Faith Commons

by Rabbi Nancy Kasten

At the recent 60th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, U.S. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of NY explained the purpose of this year’s March:

“We’re here today to fight for voting rights. We’re here today to fight for civil rights. We’re here today to fight for reproductive rights. We’re here today to fight for workers’ rights.” 

Some of those in attendance had been present at the original March. Marsha Dean Phelts commented, “I often look back and look over to the reflection pool (sic) and the Washington Monument and I see a quarter of a million people 60 years ago and just a trickling now. … But the things we were asking for and needing, we still need them today.”

Many faith-based organizations feel comfortable advocating for voting rights, civil rights, and reproductive rights. But faith-based organizing for workers’ rights is weak. Why is that? 

One answer is that many congregations have business owners, corporate lawyers, and other “pro-business” leaders in their pews. Publicly supporting the rights of workers could be interpreted as a rebuke of these parishioners, leading to division within the congregation. And many faith-based nonprofits are funded by wealthy business people. But Matthew Desmond gives a different explanation. 

He says that most, if not all, of us are implicated when it comes to keeping workers disempowered.It’s not just corporate executives – every one of us who is relatively wealthy and financially secure benefits from the perpetuation of poverty in this country. Poverty persists because we as consumers expect cheap consumables, and that only happens when labor is cheap. Our lives of comfort are subsidized by the lives of those who have no savings and no social safety net. So, if we are serious about easing the burden of poverty, we all have to make some pretty drastic changes with regard to how we make and spend our money.

In his book “Poverty, By America,” Matthew Desmond explores in painful detail some reasons why the wealthiest country in the history of the world currently has more people living in poverty than any other advanced democracy. In large part, he contends, it is because this country has institutionalized worker exploitation with corporate policies and incentives that make investors rich and products cheap. Businesses are deregulated and under-taxed, while the human beings those businesses depend on have little or no job security or worker protections.

Recently a number of workers’ unions have challenged businesses to create better and more equitable working conditions for their employees. Employees of UPS, the auto industry, Amazon and Starbucks have all organized for better working conditions and higher wages. Hollywood writers and actors have been on strike for months. In an interview on National Public Radio, Fran Drescher, actor, writer, producer and president of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, was asked how workers could demand more compensation when the entertainment industry is changing, and corporations and investors are suffering losses as a result. She responded, “… just let me say this—when a CEO is making 78,000 a day, when a studio makes a billion dollars on a weekend, please do not plead poverty to me. Just make a good deal. You could be the hero in the story. Just pivot. Start being inclusive. Start realizing we’re not peons. We’re not serfs. We’re in this together. Honor our artistry. Exalt what we bring to the world. Share the wealth, and … the business will have much more longevity. … [Studio executives] still are not seeing that the culture needs to change, that they need to change. This conversation is bigger than our contract. It’s about caring. It’s about making money but not at the expense [of those who are creating the product.] Don’t step on me, climb on my shoulders, beat me down just so you can make an extra shekel. Sorry, but that is no longer acceptable.” 

Bible students might recognize Ms. Drescher’s message. The prophet Jeremiah had the same message for King Jehoiakim, son of King Josiah, who was known for exploiting workers and the poor while flaunting his wealth. 

“Woe to him who builds his house with unfairness and his upper chambers with injustice; who makes his fellow man work without pay, and does not give him his wages. The one who thinks, ‘I will build myself a palace, huge and high, with big windows, paneled in cedar and painted with vermilion.’ Do you think you are more of a king (than your father) because you use expensive materials to build your home? Didn’t your father eat and drink his fill, while he also dispensed justice and equity? Because of that all went well with him. He upheld the rights of the poor and the needy. Then all was well. That is truly what it means to know Me, declares the Lord” (Jer. 22:13-16).

We might be tempted to lay the blame for the lack of workers’ rights at the feet of Hollywood executives and ancient Israelite kings. But Desmond explains that we have created a society in which everyone benefits from keeping poor people poor—including those living in poverty themselves. Poor people living in government-subsidized housing are forced to reject gainful employment in order to keep a roof over their children’s heads. Meanwhile, people who can afford a school savings account for their kids do so by accepting the government-subsidized tax write-off to maintain their standard of living. It is human nature to economize. 

Unraveling the systems that have led us to this sorry state is not easy or simple. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968: “We would have a better world (if we) would stop talking so much about religion and start doing something about it.”

If you’d like to know how you can take steps to strengthen workers’ rights rather than continuing to undermine them, join us on Zoom for a discussion of Matthew Desmond’s recent book, “Poverty, By America,” led by Faith Commons Intern Mara Richards Bim, on Tuesday September 19 at 7 p.m. We will begin a conversation about how we can be more faithful to our fellow human beings and to the God who created each one of us with dignity and purpose.