As a blog catering mostly to the religious academy, Political Theology Today usually carries descriptive, analytical pieces. Its primary purpose is to provide a space for real-time, intellectually rigorous reflection on ongoing political events that can help religious thinkers to respond to them in their own work.
I am therefore very grateful that the editors have made an exception in the case of this piece by allowing me to share something that is primarily agitational. This is not, however, out of keeping with the overall spirit of PTT. I write to reflect theologically and ethically upon ongoing political events that demand a response from us as Christian intellectuals. The main difference in this instance is that the response that is called for is not analysis, but action, not a description, but a personal decision.
On Tuesday, August 30, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that doctoral students at private universities are workers and therefore have the legal right to form a labor union. This is an event that demands a concrete choice from those of us who are pursuing doctoral study in the fields of theology, Biblical studies, Christian ethics, etc., because many of the seminaries and divinity schools at which we study are based in private universities where unionization efforts are now or soon will be underway among our colleagues.
That includes Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization, Duke’s Graduate Student Union, and many others. All of us must decide, now or in the near future, where we stand in relation to the labor movement. This is not merely an academic question, but a personal one – will I or will I not join a union?
I want to take the opportunity to argue that graduate students in the various branches of Christian theological studies ought to answer that question with an unabashed and unmitigated “YES!” The circumstances at every university are different. Different campuses are organizing with different unions (Columbia with UAW, Yale with Unite Here, Duke with SEIU), around different though often overlapping demands (e.g., pay, continuation fees, health insurance, etc.), so I can’t speak to the specifics of every case.
What I can do here is to argue for a particular way of thinking about labor organizing theologically. A presupposition of this analysis is that there is more at stake in any given unionization drive than the given grievances at issue for a particular set of workers and a particular employer. There is the question of supporting the labor movement itself, something that I believe there are at least three very good reasons for doing: through the labor movement, we as Christian intellectuals can personally exercise a theology of liberation, a politics of common life, and the virtue of solidarity.
Through Unions, We Exercise a Preferential Option for the Poor and the Working Class
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued his ground-breaking encyclical, Rerum novarum, making a natural law argument in defense of labor unions, living wages, and industrial democracy. Since that time, not only the magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church, but a broad consensus among both protestant and catholic theologians has recognized that Christian communities cannot remain neutral in social and political conflicts in the places and times that they share with their neighbors, and that one of the most important such conflicts is that between capital and labor, a conflict that is endemic to the modes of political and economic order under which the majority of Christians in the world currently live. Which side Christian communities choose is, moreover, dictated not by nationality, partisanship, or other modes of earthly belonging, but by evangelical witness to Jesus Christ as savior and lord, and that means consistently opting for the exploited and the oppressed in conflicts with their exploiters and oppressors.
In Evangelli gaudium, Francis I writes that…
…the poor person, when loved, “is esteemed as of great value”, and this is what makes the authentic option for the poor differ from any other ideology, from any attempt to exploit the poor for one’s own personal or political interest.Only on the basis of this real and sincere closeness can we properly accompany the poor on their path of liberation. Only this will ensure that “in every Christian community the poor feel at home. Would not this approach be the greatest and most effective presentation of the good news of the kingdom?” Without the preferential option for the poor, “the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass communications”. (199)
Later theologians (including, though not limited to those working under the rubric of liberation theology) have accented this dimension of the gospel as a pastoral response to situations in the communities that they serve. Speaking to the context of American race relations, for example, James H. Cone in his A Black Theology of Liberation has written that…
…Christian theology is a theology of liberation…There can be no Christian theology that is not identified unreservedly with those who are humiliated and abused. In fact, theology ceases to be a theology of the gospel when it fails to arise out of the community of the oppressed” (1).
In the words of Bishop Frank Weston, “it is folly—it is madness—to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.” The preferential option is Biblically warranted, and it reflects faith in God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ, love for the world that God has created through Jesus Christ, and eschatological hope for the coming of God’s commonwealth of peace and freedom when Christ shall come again. While the gospel cannot be reduced to emancipatory politics, the commitment to emancipation is a sine qua non of catholic, Christian faith and life.
Almost every articulation of the preferential option, from Catholic social teaching to William Temple’s iconic argument for socialism in Christianity and Social Order, to contemporary liberation theologies both north and south, makes specific mention of the labor movement. This is for a very simple reason. Union organizing is quite possibly the single best concrete tool that Christians living under capitalist modes of political order have to instantiate the preferential option for the poor.
Not only does almost every statistic in existence show that unionized workers make better wages (according to a 2015 AFL-CIO report, for example “union workers’ wages are 27 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts.”) but, just as importantly, unionization efforts tend to benefit not only those who join a union, but other workers as well, by driving up wages and creating better standards for working conditions. Classic examples of this include the eight-hour day, overtime, and child labor bans, that affected all workers, not just those who were part of the unions that fought for them.
