These days, especially since the receding of the COVID-19 pandemic, labor stoppages have become major news, especially with the United Auto Workers recently walking out against the Chrysler parent company Stellantis, Ford, and General Motors. Members of the Writers Guild of America, the union representing Hollywood and New York writers, just ended their work stoppage, but the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists has yet to settle.
I pay attention to these labor disputes for one specific reason: As I write, I’m also on strike. I belong to Local 38061 of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, now a division of the Communications Workers of America, which walked out against the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Oct. 18. In doing so we joined four other union locals — CWA Local 14842, the mailers’ union; CWA Local 14827, which handles advertising; Teamsters Local 205/211, our drivers; and the Pressmen’s Union Local 24M/9N, another Teamsters’ division — which had taken to their respective picket lines 12 days previously.
What precipitated this current walkout was parent company Block Communications Inc.’s refusal to pay an additional $19 per employee to maintain existing health care coverage. But that action is only the latest dustup between labor and management, as we haven’t had a raise since 2006 and our last contract expired in 2017, with management essentially refusing even now to negotiate a new agreement in good faith.
That provides a bit of context for the strike, but I wanted to provide a personal narrative for why I’ve decided to stand alongside my coworkers as I believe my perspective is a unique one. What may surprise you is that I’ve been an evangelical Christian for the past 44 years.
You may be asking: How do I reconcile, on the one hand, identifying as an evangelical Christian but then, on the other hand, striking with organized labor? “Media Christianity” — represented by “The 700 Club” and other television and radio programs — has, over the years, generally opposed organized labor and its work stoppages, often referring to it as “greedy” and decrying it for disrupting the lives of workers and the economy. For me, however, participating in this strike is congruent with my commitment to biblical principles, such as admonitions about not exploiting workers, of which there are numerous references in the Old Testament, most notably in the prophets such as Isaiah, Amos, and Micah.
Some of my colleagues’ complaints about not just wages and health care but also feeling unappreciated by management seemingly come straight from the Bible: “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter” (James 5:4-5).
Another biblical passage that encourages me to strike with my coworkers is found in Philippians: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (2:3-4 ). Over two years ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic was subsiding, my wife and I were able to buy a nice house in a good suburban neighborhood. Many of my coworkers, however, do not have similar means, so I need to consider their interests. The path to justice and solidarity starts with recognizing your own advantage and then working to help others get their needs met.
I honestly didn’t care if I directly benefited from going on strike; I simply thought standing with my coworkers was the right thing to do. Indeed, current conditions in U.S. society have made striking much easier than even a century ago when the union movement was just getting established and people were even losing their lives because of corporate pushback. This was the case in 1920 when coal miners in West Virginia attempted to organize against the Stone Mountain Coal Company, leading to the Matewan massacre as depicted in the movie “Matewan,” which we watched over the summer.
But now, with a groundswell of public support for unionism in the United States, where two-thirds of Americans support unions and 72 percent support the WGA workers’ strike, we are beginning to see real progress when it comes to workers’ rights. This is not thanks to the strikes I mentioned above but to the fallout of the pandemic where people, especially in the “service industry,” are no longer satisfied with working for nearly nothing. For example, my colleagues and I attended a rally at a local Starbucks in September where a worker who had been fired for organizing a union was later reinstated after a hearing in front of the National Labor Relations Board.
I won’t say that the Bible endorses unionism in general or the labor movement specifically, but I’ve always seen the movement as a conduit for the kind of economic justice that the scripture does call for. The Hebrew word shalom, often rendered “peace,” calls for not just a mere cessation of hostility but ultimately an atmosphere of actively seeking everyone’s flourishing. For that reason I have always joyfully participated in Pittsburgh’s annual Labor Day parade, marching with my union “brothers and sisters” through the downtown business district virtually every year since I started with the Post-Gazette in 1997; this year I told a union organizer, “Our cause is just,” and she agreed, I believe that folks shouldn’t go bankrupt trying to take care of their families because of, among other things, their health care package.
I wish that my fellow evangelicals, who often like to call themselves “pro-family,” would see that choosing to obsess over preventing abortion, curbing LGBTQ+ rights, and resisting government “tyranny” distracts them from living the gospel and standing in solidarity with workers (Matthew 4:23). My coworkers and I want a contract that pays us what we feel we’re worth, and, considering James’ insistence that workers be treated fairly, I think it’s critical to my faith to make this demand for them.