Friday, May 04, 2007

General Board of Church and Society Spring Meeting - Reflections, Part 2

More thoughts/reflections from my Spring General Board of Church and Society Meeting:

One of the highlights of my time at GBCS meetings is time spent in my work area, Environmental and Economic Justice. Environmental justice has been a love of my since childhood (even though I am usually a better studier of such issues than practitioner), and economic justice has really become a passion in the last few years. This meeting, we got to hear some excellent speakers talk with us about worker justice. Methodism has had an emphasis on worker rights for a long time - Methodists were leaders in the workers' rights movement in the early 1900s. This is reflected in the 1908 Social Creed of the Methodist Episcopal Church:
The Methodist Episcopal Church stands:
For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.
For the principles of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions.
For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational diseases, injuries and mortality.
For the abolition of child labor.
For such regulation of the conditions of labor for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community.
For the suppression of the "sweating system."
For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practical point, with work for all; and for that degree of leisure for all which is the condition of the highest human life.
For a release for [from] employment one day in seven.
For a living wage in every industry.
For the highest wage that each industry can afford, and for the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.
For the recognition of the Golden Rule and the mind of Christ as the supreme law of society and the sure remedy for all social ills.

Personally, I am really proud of having that as our Social Creed 99 years ago - we were already advocating for a living wage! That is impressive.

Anyway, we heard a panel of speakers give us a lot of information about the workers' rights movement today. Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, started us out by highlighting biblical texts that theologically ground worker justice efforts, such as the creation story of Genesis (a day of rest) and the Exodus narrative (people rebelling, in part, against intolerable working conditions). Kim highlighted seven areas of crisis related to worker justice:

1) Not enough jobs – for young people, for those who have been imprisoned, for those without higher education, etc.

2) Lack of living wage – ½ of all new jobs being created are ‘poverty zone’ jobs – below, at, or just above poverty level. Almost 47% of workers are in jobs that require a high school diploma or less. Currently greatest income disparity in the nation since 1929.

3) Benefits – the ability to get health care is tied to jobs. A declining number of workers have any pension at all. Lack of paid family leave, vacation, sick leave. 46% of low-wage working parents have no paid leave time.

4) Rights of workers to organize in the workplace – 1 out of 10 workers who tries to organize a union gets fired. Fear by workers that those on strike will be permanently replaced (US is only industrialized nation that does this.)

5) Immigration – no “rational” path to citizenship available. Undocumented workers – their poor working conditions also drive down wages for other workers.

6) Wage ‘thievery’ – major industries that cheat workers of their wages – not paying minimum wage, overtime, etc.

7) Crisis of leadership in the Department of Labor. Complaint-driven approach to enforcement instead of a targeted-investigation approach.

Kim also talked about the positive happenings in the worker justice movement in response to each of these different areas: increase in minimum wage (ideally 50% of what the average wage is) and passing of living wage ordinances, increased focus/movement on health care, legislation introduced in multiple places supporting better paid sick leave benefits, simply supporting with presence those who are trying to organize/unionize, congregations providing sanctuary for immigrants, centers that help workers recover wages. Kim was an excellent speaker - very clear, specific, and interesting.

Virginia Nesmith from the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM) also spoke to us. She talked about farm workers and how labor laws protecting other workers don’t cover farm workers in the same way. She described how contracts for workers free workers from fear, enable them to raise matters of concern about the workplace, while at the same time keeping absenteeism and sickness rates down. Virginia emphasized the importance of local faith communities making connections with workers – hospitality, relationships, support, outreach – in areas where there will be increasing number of farm workers, especially farm workers from outside the US. She told us that the boycotts and other actions we take as a board have a direct impact on the well-being of farm workers, and that when labor issues arise we must respond quickly. Also, Alexandria Jones, an intern in the North Carolina office of the NFWM played a game with us to educate us about farm workers, where we learned, for example, that you can legally be employed at a farm worker at age 12(!!)

As I also mentioned in my last post, I got the chance to worship at Foundry UMC. A particular treat in the worship service was that the music was entirely led by guest artists - a jazz quartet - Stanley Thurston and ensemble. They were terrific, and added so much to the worship. Everyone was swaying in their seats! What a unique experience.

Dean Snyder preached on Romans 8:26-30, particularly the 28th verse - "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." He preached a sermon titled, "Hope . . . Even for the Past - Redeeming our Pasts," part of a series on hope. Dean talked about people who see silver linings everywhere. The Bible, he said, is more realistic - talks about the things that are "truly tragic" - but the Bible also always reminds us that the truly tragic is not ultimate - no evil is so dark that God cannot turn it into a situation of hope. Dean played around with the sentence structure of verse 28, paraphrasing "God works/cooperates together in all things with those called . . . for good." I like that. Dean shared part of a poem by David Ray, "Thanks, Robert Frost": "Do you have a hope for the future? Someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end. Yes, and even for the past, he replied, that it will turn out to have been all right[.]" Dean talked about trying to make good out of our sins and the sins of others. He talked about feeling guilty about fewer things the older he gets, because he is no longer guilty for things he should never have felt guilty about in the first place, or he is appreciate of guilt that made him feel humble, or more tolerant of others. But, he said, the guilt he still feels is guilt about things he has failed to do. Actually, you can read the whole sermon right here. Good stuff.

Well, I have just one more set of reflections - a review of the dance performance I got to see on my evening off. But that's for tomorrow!

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