient financial resources. We can join picket lines. We can provide financial and moral support. We can let the strikers and families know they are not alone; we will be there for them.

We can participate in mass mobilizations like The Movement for Black Lives and immigrant rights movements and national and regional and local organizations like Interfaith Worker Justice, Jobs With Justice, NETWORK and many others that are galvanizing significant portions of the new working class and challenging historic inequities. Through such participation not only do we strengthen the movements and organizations that we join but we also begin to recognize things in our own lives that we personally need to change if we are to become the change agents these days require.

We can support legislation designed to bring about a greater measure of justice for working people and oppose legislation that stands in the way of positive change.

The sleeping giant is awakening. It is time for all of us to awaken also. The prophet Isaiah, centuries ago, gave us our marching orders; “Let justice roll down like living waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” That is the vision we need if we are to overcome.

I do believe it. An awakened giant supported by a committed people will transform that which is into that which our God surely would have it be. So let’s do it!

The Rev. Dr. Paul H. Sherry is the former President of the United Church of Christ. Currently, he serves as President of Interfaith Worker Justice, a national faith based body committed to stand alongside of and to work in support of the working poor.

In addition to serving as President of the United Church of Christ, additional positions previously held by Dr. Sherry include:  Head of the National Council of Church’s Mobilization to Overcome Poverty, Consultant for the Center for Community Change, Executive Director of Chicago’s Community Renewal Society, Publisher of the Pilgrim Press, Executive Associate for Planning and Strategy of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries,  Executive Secretary of the Council for Higher Education of the United Church of Christ, and Editor of the Journal of Current Social Issues.

For a number of years Sherry hosted religion and public affairs talk shows on television and radio in New York City, Chicago, and Cleveland. He is the co-author of A JUST MINIMUM WAGE, Editor of THE RIVERSIDE PREACHERS, a contributor to several additional books, and author of numerous published articles.

Through the years he has led or participated in campaigns on behalf of people of color, the working poor, welfare mothers, the physically and mentally challenged, and gay, lesbian, and transgendered people. While serving as the President of the United Church of Christ, a primary theme of his presidency was that of Building a World fit for Children.     

Sherry was a parish pastor for seven years – at the Community United Church of Christ, Hasbrouck Heights, NJ, and at St. Matthew’s (now St. Luke’s) United Church of Christ, Kenhorst, Pa. 

He earned a B.A. degree (1955) from Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pa. and an M.Div. (1958) and a Ph.D. in theology (1969) from Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He is listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, and elsewhere.

Sherry holds honorary degrees from the United Theological Seminary; Eden Theological Seminary; Ursinus college; Elmhurst College; Defiance College; Lakeland College; the Reformed Theological Academy, Debracan, Hungary; and Chicago Theological Seminary. In 2005, he received a “Distinguished Alumnus” award from Union Theological Seminary.

Sherry is married to Mary Louise Thornburg. They are members of the South Euclid United Church of Christ in South Euclid, Ohio, and have two grown children, four grandsons, and two great granddaughters.