Interfaith Worker Justice

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Why unions matter - and what faith has to do with it

Why unions matter - and what faith has to do with it

Why do unions need our support?

As people of faith, we recognize the dignity of all people and all workers. Our religious traditions affirm the right of workers to freely organize themselves to improve their wages, benefits, and working conditions and assert the right to a voice on the job.

But what do you think would happen if you tried to organize a union in your workplace?

If you are like most Americans, you probably suspect that you would be fired, harassed, or penalized in some fashion for supporting a union. And you are probably right!

In the U.S., reprisals on workers occur in over 80 percent of the workplaces in which workers seek to organize a union, with companies hiring "union avoidance" consultants to direct campaigns of fear, harassment and intimidation. Employers threaten to close plants and offices if workers vote for a union, they fire the union leaders and other workers who openly support a union (with chilling effects on organizing efforts), they harangue workers on paid time about how bad unions are and occasionally they beg workers to give them another chance.

Intimidation is often successful - while the majority of workers have indicated in polls that they would support a union if they were free to do so, many union elections held after months of anti-union initiatives end with voters feeling too fearful to unionize. These elections are far from free and fair contests. They are conducted with fraud, contempt for legal restraints and heavy-handed tactics that depend on employers' abilities to play on worker vulnerabilities to losing their jobs.

In addition, workers are afraid that even if they vote for a union, they may never get a contract.  Again, workers are right: over a third of those workplaces where workers vote for a union for the first time will never get a contract because employers simply drag their feet and refuse to negotiate in meaningful ways. Continued below.

Click here to download Why Unions Matter by Interfaith Worker Justice, an eight-page study guide for people of faith and religious communities.

What does faith have to do with it?

Our religious traditions profoundly address the need for freedom in the workplace. Oppression of workers is an insult to human dignity and an affront to God. (To learn more about what your faith says on this human rights issue, click on "faith-statements" in our resource center.)

The story of Moses and the struggle to liberate the Israelites from their Egyptian slave-masters has inspired some of the world's great freedom struggles, including the U.S. civil rights movement.

Moses, the servant of God, was indeed a civil rights leader and an immigrants' rights leader, but he was also the Bible's first labor leader. Pharaoh placed slave-masters over the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly, "and they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field" (Exodus 1:14). Even though Moses was raised in Pharaoh's court, he slew an Egyptian taskmaster who was whipping a Hebrew slave and took flight. In response to the cries for help by the Israelites groaning under their burdens, God told Moses to return to Egypt and lead the campaign for freedom.

Moses was reluctant to go back to Egypt, for fear that he was not a gifted speaker. He begged God to send someone else. But God chose him to organize the people and challenge Pharaoh, telling Moses that His power would be with him. After meeting with the leaders of the Hebrew slaves, Moses' first demand to Pharaoh was for a three-day holiday. Pharaoh and the slave-masters refused and made the working conditions worse-the people had to make bricks without being given straw. Thus began the escalating set of problems for Pharaoh and the leadership in Egypt.

Although Exodus is primarily a story of salvation, of God's power and deliverance, it also clearly addresses the need to treat workers fairly. God hears and answers the cries of those who are oppressed. We too must stand up for workers basic fundamental rights.

Why do unions matter today?

Although workers today are not expected to make bricks without straw, too many U.S. workers are employed in jobs that don't pay wages that can support families, deny workers access to health care and retirement savings, expose workers to hazardous working conditions and disregard families' need for flexible schedules and sick days. Workers, especially workers in low-wage jobs, seek to improve their conditions by organizing unions to help them stand up for their rights.

Many of us are conflicted about the role of unions in U.S. society. Some people of faith are employers, and religious bodies own institutions such as hospitals and schools that employ hundreds or thousands of workers. People have heard stories about unions that do not ardently defend their members' interest, and many others know little about unions and how they operate. We forget that unions at their core are workers' organizations that defend the dignity and livelihoods of working men and women.

The reality is that most low- and middle-income workers benefit from unions, even if they are not members. Through collective bargaining, unions set pay and benefit standards for entire regions and industries. Workers, through their unions, have been the prime movers in winning the eight-hour day, overtime pay, the Family and Medical Leave Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and most other reforms that protect average working families.

People form unions to end everyday workplace oppression, such as bullying supervision; combat wage theft and toxic workplace conditions. Unions serve as vehicles to achieve decent wages, pensions and health benefits. Workers are entitled to a voice in the workplace, and forming unions is the surest way for workers to speak boldly and clearly with one voice.

FAQS

Unions make a difference! Unions provide:

  • Living wages: Union workers make 30% more than non union workers in the same job.
  • Comprehensive benefits: Union members are 63% more likely to have health insurance.
  • Job security.  Contracts bolster job security.
  • Fairness in the workplace: Contracts provide grievance procedures and establish guidelines for firings and discipline.
  • A voice in the workplace. 

Most employers launch assaults on union organizing drives, including harassment, intimidation and illegal firings and other retaliation

  • 80% of employers hire expensive, outside consultants to wage an anti-union campaign.
  • 90% of employers require employees to attend closed-door, one-on-one meetings with their supervisor when they are told why unions are bad and why they should vote against it.
  • 50% of employers illegally coerce union opposition through bribes and favors.
  • 25% of employers illegally fire pro-union employees.
  • 49% of employers threaten to eliminate all workers' jobs if they form a union.