But this is true in the contemporary context as well. A recent article in The Atlantic, for example, argues that skyrocketing income inequality in the US economy between 1979 and 2012 can be directly attributed to a decline in the membership and power of America’s labor unions in that same period. Christian theology, as a discourse that centers human emancipation in the name of the God who became a human being, unequivocally names this as a good, and one that it is proper to the mission of Christ’s church to fight for and to protect.
Through Unions, We Care for the Common Life we Share with our Neighbors
If the preferential option provides a theological warrant for the economic dimensions of the labor movement, the Christian obligation to care for the life and goods we share with our neighbors provides a warrant for its political dimension. Unions not only guarantee higher wages, especially for the most exploited and oppressed members of the working class, but they are also a crucial element in maintaining democratic political life.
In his 2014 volume, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life, Luke Bretherton makes a strong case for the capacity of unions, and, with them, other forms of association that exist in the realm between the state, the market, the family, and educational/cultural institutions to provide a key site in which individuals and groups can come together to identify and create common goods, and, in so doing, to repair breaches and deformations in those sectors (206). Broad-based community organizing, which Bretherton holds up as a key mode of praxis for this sort of reparative work, comes out of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, founded originally as a companion to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a confederation of communist and democratic labor unions. Bretherton writes: “For Alinsky, place-based neighborhood organizing was a complement to the work-based organizing of the unions” (32).
For Bretherton, community organizing (and, by extension, labor organizing) is a key method by which Christians can create the conditions and possibilities of a common life with others. This search for a common life is, in turn, a key element of faithful Christian praxis because the saeculum, the time that the church shares with its neighbors, is one in which wheat and tares are sown together in the field of the world, in which no permanent distinctions of “in” and “out” can be made, in which, as Augustine put it, even “among our most declared enemies there are now some, unknown to themselves, who are destined to become our friends” (City of God, I.35).
Insofar as labor unions, then, provide a space that different people can come together and solve their shared problems democratically, they provide a space for the kind of common life the care of which Bretherton, and other Augustinians, argue is crucial to the church’s vocation to seek the peace of the earthly city. Concretely, what this means is that the day-to-day activities of shop floor politics, for which unions provide a framework of coming together to figure out what sort of family leave a workplace should be asked to provide, of forming common cause between custodial workers, home care workers, and teachers, and even of providing resources to advocate for individual workers whose rights are being violated by an employer.
In short, the creation of industrial democracy, of common life politics in the workplace, are activities that ought to be of fundamental value to those who would think about labor within the discourse of Christian theology.
Through Unions We Exercise the Virtue of Solidarity
The preferential option for the poor and the practice of democratic politics constitute what could be called the extrinsic goods of union organizing, to which Christian theology ought to be committed. But there are also basic intrinsic goods to joining a union as well. That is to say, union organizing as a practice can provide an arena for formation in a number of key virtues. One of the most important of these is already implicit in the foregoing description.
Intrinsic to union organizing as an instantiation of the preferential option and of common life politics is the virtue of solidarity. In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center bell hooks writes:
Solidarity is not the same as support. To experience solidarity, we must have a community of interests, shared beliefs, and goals around which to unite, to build Sisterhood. Support can be occasional. It can be given and just as easily withdrawn. Solidarity requires sustained, ongoing commitment”. (67)
It is the work of labor unions to create a community of interests, a shared understanding of how to achieve those interests, and to identify and pursue a set of goods in common. More fundamentally, it is to teach workers that they already have the basis of a common life, and to act on the assumption that this is so, rather than to give their support to the defense of that life when giving it is easy or when that basis is obvious, and to withdraw it when this is not so.
For theologians and – if I may say so – for theological ethicists in particular, this final reason is perhaps the most important one of all to join a union. It is common, we could even say it is fashionable, for theologians to express support for “struggles for liberation” in the US and around the world. A visit to the Society of Christian Ethics will tell you that, with some notable exceptions, our field is awash with emancipatory ideals but virtually devoid of emancipatory praxis.
What this means is that it has come to be expected that we will do our scholarship on the assumption that we are outside observers to the liberation struggles of our time since, for the most part, that is exactly what we are. A theologian or an ethicist who is part of a labor union cannot claim this. Insofar as all emancipatory struggles are intersectional, when my workplace unionizes, I am provided not only with the conditions and possibilities of a common life with my fellow workers, but also with the grounds for a shared struggle with others. These include residents of low income neighborhoods fighting against gentrification (which may well be carried out by the same university I am fighting for better wages and benefits), with prisoners struggling to end slave labor in the US criminal justice system (who may be turning a profit for companies that are in my university’s investment portfolio), and with countless others who are working to bring a new world to birth.
When we choose to unionize, we are not only living out the ideals central to the gospel that it is our vocation as theologians to proclaim, we are also changing the very nature of what theological scholarship is – and changing it for the better.
Fellow workers, the time for a decision is at hand.
Greg Williams is a graduate student in theology at Duke University. He is also a community activist and ethicist.