Organized labor, on its best days, attempts to do what Martin Luther King encouraged us all to do: develop a kind of “dangerous unselfishness.”

Organized labor, on its best days, attempts to do what Martin Luther King encouraged us all to do: develop a kind of “dangerous unselfishness.”


On April 3 in 1968 in Memphis, Dr. King gave his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech as he rallied the citizens of the Mississippi delta city around the sanitation workers strike and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union.


In that strike, fueled by the deaths of two black garbage men crushed to death in their own garbage truck, the racist labor practices of the City of Memphis were exposed.  Black sanitation workers, through pressure from AFSCME and the NAACP, won wage increases, recognized unionization, promotion and an end to legalized discrimination.


Dr. King was a defining presence in Memphis that year, placing pressure on the community to reverse the racism in city and county labor practices.  A day after he challenged the Christian community to join the union and resist injustice through “dangerous unselfishness”, he was assassinated. 


Jump ahead to early January 2007.  Black Americans are nearly 25 percent more likely to belong to a union than their white counterparts.  When they pay union dues, their wages increase 30 percent.


In a society where black Americans are three times as likely to live in poverty than white Americans (24.9 percent to 8.3 percent), higher wages, better benefits and advocacy in the work place are significant elements of labor.


In a society where black Americans’ health and education equals roughly 75 percent of that of whites, opportunity in the workplace advocated through union membership becomes one of the only guarantors of social power.


Unions are, for black Americans, a social institution that pushes–to use Dr. King’s words–a dangerous unselfishness.  Unions are dangerous because they guard against the necessity of work becoming powerful tool in the racialized hands of employers and corporations.  White workers rely on unions for the same reason, as well.


This is not to say that employers intentionally use the necessity of work to stack the labor deck in their interest.  In fact, recent surveys that show that most Americans fear bureaucracy more than ownership reveal that employers desire good relationships with their employees. 


No conspiracy theory is needed in order to talk about the necessity of work for laborers becoming a tool of power, however.  Because work is necessary, its value is more often than not defined in terms of cost and productivity alone by those who own it.  The actual person doing the work becomes an accoutrement to the utility and performance of the work.


But the unselfishness that unions at times embody–often very poignantly, and at other times not so well–is a social understanding of work.  Work is a social institution that supports communities, families, individuals and their relationships.  Work is fundamental for any concept of social justice.  It is not simply a means to an end, even in the most menial, labor-intensive jobs. 


The mechanisms by which unions fight for work’s social meaning are many.  The wages that sustain workers, their families, and the communities that depend upon their consumption and investment are union goods.  The health of workers and their families is another union good.  Worker safety and welfare is another.


In its support of unions, the church has, at times, brilliantly embodied Dr. King’s vision for labor.  It has served both as a dangerous obstacle to the greed of ownership as well as the idealistic unselfishness of socialist agendas. 


Pope Leo XIII reminded the world in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum that labor unions “should be so organized and governed as to furnish the best and most suitable means for attaining what is aimed at, that is to say, for helping each individual member to better his condition to the utmost in body, soul, and property.”


Recently, Pope John Paul II echoed Pope Leo in Laborum Exercens, saying that labor unions are “indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people… a normal endeavor ‘for’ the just good… not a struggle ‘against’ others.”


Likewise, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church, and the American Baptist Church each affirm the existence of unions as a voice for justice in labor and employment. 


The National Council of Churches affirms the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights “everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment; to join trade unions and to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.” 


The church’s theology is dangerous to unjust labor conditions.  Catholic social teaching has generally struck down an understanding of work that views it simply as a means to an end.  In fact, Leo XIII, Paul VI and John Paul II plainly state that labor comes before capital in value. 


The church’s theology is also an argument for justice, or unselfishness.  The right to private property–including the ownership of labor–is subordinated to the right to common use.  All resources, assets, capital and production processes must seek the good of the community.


Work–and labor–are elements of what it means to be made in the image of God, as Genesis 1.27-28 attests: “so God created humankind in God’s image…and said to them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over…’.”


However, 2007 is shaping up to be one of the church’s worst hours concerning labor justice.  American Christians have bought into the American story that what happens to those who are very different from us is of no concern to us.


The church has decided in favor of comfortable selfishness, and labor unions are paying the price.  Without unions, “the poor will always be with you” becomes a reality instead of a reminder from Jesus to Judas that he will always have an excuse not to do the right thing. 


Andy Watts is an assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.

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