Joerg Rieger and Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger, Unified We Are a Force: How Faith and Labor Can Overcome America’s Inequalities. Chalice Press, 2016. Joerg Rieger and Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger are exceptionally well-qualified to address their topic because of thirty-five years of experience in bringing together people of faith and labor, especially in Texas. Joerg, a professor and United Methodist minister, and Rosemarie, a community and labor organizer have produced a book that is not labor addressing faith or faith addressing labor, but instead a wide-ranging presentation on how faith and labor are natural collaborators and how America needs this collaboration to overcome the inequalities currently damaging our national life.
Unified We Are a Force is thus a book for a wide range of people concerned for the common good. In particular, the twin chapters “Labor Radicalizing Religion” and “Religion Radicalizing Labor” go far in exploring how to leave behind self-satisfaction and choose instead to fight the good fight for societal justice.
Common understandings of the American class structure are declared obsolete through an application of the 99%/1% model popularized by the Occupy Movement. Americans generally work for a living. Even many of the 1% choose to work. Despite how divergent workplace experiences can be, working as a matter of necessity is something that unites Americans and can do so increasingly in the future.
At the heart of this book is the authors’ call for “deep solidarity” as essential to authentic faith and authentic labor. Both charity and advocacy, though they do some good, are inadequate. Charity (in the secularized sense of the term) helps people under pressure but does not consider the causes of the pressure. Although advocacy recognizes the roots of injustice, its practitioners often overlook their need to work cooperatively with others because they overestimate their own influence. On the other hand, deep solidarity recognizes that we are already connected in profound ways. “Deep solidarity describes a situation where the 99 percent of us who have to work for a living develop some understanding that we are in the same boat.”
Connections between some faith communities and labor organizations flourished decades ago. The official social teachings of many denominations remain pro-labor in substantial ways, even if these teachings receive little attention. The time is ripe for renewing the connection between labor and faith, not as a matter of nostalgia, but in ways appropriate to the 21st century. Society and its members will benefit, and both the labor movement and faith communities will be reinvigorated.
As an Episcopal priest, I have reached the conclusion that over the last several decades, moderate and progressive religious groups have focused their attention too narrowly on issues of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. These issues are vitally important, but emphasis must be placed anew on the missing pieces of the puzzle, economic and labor issues. Only if this happens, can true justice be done in the areas of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, for each of these is shaped by matters of labor and economy.
A renewal of linkage between faith and labor would also recognize two other undeniable factors. The first is that work permeates human identity and experience. A majority of adults spend a majority of their waking hours at work. What happens there and how it influences the entire week is something about which faith communities must offer a meaningful message.
The second undeniable factor is how faith traditions, especially the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have much to say about what God expects in the areas of work and economics. Foundational to the Abrahamic faiths is the Exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt, which has been rightly described as the first recorded labor strike.
The final chapter of United We Are a Force draws on the practical experience of the authors to address how to organize and build a movement. Several specific tactics are described in detail.
- The Worker’s Rights Board (WRB) is a public event, especially appropriate for Labor Day, where anyone interested can hear from workers about the worker justice issues they face and where deep solidarity can develop among many sorts of people.
- Worker justice prayer circles at retail outlets have diverse effects. Struggling workers are empowered. Managers seeking to shut down a labor action are confounded. Customers and other members of the public are invited into deep solidarity with workers at the stores they frequent.
- A Peer Chaplains Program addresses how faith helps with workday challenges and how experiences at work can shape faith. Workers ministering to one another confront issues of fear with the message that what happens at work matters to God.
Unified We Are a Force can provoke both thought and action. It deserves a wide readership, especially among workers aspiring to union leadership and students preparing for ministries with faith communities of every kind.
After reading this book, consider passing it on to someone else. Or use it as a basis for a study group including people from faith communities and people from the labor movement. (Some participants may belong to both groups.)
Dare to invite people from the 1% to the study group as well. The authors of this book note that 1%ers sometimes come to embrace how our society desperately needs to overcome its worsening economic inequality. Deep solidarity is such a good thing that it should be made available to everyone, even as Jesus summoned to himself Zacchaeus the extortionate tax collector, a man not previously known for a commitment to economic justice!
By Charles Hoffacker