As Labor Day weekend quickly approaches, many people are thinking about beaches and barbeques. Amy Laura Hall, however, wants people to be thinking about something different: labor unions. Hall, a professor at Duke Divinity School, is calling for congregations to observe a Labor Sabbath this Friday, Saturday or Sunday prior to Labor Day, during which time the words “labor union” are to be mentioned in a sermon, song or prayer. The effort stems from a similar endeavor by Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago, which invited clergy to speak about unions from the pulpit. Calling it a Labor Sabbath broadens the effort to include congregations that may worship on a day other than Sunday or without a pulpit.
The word “union,” Hall says, has a stigma attached to it, so much so that even progressive churches feel uncomfortable talking about it. North Carolina has one of the lowest percentages of union members in the country and among these least unionized workers are thousands of farmworkers who continue to face injustice. The Farmworker Labor Organizing Committee is trying to change this, as evidenced by their summer “Respect, Recognition, Raise” campaign to sign up 5,000 new members and build the union’s strength.
Hall grew up going to school in West Texas with children whose parents worked in the fields. She also watched her mother, a public school teacher, try to strengthen the bargaining power of teachers in the state because she knew that working together was the best way to get improved conditions for teachers. While Hall grew up periodically boycotting different kinds of produce, today she recognizes that although boycotts can be useful, the most tried and true means for achieving justice in the workplace is through unions.
“As human beings, people who pick produce would much prefer to have the right to bargain collectively and have control over their working conditions themselves,” she said. “So while it is consistent with a charity model for middle class and upper middle class people to want to shift the system away from the very worst treatment of workers, farmworkers as human beings would prefer to have their own voices and to have the right to bargain together for the best working conditions in the industry.”
Labor unions, according to Hall, are not only important for farmworkers who do dangerous, back-breaking work, but for everyone. “My way of thinking about unions is that 75% of us in America are workers, maybe 99%, are all workers. What I found is that some people think of labor unions as a helpful way for workers who are obviously vulnerable, like farmworkers and immigrants, to gain justice. I think that’s absolutely true, but its really important for workers in all fields to recognize that in this Second Great Depression, we need labor unions for our own sake.”
As we enter into Labor Day weekend, let us be in prayer for all of those whose work is a blessing, and I especially pray that clergy and lay people will have the courage to speak up in support of labor unions in their churches this weekend.
If you are interested in supporting the Labor Sabbath effort, please go to Amy Laura Hall’s website, where you can find worship resources and take the challenge to speak up on Labor Sabbath.