Labor and Religion

(A talk given at the Sunday, September 1, 2013 service of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bell County in Morgan's Point Resort, Texas.)


My purpose today is

  1. to refresh your memory about labor movements in the United States (even though I will leave most of the details out);
  2. to point out three pervasive goals of those movements:
    1. Fulfillment of basic human needs
    2. Equity
    3. Advancement
  3. and to show how religious movements mostly shared and supported those goals, but in a few cases did not.

I hope that this information will provide enough context that we can go into our forum after service ready to talk about current labor issues that are being discussed and acted on within the Unitarian Universalist denomination.

Early Labor in the USA

You may have the impression that the Founding Fathers didn't discuss labor much, and that therefore it was not an issue when our country was founded. In fact, labor was at the center of many discussions in that time; but it was called slavery. The first industries requiring huge numbers of laborers were primary ones—the production of tobacco, sugarcane, indigo, iron and building materials. The first large pools of people caught up in the then-unfamiliar position of labor-for-others were indentured servants and later slaves.

I do not trivialize the despicable core nature of slavery by making this point. If you could set aside the great injustice and horrible mechanisms of race-based servitude, you would be left with a small number of land-owners who acquired the laborers needed for their profit on the best possible terms. It may be correct to say that one of the earliest organized labor movements was the network of churches and individuals put together to help slaves escape to the North—the Underground Railroad.

One hundred and fifty years after the official end of slavery, the primary industries continue to be a field of difficult labor problems.

Let's take a quick look at the brave attempts to escape slavery in terms of the three goals I've asserted for the labor movement:

  1. Basic needs. We don't know how often, but certainly escape from slavery was sometimes needed to preserve life, get sufficient food and clothing, and preserve families.
  2. Equity. This goes without saying. There is no fairness in slavery.
  3. Hope for the future. One has only to listen to the spirituals of the time to understand the deep longing for a life that can be better. I think we have a lesson coming soon that will take a deep look at spirituals, and I'm certain that the hope for a better life, in the next generation if not this, will be found to be a constant theme.

Growth of the Labor Movement

Before and after the American Civil War, there were also major labor movements involving workers in secondary—manufacturing—industries. These are the ones we tend to think of as the roots of American labor. The first successful strike for higher wages occurred among printers in Philadelphia and predates the Constitution by a year. "Mill girls" began organizing in Lowell, MA in the 1830s; in 1843 they began petitioning for a 10-hour work day. In 1860, 20,000 shoemakers in Lynn, MA began a strike to restore pay cuts and improve conditions; the factory owners refused to negotiate and the strike collapsed. One consequence of this was greater organization by laborers; in 1866, the National Labor Union was founded, soon followed by the Knights of Labor and the Colored National Labor Union. By 1882, when the first large Labor Day celebration was held around Union Square in Manhattan, labor unions as we know them today had organized, The AFL (American Federation of Labor) formed in 1886.

In terms of the goals I mentioned earlier, the early union movement was heavy on necessity and fairness:

  1. Basic needs. In 1880, the normal industrial work week was 12 hours per day, 6-1/2 days per week. At prevailing wages, that sufficed for family necessities. When wages were reduced, though, there was no buffer. The compelling issue driving worker organization was economic at its most basic: at the level of shelter and food.
  2. Equity. Urban industry in the 19th century differed greatly from primary industry in earlier times. Agricultural workers had centuries-long traditions that protected them in certain ways and provided them rights with respect to their employment. Urban laborers had neither the tradition nor the rights and found themselves in a position not only inferior to factory owners, but unprotected from them.

    We can't talk honestly about labor without addressing the issue of relative power. All my life, I've heard people from many different backgrounds say that unions have the balance of power, holding industry captive, and that (by golly) is what's wrong with this country. I can see how that opinion might develop, but it does not withstand scrutiny. Workers have only two tools in seeking their goals:

    The first is the more effective. The second is disruptive to lives and businesses and almost never works out to anyone's profit.

  3. Hope for advancement. When 19th-century laborers asked for a 10- instead of a 12-hour workday (at the same pay), it was not (in most cases) because they did not want to work, but because they were beginning to understand that there were other important things they should be doing. These things included family, religion, social interaction and (going back to basic needs) sleep. The late 19th-century saw a cultural flowering in America that was eclipsed only by the introduction of motion pictures, radio and television. Even the roughest mechanic could think in terms of "bread and roses."

... and Religion

You may fairly point out that I've so far talked little or none about the second part of my topic, religion. I don't think there's any dispute that most religious organizations in the US strongly support the ideas we've been talking about: that people are entitled

Not all churches have acted on all these ideas, or applied them to all people; but (especially in the liberal traditions from which Unitarian Universalism developed, but also within the Roman Catholic church) there has consistently been an alignment of goals between workers and their churches. A couple of examples:

Rather than pursue this point in general, I'm going to talk about three specific cases where there was close collaboration between workers and churches. Most of the material is cited in Vol. 6, Issue 1 of Labor Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas @2009.

The CIO "Operation Dixie".

One of the last geographic areas to see organized labor action was the old South. Many mills and factories moved to the South in the period from 1890 to 1960 to take advantage of cheap labor. Unionization went slowly for many years, in part because factories were not concentrated (except in certain areas like Atlanta and Birmingham); and in part because of a disinclination among working-class Southerners to combine across racial lines. The CIO enlisted the talents and efforts of local churches, the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen, and the Vanderbilt University Divinity School to build support for unionization and collective action in the mills. Operation Dixie is generally considered a failure, by the way, but it is a strong example of how organized labor found allies among religious organizations.

Working on the Sabbath.

Jews emigrating to the US in the early 20th century often found themselves in dilemmas involving their obligation to abstain from work on the Sabbath. A minority in many work places, Jews were often faced with the choice of losing their jobs or neglecting their observation. Several practices arose, both religious and social, that helped deal with the dilemma. The practice of donating a portion of wages earned on the Sabbath helped some deal with it. Temples organized educational and pressure groups to get employers to be more flexible. Rabbis taught the tradition that it was not a sacrilege to put food on your family's table, even if it involved working on the Sabbath.

Catholics and the Living Wage Movement

We still talk a lot about "a living wage". The term was popularized by Monsignor John Ryan (1865-1949), who provided an intellectual basis for justifying a minimum wage and the social safety net that was incorporated into the new deal. Father Ryan also advocated strongly for trade unions and for the National Consumers' League, an organization formed to encourage people to buy from companies that provide decent working conditions. He was audacious enough to oppose child labor, even though his church thought it was pretty much OK.

Ryan and a few other high-profile priests tried to create a moral and intellectual basis for aligning the Catholic church with the goals we have been discussing this morning. To the extent they succeeded, they also helped align the national conscience with those goals.

Possible topics for forum:

  1. UU and the living wage. Do we care? Why? What should we be doing?
  2. Has the nature of labor changed since the 'glory days' of the US labor movement? If so, what effect has it had on peoples' lives?
  3. Many large employers (Walmart for example) have successfully resisted unionization. What does that mean for us as consumers and neighbors?