Saturday, September 17, 2011

Unfair Practices

Back in the day, union organizers and evangelicals were hard to tell apart. They ate at the same tables, harmonized in the same choir lofts, and often shared the same beds.

In the late 1960s at Eastern Baptist College, Tony Campolo would occasionally bring a guitar to his sociology classes to lead us in rousing union songs that sounded like hymns.

There is pow'r, there is pow'r
In a band of workingmen.
When they stand hand in hand,
That's a pow'r, that's a pow'r
That must rule in every land --
One Industrial Union Grand.*

Tony’s point, I think, was that the gospel of liberation provided the soil that nurtured the seeds of the labor movement. I’d like to think that Moses and Jesus, emancipators as they were, would have been union men. But you can't prove it by the passages cited in this week’s Common Lectionary.

In Exodus 16, Moses, long past his honeymoon with his starving band of Israelites, is pelted by stinging grievances so relentlessly that he begins to feel like a freshman in a varsity dodge ball game. And in Matthew 20, Jesus scoffs at a committee of workers who demand fair wages. “The last will be first and the first will be last,” he sniffs unsympathetically.

As a card carrying member of Local 38010 of the Communication Workers of America (AFL-CIO, CLC), I wonder if I should speak out about that. The situation Jesus is talking about in Matthew is blatantly unfair: workers who have been busting their butts all day “in the scorching heat” learn they will receive the same wage as laborers who have been on the job for barely an hour. No wonder the exhausted day workers complain, but Jesus sides with management on the issue.

I can’t imagine a shop in the world that would put up with that. Equal pay for equal work is a measurement of justice, and the union exists to protect workers from precisely the sort of exploitation Jesus appears to endorse. My spouse’s parents, immigrants from Cuba, would have floundered in the U.S. without the unions that made sure they were paid just wages for their labors. In 1946, my father was hired as a teacher in upstate New York at an annual wage of just under $1,000. The faculty had no union to seek a more appropriate level of remuneration, or to arrange to pay teachers during the summer break. Between June and August, Dad worked as a road crew laborer and part-time insurance vendor.

Here’s where I want to insert an autobiographical cliché, “We were poor but we didn’t know we were poor,” but actually Dad was quite good at making sure we knew it. By the time the faculty finally organized and joined the United Federation of teachers, nearly 20 years after Dad taught his first class, I had graduated and was on my own. While Dad rarely shared details about his finances, it was clear that his annual wage had risen dramatically – not, I might add, because the union was gouging the tax payers of the district, but because for the first time teachers were receiving a fairer compensation for their work.

I tried to think of an anecdote to illustrate how much my own union changed my life, but it didn’t. I don’t think any of us reporters and photographers believed we were being paid enough – in fact, I never worked harder for less than in my newspaper days – but our salary and benefits negotiations accomplished little. Perhaps our instincts as journalists convinced us the First Amendment would be somehow damaged if we walked out and closed the paper. And when we were pressed to confront management, our preferred tool was the informational picket line, at which we excelled. We were exemplars of the Charlie Brown school of confrontation: we didn’t win any ball games, but we had a lot of interesting discussions.

In Exodus we read about a somewhat different situation. Moses is not facing a work stoppage as much as an open revolt. The children of Israel are long passed the euphoria they felt when they escaped Pharaoh’s cruel bondage and now hover on the verge of starvation in the desert. They are now desperately unhappy that Moses’ campaign promises have not been fulfilled. Before the revolution, they complain, “we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread,” but now they complain to Moses, “you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Their ingratitude is shameless but perfectly understandable. It’s similar to people-in-the-street interviews with Russians after the fall of the Soviet Union, when basic needs like food and fuel were hard to come by. Suddenly Russians of a certain age remembered the Stalin years as the happiest of their lives.

The attitude of the Israelites is not Moses’ fault, of course. It’s not unusual to lose faith in human political leaders when we realize they cannot live up to our deification of them. It’s this kind of disillusionment that President Obama is trying to counter on the campaign trail, and he is not the first to experience it. In the fall of 1963, President Kennedy’s poll numbers were teetering and he believed he faced a close race against Senator Barry Goldwater the following year. It was an assassin’s bullet that installed JFK into the pantheon of political gods. Had he lived, he would have been just another pol with a toothy smile, trying to glamour voters to stand by him through one more election.

Faced with a possible insurrection, Moses tells himself that “the complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” God recognizes it, too, and intervenes by scattering a miraculous meal – manna from heaven – on the morning sands. Crisis averted.

Manna was evidently concocted in Heaven’s Kitchen so no one knows what it tasted like, except that it had the powers to placate an angry mob. There, however, speculative manna recipes. If you visit the eastern U.S. archdiocese of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch in New Jersey, for example, you will be served manna derived from a concoction traced back two millennia. It is white, delicately chewy and preternaturally sweet. The archbishop probably uses it judiciously, because he knows it is impossible to hold on to your anger or resentments when you eat manna from Paramus.

As we desperately isogete the labor and crowd management issues evident in the passages from Exodus and Matthew, I think we can discern this: there is both bad news and good news in these stories.

The bad news is this: God is willing to treat us unfairly.
Consider the children of Israel, victims of the ultimate bait-and-switch: promised milk and honey but stuck with thirst and starvation.

And consider the poor sweaty wretches who worked all day in the vineyard and were appalled to receive the same wage as those who wandered lazily passed the vineyard at the end of the day and worked for an hour.

The good news is this: God is willing to treat us unfairly.
In the desert, the children of Israel may still be decades away from the land of milk and honey. But God remains a palpable presence in their midst, and their faith is rewarded with food from heaven’s kitchen.

But the best news of all is in the vineyard Jesus intended as a metaphor for God’s judgment.

Salvation is not a fair wage offered exclusively to those spend all their lives working out their deliverance in fear and trembling. If that were the case, heaven would be as lonely as Ghadaffi 's compound.

Salvation is an unfair wage offered both to the life-long stalwart and to the last-minute seeker for whom faith is unsought, unplanned and accidental. The most famous example of this kind of barefaced unfairness is the criminal on the cross, whose last words on earth are to beg Jesus’ favor in paradise.

In the final analysis, I think, Moses and Jesus would have been good union men. Moses was the ultimate shop steward, arguing before Pharaoh that his work force should be granted its freedom. And Jesus had a classic union constituency in mind when he declared God had sent him to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, liberty for the oppressed, and economic justice for all.

Where Moses and Jesus may differ from more traditional union leaders is that the contracts they were negotiating were not just for the workers and the weak, but for management and the powerful as well.

There’s absolutely nothing fair about that. But it is very good news for us all.

* Words by Joe Hill, 1913

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