Labor leaders and scholars from around the world are gathering for a two-day symposium in Syracuse, New York, to explore how the moral resources within religious traditions can invigorate labor activism and struggles for labor justice. The symposium will bring together ethicists, theorists, theologians, historians, and others to foster a dialogue intended both to deepen scholarly conversations around these issues and to promote greater intellectual depth for faith-based labor organizing. The conference will be held at Syracuse University and Le Moyne College on April 10-11. Registration is free and all are welcome.
After decades of decline, and declining visibility, labor organizing has captured public attention again in the United States. Thousands were mobilized in Wisconsin to defend the right of public employees to unionize. Demands for a $15 minimum wage have moved from the realm of fantasy to the realm of concrete political possibility. The exploitation of undocumented workers has become a cause of increasing public concern. Some of the most significant grassroots labor organizing in this recent upswing has been fueled by “faith-based” organizations and religion-labor coalitions. Nonprofits that understand themselves to have a religious mission have partnered with a variety of churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious communities at a local and a national level. Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), for example, coordinates a network of 27 workers centers, from Washington to Georgia to New York, that catalyze worker organizing and advocate for worker rights. Among its methods of tapping religious support, IWJ encourages its affiliates to partner with local congregations for annual “Labor in the Pulpit” events where worker rights issues are the topic of a sermon and where local workers share their stories of exploitation, injustice, and resistance. In addition to nonprofits like IWJ, a number of state-wide or local religion-labor coalitions have developed in recent years. These bring together union members and religious leaders, sometimes for one specific campaign and sometimes for more sustained conversations and coordination. While such groups are “faith-based” in that they appeal to religious language, often of several religions, to support their organizing efforts, such groups have been criticized for using religion instrumentally and failing to deeply engage with the moral resources of religious traditions.
Scholars of religion and religious ethicists have largely ignored grassroots labor organizing. A number of corners of the religious studies academy have touched on these issues, but often indirectly, and often not as part of a broader conversation about religion and labor. Moreover, discussions of these issues that focus exclusively on the United States can by myopic. This conference intends to bring an interdisciplinary, international perspective to these issues. It intends to incubate rigorous scholarship on religion and labor but also to connect scholarship and activism. We see this as the start of a longer conversation that will, in years to come, include voices from a greater variety of religious traditions and cultures.
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The image at the top of this post is of the Labor Movement Statues in Grand Rapids, MI. It was taken by Lola Audu in 2009 and is available through a Creative Commons License.