Commentary

The economics of Pentecost

Six brave workers stood on a platform along University Avenue in St. Paul a
few weeks ago. Immigrant and citizen, black and white, women and men, they
addressed the couple hundred people gathered and, through the cameras
aimed in their direction, all of Minnesota. The words offered by Dante, Hodan,
Denise, and Leontez spoke of shared dreams for a better future. They ended
up in this strange place together because of a shared employer — Wal-Mart.
Together they traveled as far as Washington, D.C., in April to call on Congress
to reform labor law and enable them to organize. Along with the clergy,
politicians, and labor and community leaders who spoke in St. Paul, their call
was to you and me.

A few short weeks ago, we celebrated the birth of a new community, the
church, through the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As this story
unfolded in those early years of the church, these early Christians would live
as extraordinary witnesses to the power of the Spirit and the radical demands
of faith on their economic and social lives together.

How about us? How is the Spirit calling us to weave together our lives in
community? If work is at the center of our economic life, if it is not only a
way in which God provides “daily bread” but an outlet for many of our God-
given gifts, what will enable it to be life-giving to ourselves, our families, and
our communities?

In some ways, today looks a lot like the early 20th century. Instead of lumber,
railroad, and manufacturing barons we have retail, service, and financial ones.
Multinational corporations wield more power over people and even
governments than ever before. Wages and benefits have fallen steadily even
as wealth becomes more concentrated by the day. The world of the early 20th
century was reshaped by workers organizing, taking to the streets, and
demanding better from the corporations of their day. Today’s economic and
social realities have once again largely eliminated workers’ right to organize
and bargain collectively in a meaningful way.

In the retail world, no Goliath wields more power today than Wal-Mart. It is
the largest corporation in the history of the world and employs more people
than any other company. While CEO Mike Duke would surely argue with me
about the appropriateness of their wages, benefits, and employment model,
he would be clear that Wal-Mart is anti-union. Along with the Chamber of
Commerce and most other big companies you can think of, Wal-Mart
professes that anything that makes it easier for workers to organize is bad
for America. That is why these groups are spending millions to fight any
changes.

In fact, Wal-Mart begins identifying union-friendly workers before they are
hired and begins indoctrinating them before their work even begins. A
number of Wal-Mart stores and departments have organized in Canada — so
far they have closed every one immediately. Meat cutters in Texas voted to
form a union and Wal-Mart eliminated meat cutters in every store in the
nation.

So what? They are entitled to hate unions, aren’t they? If Hodan only makes
$9.50 after working for six years, she can go somewhere else. If Denise has
to spend a huge portion of her earnings just to get health care, she can go
find a better deal. Or can she? What does this have to do with us as Christians
anyway?

For the moment at least, I ask you to set aside what you think about Wal-
Mart’s wages and benefits. For now, I don’t even really want to know what
you think about unions. My question is, should workers in America be
allowed to organize without fear of interference, intimidation, or termination?
Are we called to stand with workers like these who do not want to just look
elsewhere but want to build something new in their workplace? Shouldn’t a
Pentecost community witness to a different economic world? Will we heed the
call that Dante, Denise, Leontez and Hodan have offered?

Please keep Wal-Mart workers across the U.S. in your prayers. For more
information on Wal-Mart workers’ efforts to organize or to get involved, visit:
www.walmartworkersforchange.org. For more information on the connections
between our faith and workers’ rights, visit: www.interfaithworkerjustice.org.

Doug Mork is a Lutheran pastor, most recently at Holy Trinity San Martin
Lutheran Church in St. Paul. He is currently the organizing director for the
United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789 in West St. Paul.