Adopted by the Executive Board of the North Carolina Council of Churches, March 2, 2004
O Lord Jesus Christ, here are men in their coffins, blood of my blood, bone of my bone.
I trust, O God, that these friends will go to a better place than this mill village or any other place in Carolina.
O God, we know that we are not in high society, but we know Jesus Christ loves us.
The poor people have their rights, too.
For the work we do in this world, is this what we get if we demand our rights?
Jesus Christ, your son, O God, was a working man.
If He were here to pass under these trees to-day, He would see these cold bodies lying here before us.
O God, mend the broken hearts of these loved ones left behind. Dear God, do feed their children.
Drive selfishness and cruelty out of your world.
May these weeping wives and little children have a strong arm to lean on.
Dear God—what would Jesus do if He were to come to Carolina?
These heart-rending words were delivered by Cicero Queens, an “old mountain preacher, moved by sorrow” at the gravesite of the six cotton mill workers killed while peacefully picketing at a Marion, NC, strike on October 21, 1929. None of the locally prominent ministers were present. The main voice of the church condemning how these unionists were shot in the back by seven local sheriff’s deputies who never were charged was a “Yankee,” James Myers of the Federal Council of Churches.
The Marion Massacre followed similar, violently suppressed textile strikes in nearby Elizabethton, TN, and Gastonia, NC–a series of uprisings that brought the world’s attention to working conditions in Southern manufacturing. Sinclair Lewis put the spotlight on these workers in a Scripps-Howard newspaper series, captured in a document now out of print called “Cheap and Contented Labor.” A 1980 reprint of this series was sponsored by labor leaders, a life insurance company representative, some academics, and two North Carolina clergy: Rabbi Arnold Task of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, and the Rev. W.W. Finlator of Pullen Baptist Church in Raleigh.
While particular religious leaders have stepped into the fray of company/union conflicts in our state, the church as a whole has remained distant from the controversy of collective bargaining and unionizing. Often, mainline churches are host to corporate executives who may be community leaders and major donors, whom clergy are loathe to offend. Some churches remain aloof from so-called worldly or political concerns, imagining workplace struggles as beyond the domain of the spiritual.
Most major religious denominations, however, do have official policies and stands in favor of the right of labor to organize and bargain collectively. In this vein, the NC Council of Churches has also held a pro-labor stance over the years. “A Christian Perspective on Organized Labor in North Carolina,” our last official policy statement on labor, was endorsed by the Executive Board on May 7, 1980. The Council’s Annual Assembly also specifically supported government and municipal workers in their right to form a union in a statement dated April 28, 1970. These two statements are attached.
The Council’s Executive Board on June 17, 1997, endorsed the efforts of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in its long drive to represent the interests of eastern North Carolina farm laborers, although the House of Delegates later declined to endorse (or to oppose) the Farmworker Ministry Committee’s support of FLOC’s boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle Company. As the farmworker struggle is under the auspices of that committee, this statement will not concern farm labor organizing, but rather the manufacturing, trade, and service organizing now taking place inNorth Carolina.
A Current Picture of Labor
Unions bring higher wages and benefits, especially for minorities and women
In 2001, average weekly earnings for all unionized workers in North Carolina were $782, versus $601 for non-unionized workers. Nationally, workers in “right-to-work” states have average yearly earnings 15% less than do workers where unions are strong.
Union women earn 31% more than nonunion women. African-American union members earn 29% more than their nonunion counterparts, and for Latino workers, the union advantage totals 53%.
In 1999, 73% of union workers in private industry participated in medical care benefits, as compared with 51% of nonunion workers. Union workers are also more likely to have pension and retirement benefits.
Labor unions nationally are at a low ebb
National unionization rates have fallen from about 35 percent in the 1950’s to 14 percent of the workforce today. Problems of globalization, the transformation of the economy, government policies that are hostile toward unions, and corporate dominance threaten the future of American unions.
Despite public opinion in favor of worker rights, companies often fight union drives
A Cornell University study updated in 2002 reveals that nationally, among companies where there are union drives: 90% hire consultants (“union busters”) to fight the organizing effort; and 51% threaten to close the plant if the union wins the election, while 1% actually do close after a union win. The study found that 71% of the public says that laws protecting the freedom to join unions are important, but that only 35% of the public knows what happens in American workplaces when workers try to form a union.
North Carolina has lower union membership than any other state
In 2002, 3.4% of all North Carolina wage and salary workers were members of unions, though 4.0% were covered by union contracts (that means, non-unionized workers who work in companies where unions have won wage hikes and benefit improvements gain those same rewards even if they are not in the union. See “right to work” definition in footnote #4.). The 3.4% figure is the lowest of the 50 states. Only 2.3% of private sector workers were union members in 2002.
The right to organize into labor unions remains under threat in North Carolina
Public employees in North Carolina do not have the same legal right to bargain collectively as do unionized workers in the private sector. NC General Statute 95-98 (1959) prohibits public employees from bargaining collectively for enforceable agreements that govern the conditions of their employment.
