"A Right Christmas" by Rev Lionel Edmonds, Pastor, Mt Lebanon Baptist Church and Founder of Washington INterfaith Network
If you ask people what they think about organized labor these days, many - if not most - might respond based on the version of labor depicted in the recent Martin Scorsese film, The Irishman. The filmmaker points his camera at the link between the Teamsters and organized crime in the era of Jimmy Hoffa. So the image portrayed is of profoundly corrupt union officials in cahoots with habitually violent mafia thugs.
While that might make for a dramatic movie - endless as it is - it crowds out any other part of the rich and complex history of organized labor. I grew up in the Midwest and never ran across anyone who resembled the characters in the Scorsese movie. In my community of Fort Wayne, Indiana, organized labor was closely and publicly connected to organized religion. Your pew neighbor during Sunday worship service was often the factory worker next to you on the assembly line during the week. My father was a shop steward in his union and an usher at church. My mother worked in a parochial school and taught in Sunday School. Work and worship, labor and faith, were as married as my parents were. In fact, to my young eyes, the labor movement was another expression of religious activity, somewhat similar to singing in the choir, serving on the usher board, or teaching in Sunday School. We even had ministers in my city who worked in the factory during the week, and ministered to their congregational flock on weekends.
By the time I reached adulthood in the 1980’s, the marriage of religion and labor had ended. When religion ended its relationship with labor, religion became, as we in my faith tradition say, so heavenly minded that it lost its ability to do earthly good. And labor, without religious influence, lost much of its resonance with people, even with its own members. None of this was planned or coordinated. Suburbanization, de-industrialization, the hollowing out of central cities - large forces worked to shatter the close and overlapping connections of workers and worshippers.
The growing disconnection created consequences that we see playing out in our region in real time. Right now, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) workers are on strike-attempting to resist an attempt by the WMATA board to privatize transit services and turn the provision of those services to a large, transnational company called Transdev. I marched on the picket line about a week ago with 50 Amalgamated Transit Union workers who were fighting to preserve their jobs andpensions. The overwhelming majority of those workers are African Americans. The public sector wages and benefits that they are fighting for represent one of the last preserves of middle class economic conditions available to what used to be called blue collar workers, particularly blue collar workers of color. As such, these jobs represent one of the last bulwarks against the spreading and deepening condition of income inequality in our country.
Outside of my presence and the presence of organizers and leaders connected to my organization, Washington Interfaith Network, those workers and that union are completely isolated and alone in their struggle. The larger community - whether progressive or conservative - does not see these workers and won’t understand what will be lost if their jobs are privatized and their pensions reduced. Standing shoulder to shoulder with workers who are fighting for respect and their jobs is the role that organized religion once played and should play again. Worshippers in our region should hear about the battle being waged right now and weigh in to protect the wages and benefits of the women and men who drive and maintain the transit system. Resolving these issues will guarantee that working families will be able to raise their families, pay off their mortgages, and retire with dignity. Now that’s a right kind of Christmas that’s worth fighting for.
H. Lionel Edmonds
Pastor, Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, Washington DC
Co-Founder, Washington Interfaith Network