“As soon as I started looking at the word neutral and what it meant, it became very obvious to me that there can be no such thing as neutrality. It’s just a code word for the existing system. It has nothing to do with anything but agreeing to what is and what will always be – that’s what neutrality is. Neutrality is just following the crowd. Neutrality is just being what the system asks us to be. Neutrality, in other words was an immoral act.”
Myles Horton, We Make the Road by Walking
I am watching today, the posthumous sainting of Margaret Thatcher and trying to remind myself of what I learned as a child growing up in Alabama; “don’t speak ill of the dead”. After several minutes of reflection on some other things I learned as a child in Alabama, I paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr. that the silence of our friends is more destructive then the voices of our enemies. Although many things could be said, I will point out one; Margaret Thatcher was the biggest enemy of organized labor and Union strength the UK has ever seen and only now are the Unions recovering from her assault, close to 30 years later.
It is important to point this out because, although our own anti-union president Ronald Reagan did damage to the America labor movement, his legacy is only now taking full root. Almost weekly attacks on organized labor in the United States chip away at precious rights fought for in years past. Human memory is short and, unless you are a student of history, you probably do not know how much is owed to the unions in this country. The only people we have to thank for children not working in mills are unions, the only people we have to thank for the wages we have now are unions. Overtime pay, the weekend, safety regulations, thank a union. The constant refrains of “Unions have too much power” “Union bosses are corrupt”, etc, etc, seem to suggest that we would all be better off if there were no way for workers to come together as a collective to stand for higher wages and humane working conditions. Somehow if we just put our trust in Corporations and government regulations, workers will get paid a living wage and work under safe conditions. The reason we have unions is precisely because trusting corporations and the government to take care of workers and their families did not work in the first place. Any loss of union power now threatens the safety and welfare of not just union members, but of every American.
By now you might be asking “Why is this priest going on and on about Unions?, How does this have anything to do with God or Jesus?” The reason is quite simple, I believe in a God that values justice and stands with the poor. I believe in a savior that offers grace, and will not allow us to stand by enjoying that grace when others are being hurt. Neutrality is still an immoral act, and to stand with anyone other than workers and those who struggle to support their families is akin to dining with the rich man behind the gates while Lazarus starves and the dogs lick his wounds. (see Luke 16:19-31) Jesus tells us what it means to struggle for justice in Matthew 25:35-36 “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” This is why I am writing about organized labor.
This is also very personal for me. I grew up in a union family, coalminers and
[/caption]steelworkers in Birmingham, Alabama. My grandfather was a shop steward in USW Local 1013. I helped deliver dinners to workers on strike when I was a kid. Unions stood for, and with, me and my family. If not for the UMW and the USW my life would not be what it is. For that I am thankful and willing to stand with my brothers and sisters as they fight for the rights they have earned through decades of struggle.
Right now there is a group of Longshoremen on the Port of Vancouver in Washington, represented by ILWU Local 4. They have been illegally locked out by United Grain Corporation since February 27th and are being denied good faith negotiations to end the lockout. They stand in 24 hour vigil outside the gates of their terminal. On Maundy Thursday I took them a bite to eat and stayed a couple of hours to listen to their stories, their anger and frustration, their hopes and dreams. All they wanted to do was to go back to work for a livable wage under safe working conditions. Members of ILWU Locals from up and down the Columbia river join them, holding signs with their logo saying “An injury to one is an injury to all” I cannot think of a more Christian statement of solidarity. I pray that this lockout ends soon but prayer without action is just empty words. We must pray for justice and work to see it through.