While always denying that they violate the law protecting the right to organize, some companies routinely discourage union organizing through a variety of subtle or blatant means. As one example, Human Rights Watch has documented a range of abuses at the Wilson and Tar Heel, NC, plants of Smithfield Packing, the world’s largest pork producer. During the 1990’s, “Smithfield management opposed workers’ efforts to solicit union card signatures with interference, intimidation, coercion, threats, and discrimination.” The National Labor Relations Board found meritorious a long list of specific worker complaints along these lines. The Council’s Executive Board passed a resolution in support of the Witness: Justice at Smithfield campaign, on September 2, 2003.
Smithfield-style management suppression of the legally guaranteed right to sign union cards and organize into labor unions follows a long North Carolina tradition. During the 1970’s, the struggle by the J. P. Stevens textile workers in Roanoke Rapids led to a national boycott of that company’s products. Scores of religious groups from across the nation supported the boycott, as did the Commission on Social Ministries of the NC Council of Churches. (The Council has two copies of a now out-of-print examination of this struggle and of the history of southern textile organizing, called “Fabric of Injustice.”)
Worker interests are overshadowed by business influence in the NC General Assembly
Business owners and management interests hold vastly more political clout in North Carolina than do workers. Bob Hall of Democracy-NC provided a January 2004 study of lobbyists registered for the 2003 NC General Assembly session. The business-to-labor ratio for lobbyists was 14.8 to 1. Only 38 lobbyists represented labor/employee interests. (Of the 38, 22 represented not those working for private companies, but public workers: NC Association of Educators, State Employees Association of NC, NC Retired Governmental Employees Association.) However, the number of lobbyists for business interests was 562.
The same power imbalance holds for contributions to all NC General Assembly candidates. Hall’s data for the 2000 and 2002 elections show that labor/employee political action committees (PACs) gave a total of $364,000, of which $220,000 came from the NC Association of Educators. In contrast, contributions from business-related PACS were $7,081,000. The ratio of business-to-labor contributions was 19.5 to 1. For every $100 contributed by a labor-related PAC to candidates running for the NC General Assembly, pro-business PACs contributed nearly $2,000 to the same group of candidates.
This disproportionate influence in our lawmaking body shows up in everyday lives of workers:
Since 1947, NC has been a “right-to-work” state. (See footnote #4.)
Bills introduced each session to raise our minimum wage from $5.15 to $8.50/hour, which is still less than the statewide average Living Income Standard of $10.60/hour, are never even assigned for a committee hearing. NC Citizens for Business and Industry and similar business lobbying groups always oppose wage hikes.
Labor unions brought Americans the weekend (the 40-hour work week), health insurance as an employment benefit, workplace safety regulation, paid sick leave, and many more protections for workers that we find commonplace. Labor unions consistently champion the causes of health care for all, living wages, unemployment benefits and workers compensation, investment in training, and other family friendly policies. The lack of union strength in North Carolina weakens efforts for the many kinds of policies and programs that help poor and average working families.
How labor unions operate in North Carolina
North Carolina has approximately 260 local unions affiliated with the NC American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).
Chartered in 1957, the North Carolina AFL-CIO oversees seven Central Labor Councils, each of which coordinates activities between local unions in a geographic area. It has several purposes, including legislative and political activity, union coordinating, organizing support, and affiliate education and service. The NC AFL-CIO now has its own workplace-giving charity, called the NC Union Community Fund. The economic justice program of the Council received one of their first grant awards.
In addition to AFL-CIO-affiliated unions, Black Workers for Justice and United Electrical Workers #150 organize in the state, primarily with local government employees and state university and hospital workers who are among the lowest paid state employees. Black Workers for Justice has a statewide campaign asking legislators and faith and community groups to sign on to Workers Fairness Principles. (The Executive Board of the Council signed a resolution supporting these Principles in 2003.) And there are unions not affiliated with the AFL-CIO, and emerging groups such as a new union for employees of nonprofit organizations.
Hear Our Public Employees (HOPE) is a new collaboration comprised of state employees, fire fighters, police, service workers, teamsters, AFL-CIO, and the American Federation of Teachers. The goal of HOPE is to repeal NC General Statute 95-98 and give public employees the same legal right to organize and collectively bargain that private sector workers have.
Unions do win elections and make progress in our state. As one example, The United Steel Workers Union has signed on the requisite majority of workers at Goodyear plants in Asheboro and Statesville this year, and is proceeding through the steps to attain collective bargaining status.
The Pendulum has Swung Away from Worker Rights
The context for organized labor has swung back and forth from oppression to free expression over the past 150 years in America. We are now in a time of extreme corporate dominance, effectively squelching the voice of workers through a variety of means. First, a short history.
In America, worker exploitation in the early Industrial Revolution led to a movement to protect workers rights, health, and safety. In 1913 the Department of Labor was elevated to cabinet status with the mandate to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of wage earners. Congress in 1916 exempted unions from antitrust laws. In 1932 Congress outlawed in the use of injunctions in labor disputes, although in 1947 the law changed to allow employers to use them to forbid union members to strike.
Popular agitation about massive poverty during the Great Depression led to a series of landmark labor laws. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the Wagner Act) established the right of workers to organize and required employers to accept collective bargaining as a ruling principle in industry.
