Clergy: stop being embarrassingly silent on worker justice

Photo: Coretta Scott King and 42000 walking in support of Memphis sanitation workers and in honor of King.

From Lutheran Confessions:

by Clint Schnekloth

Everything that is revealed by the light is light. Therefore, it says, Wake up, sleeper! Get up from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. (Ephesians 5:14)
I wonder if we find ourselves in a new moment for worker justice. Community organizing has taken on a new aspect. #Blacklivesmatter matters, and has changed how we think about social movements in America. In the meantime, other social movements wonder how to gather the same kind of energy and voice #blacklivesmatter has gathered.

Periodically, somebody will chime in and remind anyone listening that the heart of the Civil Rights movement was workers’ rights. The very night before he was killed, Martin Luther King spoke to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.
He said: “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through” (King, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” 217). MLK Jr. was in Memphis for worker justice. He was assassinated while speaking out for striking workers.

This isn’t to say that black lives and workers lives are vying for social justice space in a limited resource arena, only that sometimes we need to remember the intersection of everything, and in this case race matters and class matters are inextricably bound up with each other. 

I wonder why so few clergy these days are speaking up for workers rights. Is it that moneyed interests have finally and successfully purchased the voice of religious leaders, co-opting them to such a degree they’ve gone unwittingly quiet? Have the liberal and progressive churches become too cozy in their middle class-ness? 

I know in my own part of the world, dominated as it is by large poultry corporations, virtually no clergy spoke up when our local worker justice center published an extensive and damning report on the poultry industry ( Marches have organized spontaneously and repeatedly for tragedies like Orlando, and after police shootings, and more. But when poultry workers organize, predominately white congregations stay home, and worker voices are left by and large to speak up for themselves. 

I wonder if corporate philanthropy is a big part of the problem. Not only does money now have a vote (after Citizens United), money also has powerful influence on perceptions of good being done in communities. Large corporations can often use the gifts they give away to disguise the abuse of workers. In fact they maximize profits on the backs of worker injustice so that they can give away even grants and gifts that burnish their reputation in the community.

This puts clergy in an awkward space. We’re supposed to celebrate philanthropy and give thanks for it. We encourage it. But if we listen to workers (which is itself difficult because worker voices are systematically silenced in our culture), we learn that the worker experience is very different than the mid-level or executive experience, and frankly, a lot of our white and middle-class churches have more members working in the corporate offices than on the lines.

So as we head towards Labor Day, we clergy have a big responsibility. We must become witnesses. We must listen to workers at every level, from the top to the bottom and everywhere in between. But then like MLK our job is to side with those who struggle, those working for justice. 

Frankly, I’m tired of so much of the liberal Protestant clergy sitting comfortably on the sidelines and eating food handled by abused workers. We’ve got some work to do. Start by looking at the Labor in the Pulpit resources at Interfaith Worker Justice.