God's Work: What Can Faith-Based Activism Do For Labor?

Paul Harvey

A few days ago we put up a couple of posts about Jon Shields's important new book Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right. In the interests of being fair and balanced, and in the spirit of Dorothy Day, today we're moving on to rewnewed hopes for a recognition in public policy of the democratic virtues of the Christian Left.

Nancy MacLean (author of the great book Freedom is Not Enough) has posted a compelling piece at the Boston Review -- "God's Work: What can Faith-Based Activism Do For Labor"? She begins,

“I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain, common workingmen,” recalled Frances Perkins. And so she did. From 1933 to 1945, Perkins helped create the core features of the New Deal state: minimum wage and maximum hours laws, legal guarantees for workers’ rights to organize and join unions, prohibition of child labor, Social Security, unemployment compensation, and fair labor standards. For all of the New Deal’s limitations, its laws and programs tamed Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle,” encouraged broad economic security and prosperity, and created, in economic terms, the most equitable America in history. And it was promoted and protected not only by strong unions but also by religious leaders, thanks to the prominence of a social gospel in the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish traditions at mid-century. During her twelve years as secretary of labor, Perkins herself spent one day a month in contemplative retreat at a convent. For her, the reference to God was not simply a rhetorical flourish.

Since the 1970s economic inequality has surged to levels not seen since the 1920s, Dickensian abuses of workers have returned, and deregulation has enabled the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. President Obama’s Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, faces challenges not unlike Perkins’s. Yet today, as in the 1930s, crisis also creates the opportunity for a bold new direction—a New New Deal, potentially more inclusive of the nation’s diverse labor force than Perkins could have imagined. Might the nation’s churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples again have a role in rescuing a wayward economy?

In addressing this question, Solis can learn much from Kim Bobo, founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ). Bobo’s goal is to revive America’s justice-seeking prophetic tradition, with a particular focus on economic justice. In her new book, Wage Theft in America, Bobo argues powerfully for the importance of community allies in improving struggling workers’ lives. She aims to rouse believers from all faith traditions to a new sense of social mission. Her starting point, and the focus of her book, is to address a more specific challenge: “why millions of working Americans are not getting paid and what we can do about it.” The charge is not an exaggeration. Using Department of Labor settlements (which her organization has done much to win), Bobo documents how companies steal literally billions of dollars from millions of workers each year.

Bobo, MacLean explains, "understands that wage theft is a strategic issue that could jumpstart an overhaul of the Department of Labor, help to shut down the low road, and importantly, reanimate progressive politics with the social-gospel spirit." Bobo and groups such as IWJ come from a long tradition of

commitment to social justice in the Catholic and Jewish traditions and the Protestant social gospel that drove so much Progressive Era and New Deal reform. . . . 'We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals,' FDR noted in 1937, 'we now know that it is bad economics.' ” We have relearned the truth that it is bad economics, but we still await the moral awakening.


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