Archived Sections, Commentary

Thinking about work

Many Lutherans in the pew are unaware of the complexities of issues facing laborers today.

The cause of janitors in the Twin Cities is probably not something that most church members have thought much about — unless they or some member of their family happen to make their living as a janitor. Nevertheless, the confrontation between janitors and their employers will come to a head this month. A strike by up to 4,200 workers is possible.
The situation is only one of many that illustrate the difficulties and tensions that characterize much of the relationship these days between labor and management, and sometimes other agencies as well. The decision, to close, within the next two years, the Ford plant that assembles Ranger pick-ups in St. Paul, made for difficult choices for most of its workers. An overwhelming majority of them chose to accept some form of buy out or early retirement rather than pin their hopes on the unlikely prospect of ongoing employment.
Airline employees have faced similar challenges in recent years. Those who manage the airlines have argued that without severe reductions in labor costs, the companies would not survive at all. Many workers made the painful decision to leave a job and a company to which they had been related for years. Others made a choice, often equally painful, to stay — but at such a reduced salary that second jobs needed to be found to help them stay afloat.
None of these are simple situations with easy solutions. But perhaps there is no better illustration of the complexity of these matters than the action taken at six Swift and Com-pany packing plants by the United States Immigration Service just before Christmas.
The situation is quite different from the first three examples cited because of the involvement of the government. Furthermore, there was no union arguing on behalf of the employees and many of the workers were without proper documentation, thus making their presence in the work force illegal.
The action of the government was, to that extent, justified. Thus, the situation of the immigrant workers was different from that of the janitors, Ford workers, and airline employees — except in one respect: the effect on the workers themselves and on their families.
In all four examples, and in many others that could be identified, workers today, even those who are unionized, often find themselves in circumstances in which their livelihood and their very jobs are in jeopardy. There is no denying that the situations are complex and that there are no easy solutions.
What is discouraging is how seemingly unaware of such situations most church members are and how little understanding there is of the issues involved. That may be partially explained by thinking about who the majority of us are that sit in the pews each Sunday. But at some point we will need to recognize that it is the well-being of our neighbor that is at stake, if not our own, and that unless such issues and situations get dealt with fairly, equitably and justly, all of us will pay the consequences and experience a meaner and less civil society.
Nelson is Director of the Contextual Leadership Initiative at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota.