They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands (Isaiah 65: 21-22).
Isaiah's vision contrasts sharply with economic reality today. In the United States, farm workers — those who plant and harvest — don't always eat. Nearly two-thirds of farm workers live in poverty. And those who build don't always inhabit. In Washington, D.c=, day laborers hired to build luxury condominiums spend their nights in homeless shelters or on the streets.
There are health care workers without health insurance, restaurant workers without food, and hotel housekeepers without homes.
But people of faith know that all workers are children of God with inherent dignity and value. All work that makes a contribution to the community has dignity and is not degrading. But, unfortunately, many jobs are degraded.
A degraded job is one that pays too little — one-quarter of all jobs in the United States pay wages so low that a full-time worker earns too little to lift a family of four above poverty.
A degraded job is one that is potentially unsafe. Each year some 5,000 workers are killed on the job and about 5 million are injured or become sick due to their job.
A degraded job is one in which the worker is treated unfairly or illegally. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, essentially all poultry processing plants and 60 percent of nursing homes fail to properly pay workers for overtime hours worked, pay less than the legally-required minimum wage, and/or violate child labor laws.
A degraded job is one where the employer discriminates in hiring or promotions. These abuses occur in firms large and small, in local businesses and within Fortune 500 companies.
A degraded job is one in which a worker has too little autonomy or control over her work, resulting in high levels of stress and even physical illness.
Unfortunately, U.S. labor law provides few protections against many of these abuses. Existing laws are often poorly enforced and penalties typically are small and ineffective.
Workers need jobs, even bad jobs, if those are the only ones available. But how can they improve their workplaces and gain dignity on the job, especially the three-quarters of all workers who don't have a college degree and have little bargaining power with their employers?
One important way workers can address workplace injustice is by joining and participating in a labor union.
All of us are indebted to the union struggles of the past for many of the workplace benefits we take for granted. Yahweh gave us the Sabbath but unions brought us the weekend, the 8-hour day, paid vacations, holidays, health insurance, and pensions.
Unions continue to work for justice today.
Unions reject the notion that any work is demeaning and remind us that all workers have value. Janitors, nursing home attendants, hotel and restaurant staff, and many other workers on the bottom of the hierarchy of jobs are actively seeking to join unions to gain dignity on the job, fair treatment, greater voice, and just compensation.
Unions are working to bring living wages, health insurance, pensions, paid vacations, sick leave, and holidays to workers who have none of these.
And unions are not just for workers on the lower rungs of the wage scale. Unions can provide every employee with a stronger voice in their workplace, protect workers against unfair practices by employers, and facilitate workers' input into workplace decision making.
Through legislative action, unions are working to reform immigration laws, raise the minimum wage, and improve workplace safety.
Unions are some of the most democratic and diverse organizations in the United States today. They can be avenues of empowerment that give workers the means to become active in their own liberation from unjust structures of domination.
But in the United States, workers' right to organize is frequently violated. The Employee Free Choice Act, currently under consideration by Congress, would greatly strengthen this fundamental human right. It would make it easier for workers to form and join unions and bargain collectively.
The church has a special role to play in this struggle. Workplace injustice is not only a problem for an individual worker nor is it only an economic problem. It is also a theological problem.
A basic teaching of Christianity and many other faith traditions is to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
But do we love our neighbors as we love ourselves when some of us eat very well and others do well just to eat?
Do we love our neighbors as we love ourselves when some are safe at work and others are at risk? When some have sick leave and health insurance and others do not?
Do we love our neighbors as we love ourselves when, on the job, some people's views are sought out and others are ignored?
God created a world of abundance. Unions are helping workers in the United States and around the world share in this abundance. Strengthening the right to organize through the Employee Free Choice Act would move us closer to Isaiah's vision of the new earth.
May people of faith join with workers and our union sisters and brothers in our struggles for justice and greater wholeness. Amen.
Edith Rasell, Ph.D., serves as minister for labor relations and community economic development, justice and witness ministries for the United Church of Christ.