Strong anti-labor sentiment after World War II resulted in the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, which was passed over the veto of President Truman in 1947. It made secondary boycott and closed shops illegal and gave the President the power to secure an injunction to postpone for 80 days any strike that might affect the national security. Under the act, officers of unions were required to file affidavits that they were not members of the Communist party. It was part of the red-baiting that painted unionists as somehow un-American.
The union movement saw legislative support in 1959 with the Landrum-Griffin Act, which among other things guaranteed freedom of speech and of assembly for union members.
In the 1980s the pendulum swung back again, producing laws and legal decisions that limited labor and the power of labor unions. Cutbacks in federal agencies reduced federal enforcement of many work safety rules; officials appointed by the Reagan and Bush administrations attempted to reduce labor regulations, arguing that they made US industry less competitive in the world market.
Now, the most powerful undercurrent in the American public discussion about jobs is that worker needs are secondary to competitiveness in a global marketplace. When you read your newspaper you see a Business section, not a Labor section. Children are taught little if any labor history in the schools. TV business news is exclusively brought from the corporate executive and Wall Street financier’s point of view. The massive job loss from trade agreements is treated as a minor blip in the transition from an industrial and farm economy to an information and service economy inAmerica. The “experts” are those who describe the flow of international capital, speculators and investors, not the workers who generate the products and services at low wages, and who are crying out, unheard, about their lives.
Corporate campaign contributions are the lifeblood of political campaigns. Politicians must seek this largesse, until we have a publicly financed elections system. When our elected officials at all levels are beholden to the wealthy and to major corporations for their very existence, the views of these purchasers of influence become normative.
When we add to this the increasing concentration of media in the hands of a few giants, all of whom paint a skewed picture of American triumphalism, the actual world of suffering working families is virtually erased from public view.
Finally, we are now in a closed loop of government-big business collusion, where our war incursions enrich corporate profiteers, and drain the budget of funds to enforce labor laws. Transnational corporations violate with impunity the hard-won right to organize, and union demands that workers be free to exercise their rights get caught in long legal loops of company appeals.
Where is the voice of the wage worker? Where is her power? Only in respected, empowered, organized labor.
Christianity and Organized Labor
Scripture shows us that Jesus aligned with the least, the last. He held the privileged to account for how they treated the poor. James reflected this Jesus ethic when he warned profiteers how God hears how they do harm. “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” (James 5:4). As he entered public life, Jesus chose in his debut message to recall the Torah’s jubilee ethic of fair distribution of wealth. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) Who are the oppressed in today’s workplace? Who are the working poor who deserve good news? Who are the ones enriched by the work of others, the blind ones who need recovery of sight to see the damage done by allegiance to greed over dignity for the working man?
Standing on scripture, Christian denominations as a whole have joined with the call of unionists for justice.
The Council’s 1980 policy statement on organized labor provides excerpts from several Christian denominations’ proclamations in support of workers’ rights to form labor unions and bargain collectively with management. These positions remain constant. A flyer called “What Faith Groups Say About the Right to Organize” gives current labor statements from a range of religious faiths and denominations. Two excerpts below exemplify the position of many Council member bodies:
The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME)
“Free collective bargaining has proved its values in our free society whenever the parties engaged in collective bargaining have acted in good faith to reach equitable and moral solutions of problems dealing with wages and working conditions. We do not support the opinion voiced in some quarrels that strikes should be made illegal. To declare strikes illegal would be to deprive workers of their right to collective action and, even more seriously, would place in the hands of government the power to force workers to remain on the job.” (Discipline of the CME Church, 1982)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA)
“[The ELCA] 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.” (Resolution of the ELCA Church-wide Assembly, 1991)
Similar statements abound in the Roman Catholic body of social teaching. American Baptists, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.), the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church are among other Christian denominations that urge members to learn more about labor unions and support workers’ rights to organize and bargain with management. Most of these denominations have educational materials to help members of congregations understand how scripture calls us to support dignity for all working people. Faith groups other than Christians also stand with organized labor; the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, The Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Muslims are among others that hold positions in favor of unions and worker rights.
The National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice serves as a clearinghouse for information, resources, and liturgical materials that help religious communities become more knowledgeable about worker concerns and to engage in pro-labor action.
The call is clear. The need is here. At this time, the Council again speaks out for labor in North Carolina.
Whereas the message of Jesus Christ is that all humans have worth as children of God; and
Whereas North Carolina is now suffering tremendously from job loss due to globalization and trade agreements that favor international investors over the workers who produce the goods we buy and sell; and
Whereas decisions by political leaders at state and national level are guided by the campaign contributions of wealthy individuals and corporations, drowning out concerns of employees; and
Whereas corporate management has many forms of associations for collective action in service of their goals (Chambers of Commerce, NC Citizens for Business and Industry, trade associations and the like); and
Whereas the only collective voice of wage workers is a labor association or union with enforced legal rights:
The Executive Board of the NC Council of Churches hereby reaffirms our historic support of organized labor in North Carolina.
We call on our member judicatories and congregations to become more aware about unions in our state, and to heed the requests of workers and union members for increased public support for their efforts from the religious community.