Where is Walter Rauschenbusch, the great theological voice of the Social Gospel, today? Well, he’s been in Madison, WI and now he’s showing up in Indiana and Ohio as American workers and their pastors and religious leaders begin to realize that when the right to form unions and bargain collectively is under attack, something fundamental to human dignity is under attack. Fortunately, a large majority of Americans agree. According to a new USA TODAY/Gallup poll, 61% of Americans oppose taking away collective bargaining power as is proposed in Wisconsin.
Here’s the stark reality: the gains that were made through the titanic labor struggles of the late 19th and 20th centuries for decent working conditions, the right to organize and form unions and secure living wages are being systematically destroyed in the “post-industrial” age of the American 21st century. We cannot let this happen.
The rights of workers to join together and bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions is not just a civil right, it is a fundamental way we recognize that human beings have an inherent dignity and worth. This idea, that human dignity, what Christians call “the image of God,” is what connects Christian moral reasoning and action for worker rights in the Social Gospel, the Civil Rights movement, in the Solidarity movement in Poland as seen in the work of John Paul II, and now, I believe, in a reawakened American labor movement.
This fundamental idea that transcendent human dignity and moral worth is what is at stake in the rights of labor has never been as well articulated, however, as by the striking Memphis garbage workers in 1968. These workers carried signs that read, “I Am a Man.” The strike was over a long history of poor working conditions for these city workers, and indifference to their situation. In February of that year, two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, had been crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. But yet, when 1,300 African American men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike, it was their basic human dignity that united them in protest. “I am a man,” says it all. Dr. King spoke to these workers the night before he was assassinated.
What makes us not only people, but human beings with dignity and transcendent worth, is our capacity to work creatively in this world. When a society exploits our contribution to the whole, and refuses to recognize that we have a moral obligation to one another to insure decent working conditions, living wages and the means to support our families, it violates our human dignity.
John Paul II, in his famous encyclical “On Human Work” (Laborem Exercens, V.25), stated his deep conviction of the centrality of work to human dignity and our being created in the Image of God. Work is fundamental to the truth of the human condition. Through work, Pope John Paul II argues, people become who they are intended to be. Through work, human beings share “in the activity of the Creator.”
Human dignity, therefore, should not be regarded as passive, but as active. Human potential is more fulfilled when people have the means to express their creativity, and an important way they do that is through work. Paid labor, of course, is clearly not the only way human dignity is expressed in the world. But when working conditions for employees are unsafe, wages are suppressed, benefits denied or slashed, and people are refused the right even to act together to improve their work life through collective bargaining, something fundamental in the dignity of human beings is also being denied.
My Great-Aunt Helen helped organize for the International Garment Workers Union in the early part of the 20th century. She and her siblings had been sent alone as children by their parents from Hungary and these young immigrants worked in the sweatshops of the garment district in New York City. The working conditions were terrible. Children, women, and men worked in poor light, in freezing cold and broiling heat, for long hours without breaks and without a living wage. They organized and they succeeded and with others in the labor movement fought for the eight-hour day, ending child labor and forcing their employers to improve safety and working conditions.
We need a new American populism that will fight for the rights of workers in this country as they are threatened yet again. This connection between work and human dignity is at the core of a moral vision to guide and shape a new Social Gospel. The Social Gospel, the Protestant interpretation of what a good economy should look like and the principles on which it should be based, is one source for the new populism. But it should also draw on the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, recognizing that if a society makes some into “nobodies,” that society has lost its moral compass. And it should root itself in Catholic social teaching on work and the economy as so beautifully expressed by John Paul II.
This is our heritage as Americans–people struggled and died for decent working conditions to make this country into a place of opportunity. This is the American Dream, a moral vision of what it means to treat each other decently, and I am glad to see it has not died, but is alive and well in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and perhaps it is coming soon to a state near you.