Monday, April 04, 2011

Your Workers Are Your Treasures

Some of you know that I teach Social Welfare policy at a local college. While preparing for tonight's class I came across a short film called, "I Am a Man". This film is about Dr. Martin Luther King's support for sanitation workers in Memphis and his subsequent assassination. Today marks the 43rd anniversary of that tragic event.

Among the many commentaries on the significance of this day, there was one I really appreciated given the recent focus of this blog on economic justice. Alex Mikulich, a research fellow at the Jesuit Social Research Institute, New Orleans recommends remembering King by honoring the dignity of workers:

"The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. walked the picket line the day before an assassin's bullet ended his life. A Nobel Prize-winner courted by presidents, King spent his final hours with Memphis garbage collectors fighting for the right to unionize. As we remember King's legacy on the anniversary of his death, the struggle for economic justice continues amid new assaults on workers' collective bargaining rights, the worst income inequality since the Great Depression and irresponsible budget cuts that will hurt the most vulnerable." (Read the whole thing here)

Coincidentally, The Center for American Progress has a report out today suggesting that organized labor is good for the middle class whether you belong to a union or not. Check it out:

"Unions make the middle class strong by ensuring workers have a strong voice in both the market and in our democracy. When unions are strong they are able to ensure that workers are paid fair wages, receive the training they need to advance to the middle class, and are considered in corporate decision-making processes. Unions also promote political participation among all Americans, and help workers secure government policies that support the middle class, such as Social Security, family leave, and the minimum wage...

Our analysis, more fully described in the body and appendix of this report, indicates that each percentage point increase in union membership puts about $153 more per year into the pockets of the middle class—meaning that if unionization rates increased by 10 percentage points (about the level they were in 1980)—then the typical middle class household would earn $1,532 more this year. This figure indicates how much better off all members of the middle class would be—not just those who are union members— if unions regained some strength. And these gains would continue year after year. To put these results in context, our analysis indicates that increasing union membership is as important to rebuilding the middle class as boosting college graduation rates, results that while shocking to some, are consistent with previous research." (Read the whole thing here)

'Abdu'l-Baha offers commentary on strikes that suggests that while there are legitimate criticisms that can be made about laborers, these are symptoms of a deeper problem; economic injustice itself:

"Strikes are due to two causes. One is the extreme greed and rapacity of the manufacturers and industrialists; the other, the excesses, the avidity and intransigence of the workmen and artisans. It is, therefore, necessary to remedy these two causes. But the principal cause of these difficulties lies in the laws of the present civilization; for they lead to a small number of individuals accumulating incomparable fortunes, beyond their needs, while the greater number remain destitute, stripped and in the greatest misery. This is contrary to justice, to humanity, to equity; it is the height of iniquity, the opposite to what causes divine satisfaction." (Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 273)

'Abdu'l-Baha ultimately advocates legal remedies for economic injustice. In order for such reforms to succeed it will require a transformation of consciousness regarding workers. If as Baha'u'llah has said, work is worship, if labor is sacred, perhaps the laborer should been seen that way as well. What Baha'u'llah wrote to political leaders may apply equally well to corporate leaders and management in the private and public sectors regarding their workforce:

"Do not rob them to rear palaces for yourselves; nay rather choose for them that which ye choose for yourselves...Your people are your treasures. Beware lest your rule violate the commandments of God, and ye deliver your wards to the hands of the robber. By them ye rule, by their means ye subsist, by their aid ye conquer. Yet, how disdainfully ye look upon them! How strange, how very strange! "(Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 93)