Can You Be a Christian and Be in a Labor Union?

>>Pastor Holding BibleBY ELIZABETH QUEEN

In over 20 years of attending and assisting with countless worship services, I don’t remember a single one that included workers’ rights in the prayers, sermon, or songs. Reverend Dr. Amy Laura Hall wants to change that.

This Labor Day weekend, faith communities across North Carolina are committing to including the words “labor union” in a song, prayer, or sermon during service as part of an interfaith event called Labor Sabbath. This year marks the first of ten annual events. Hall estimates that it will take about that long for the idea to catch on and raise awareness about what labor unions really do in North Carolina. This is the South, after all, where the perception that “you can’t be Christian and be in a union” still reigns supreme. Our right-to-work state has long been >>unfriendly to unions, and faith communities have a particularly prickly history with worker organizations. Hall explains that in many North Carolina mill towns, mill owners hired the ministers for local churches so they could influence what got preached – and what got censored. With the condemnation of local ministers, labor union discussion became a no-no.

Hall, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School, believes faith communities need to take another look at labor unions. “Labor unions,” she says, “are a useful way to remind ourselves, our coworkers, and our bosses that we are children of God worthy of respect. They are the best way to address basic issues of fairness at work.”

Hall’s own appreciation for the power of collective bargaining began early. As a child growing up in West Texas, she remembers her mother, a public school teacher, talking often with coworkers about their appreciation for the local teachers’ association that fought for safe and fair working conditions. The ability to unionize and collectively bargain, though, would have made the vital work of their teachers’ association much more effective.

This observation certainly holds true for North Carolina today, where the >>North Carolina Association of Educators union has mobilized to fight back against >>recent changes to teacher job security and salary and >>drastic budget cuts that undermine educators and their students. The NCAE even recently won >>a case in the state Superior Court declaring private school vouchers unconstitutional — meaning that, from now on, NC tax dollars will exclusively go to public rather than private and religious schools. Despite >>criticism from some painting unionized educators as self-interested or ineffective, the NCAE’s recent victories demonstrate the impact a union can have in protecting both teachers and the students they serve.

Hall and Labor Sabbath participants hope that as teachers, clergy people, and others begin to speak up about their experiences with labor unions, they will spark positive conversation among listeners. They are encouraging people to raise questions about how labor unions could impact their own working conditions and customer service. In spreading the word about the event, Hall has encountered numerous misconceptions about labor unions – such as companies close due to unions, and unions lead to more workplace conflict. Labor Sabbath will provide an opportunity for North Carolinians to cut through the >>myths and learn more about this “tried and true way for people to get together and have a say at work about work.”

Given the strength of faith communities in North Carolina — >>roughly half of our state’s population affiliate with a religion – the Labor Day Sabbath could make a big impact on how workers in our state view labor unions. You can find more information and resources to include in worship services this weekend >>here.

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  1. Al McSurely

    Dear Women Advance and Rev. Queen,
    Thanks for pointing out that although half of the people of N.C. belong to churches, a measly 2% belong to unions, and most of those belong to public employer unions (teachers, state, county and municipal employees) which are denied the right to collectively bargain. The NC NAACP, led by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, has been actively promoting Unions within historically Black churches and through our Forward Together, Not One Step Back Moral Movement. Out of the 1,000 people who have been arrested, at least 10% were union members. We believe that racism underlies the anti-union culture that still prevails in the south, and that we must weave the three strands of our movement–civil rights, labor, and faith–together to lift this divisive culture to a higher ground.
    Al McSurely, Civil Rights Lawyer and Communications Chair, NC NAACP

  2. Marc Bridgham

    I met with my pastor today and we talked about using the words labor union on Sunday. And he would gladly do it. However, neither he or I will be in church this Sunday to follow through. I’m going to make a run at some people I know who will be there.

  3. Gary Arrington

    I am appalled that one of our Methodist divinity professors would make these statements.

    Churches are increasingly concerned that unions are a leading source of funding for political candidates opposed to traditional values. In addition, unions’ traditional bond of support for struggling blue-collar workers and immigrants is eroding as union membership in the private sector reaches historic lows and as unions focus their organizing on higher-income public employees, teachers and other professionals.

    The AFL-CIO readily condemns the “Religious Right,” opposing groups like the Christian Coalition, the American Family Association, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the National Association of Christian Educators. These “religious extremists pose a significant threat to those candidates who would best represent America’s working families,” reported the AFL-CIO News in 1997.

    Worker justice is important. It is a critical part of the moral teaching of church leaders. But justice is a two-way street: unfortunately, unions don’t always respect the religious beliefs of workers.
    Title VII, the religious-protection clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is perhaps the least known and least used part of that landmark law. It states that unions cannot force workers to pay dues to a union if doing so violates their religious beliefs. Yet remarkably, employees have had to fight to vindicate their right, even in religious institutions.

    These days being pro-worker doesn’t mean being pro-union. Political conservatives can be every bit as concerned about justice as old-fashioned political liberals. And because of their commitment to justice they are proponents of paycheck-protection legislation, right-to work laws and the right to withhold dues because of their religious objections to union political endorsements.

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