Have you ever worked in a chicken house? For that matter, in any slaughterhouse? Or any factory or warehouse?
Do you know people who do?
Do people who work with their hands attend your church? When you think of an industrial park, are you looking from the inside or the outside?
You, like me, with our education, are likely on the outside.
America is riven by education. The educated, and those who aren’t, turn down separate paths at the fork in the road that is graduation from K-12.
So, you, like me, never worked with your hands. Well, OK, I did, but it’s been 40 years since I last cut tobacco and swung a sledgehammer.
We work hard, but we don’t do hard work. We’re strangers to the work that hardens hands and breaks backs – that literally breaks people down.
On this side of divided America, it’s an intellectual, philosophical, economic exercise to argue about whether working people need a union.
On the other side of the line, experientially, well over half of America doesn’t argue, they just say they want and need a union. Why? It’s about respect. The dignity of work.
Don’t take my word for it. Read it here, in Article 23 of the 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.
“Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
“Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
“Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
It’s been a long time since 1948 when the UDHR was ratified. It’s been even longer, 85 years, since the last pro-union legislation in America in 1935.
The law that lifts up solidarity on the job needs a makeover because it’s pathetically easy for huge corporations to deny people the union they want. Next year, support passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, so workers can have the union they want.
Why solidarity on the job? Where in faith does solidarity arise?
Scripture speaks of unity. One Lord, one faith, one baptism rings in harmony with the labor slogan, “united we speak, because divided we beg.”
Jesus reminds us that we who think we’re the greatest of these are measured in relation to the least of these. Because the greatest and the least are inseparable in God’s eyes.
About that chicken house. The dis-assembly line that turns Foghorn Leghorn into chicken nuggets always moves fast – by regulation, about two birds per second. Surprised?
Only the union slows the line down, so people working elbow to elbow don’t cut each other and give each other COVID-19. Only the union because regulations change with the president.
President Trump waived the line-speed restriction, and some dis-assembly lines are now moving at three birds a second. It’s harder than it looks, even from the outside looking in.
Ask the chicken workers instead of consulting an economics textbook to decide whether workers need a union for dignity on the job.
And then ask the nursing home aides, masked up and lifting grandma to her bed, with the supervisor looking over their shoulders.
And then ask the roofers, working for cash without overtime and without a safety harness.
And then ask the city trash haulers, those despised public employees, still going to work while we white collars work safely from home.
And then ask the Uber driver, driving all night and paying her own expenses at her own risk because she’s an “independent contractor.”
The list goes on. So, keep asking.
Work without dignity is toil. Work with dignity, as the United Nations said, is a human right.
This Human Rights Day, pause and pray for eyes to see and ears to hear as from the inside, alongside people working with their hands. Pray that our public policy will match our private compassion.
Work with the power you have – the power of your voice, your network and your dignity.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Human Rights Day (Dec. 10). The previous articles in the series are:
No Room for Debate: Trans People Have Rights | Junia Joplin
Do We Observe Human Rights or Practice Hypocrisy? | Wendell Griffen
Nationality: Your Right to Belong in This World | Brent Hamoud
Governments Won’t Do Right Thing for Vulnerable | Pam Strickland
4 Ways You Can Help with Migrant Crisis | Sue Smith
Human Rights: They’re Not Just for ‘Us’ | Scott Stearman
Will Choice Fix Educational Woes? Not So Fast | Cameron Vickrey
Working in law, labor, faith and politics, he is a union-side lawyer and former AFL-CIO official who has served the United Food and Commercial Workers for years. National legal counsel for Jobs with Justice, he represents historically Black Simmons College of Kentucky in Louisville.