Commentary

Putting principles into action for workers’ rights

This summer, Roman Catholic church leaders issued two defining documents about workers’ rights. Their publication highlights the relative meekness of Lutheran activity on the same topic.

During the G-8 summit in Italy, Pope Benedict released a wide-ranging encyclical on ethical behavior in the global economy. “Caritas in Veritate” fits well in the long tradition of Catholic social teaching. Say what you want about the pope, but his encyclical does not fit typical left/right pigeonholing.

A few weeks earlier, U.S. Catholic bishops tried to map a way to put some of those ethical principles to work in reality. The bishops’ paper, “Respecting the Just Rights of Workers,” proposes concrete guidelines for labor unions and Catholic health-care institutions to follow during worker organizing drives.

What’s refreshing is that the bishops go beyond platitudes. They actually create a model of what workers’ rights could be in this country.

In the Lutheran church, however, we’re still primarily about platitudes and lip service. The ELCA, for example, has an 18-year-old resolution in which it “commits itself to advocacy with corporations, businesses, congregations, and church-related institutions to protect the rights of workers, support the collective bargaining process, and protect the right to strike.”

Decent enough, even if it does politely avoid the “U” word. But at your next gathering, make the argument that workers at Lutheran nursing homes ought to be in a union. See how fast people excuse themselves for another lemon bar.

The low priority that Lutheran social activism gives to workers’ rights is puzzling. Our denominations have a leading role in providing social services. We provide old-age care. We help refugees and immigrants become contributing members in their new society. We try to alleviate poverty, hunger, homelessness, health inequities, and educational inequalities. But we too often ignore (or avoid) a root cause of the problems we fight: low wages. If we truly want to quit fighting symptoms and help people live better lives without our direct help, we have to make it easier for workers to join unions if they want to.

Here’s why: A union card is essentially a ticket out of poverty. Union workers earn wages 30 percent higher than nonunion workers doing the same kind of work. Workers with union jobs are more likely to have benefits, are more likely to have better benefits, and more likely to pay less out of pocket for those benefits.

That’s a difference of $11,000 more each year on a worker’s W-2. That’s real money, the kind of money that can change lives and help rebuild our economy.

We all know the economy is out of whack for workers. The average CEO makes more in one day than the average worker makes all year. The gap between the very top and the rest of us is getting wider. For the typical CEO, pay has increased 167 percent in the past 20 years. But the typical working family actually makes $1,300 less than in 2000.

In part, that’s because U.S. labor law also is stacked against workers. Right now, if workers want to unionize, their bosses have more control over the process than they do. They unleash lawyers, target union supporters, issue threats, hold mandatory captive audience meetings, and generally make life even more miserable until workers wear down.

One result: 35 percent of the time, when workers file for a union election, the election never happens. Even if workers actually win an election, 44 percent of the time, they never achieve a first contract.

Legislation known as the Employee Free Choice Act would change that. It would balance labor law in three fundamental ways:

* Workers, not CEOs, get to decide if and how they want to form a union. * For the first time ever, companies that break the law and retaliate against workers could face court injunctions and real financial penalties. * Through mediation and binding arbitration (if necessary), the legislation guarantees that workers who form a union actually get a contract.

The legislation is likely to be voted on this fall. It’s one step toward making sure our economy works for everybody.

When it passes, workers will need all the help they can get against the corporate forces who call this fight “Armageddon.” In this kind of a fight, are we willing to put our principles into action when it counts? If it is Armageddon, which side are we on?

Michael Kuchta is communications coordinator for AFSCME Council 5 and is a member at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Minneapolis.