"Hi, I'm John, and I'm a Worker."
As most of you know, I work as a co-pastor of a church in the midst of re-planting. After years of struggling to get new members, the people of Ephesus Baptist Church in Chapel Hill made the decision to start anew. This meant taking time off from regular worship starting on Easter, releasing some funds the church had reserved for a building project that never came to fruition, and hiring two co-pastors to come on board alongside the senior pastor, my friend Kevin. If you’d like to know more about what’s going on behind all this, I recommend you read Kevin’s sermon from the day the church voted to move forward with the plan to re-plant as Jubilee Baptist Church.
Over the next three weeks I want to write about three ministries we plan to start in the fall: Workers Anonymous, a financial literacy class, and a project to pay off people’s debts.
The co-pastors I work with and the group coming onboard the new church spend a lot of time thinking about new challenges facing churches in America. What do you do when 95% of the congregation has student debt? How do you plan a church when 40% of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency expense? What does it mean to talk about racial justice when the black-white wage gap hasn’t changed in 40 years because the top 1% (overwhelmingly white) has seen a massive rise in earnings that offset the very real gains that black people made in that time? Some churches have asked these kinds of questions over the years. However, I haven’t seen too many churches really attempt to address the changes in our political-economy over the last 40 years, the ways capitalism has stretched people to the limit, leaving us indebted, overworked, and underpaid. Thousands of churches thrived off of widespread (if unevenly distributed) financial stability. Those days are gone.
Starting in September, our church will have a Workers Anonymous ministry. We still don’t know quite what it will look like in practice, but we do know some of the basic ideas shaping it. First, a lot of people have very real problems at their jobs. These problems take the form of stagnant wages, last minute scheduling, sexual harassment, insufficient benefits, or just the general sense of powerlessness that most people feel in their workplaces.
Several books do a great job of documenting the ways the language in the workplace compound and avoid these problems. Managers refer to themselves as “leaders” and most work culture uses languages of “teams” and “family” to offset the very real power dynamics between owners, bosses, managers, and workers. Workplace culture has incorporated emotional language into its vocabulary. People have to show up and not just do their job, but to have a job they can be passionate. And on top of all this, people show up to church and hear much of the same language about their jobs. The church served as a place to hear God’s calling to a vocation where one can engage in meaningful, passionate work. For decades, American churches bought into the language of Do What You Love and gave it a theological and communal stamp of approval. Thousands of Christians heard week in and week out that they could best serve God by serving their employer. Jobs become something more than just a way to acquire the income necessary to live. They become a “vocation” and a “calling”. All well and good as far as it goes, but too often that language obscures the real power employers have over their workers.
As people grow tired of debt and low wages, volatile scheduling, and the sense of powerlessness and exploitation they experience creating value for someone else, where can they go?
We want to make our church the kind of place where people can show up exhausted and tired from work and sit with a group of people and tell them “My job sucks. I’m tired and mad all the time, and I feel totally powerless to change it. Does any of this matter to any of you or to God?” And of course we’ll answer, “Yes!” That’s the idea behind Workers Anonymous. We want Workers Anonymous to serve as the first place people can go to admit they have a problem in their workplace. Our church should live together in such a way that people don’t have to pretend that everything in their workplace is fine. They can admit to themselves and one another that their bosses exploit them and find a group of people ready to hear what they have to say about that.
I do not know the longe-range goals though it likely involves organizing. I do know one short-term goal: helping people identify themselves as workers and see that they can come to church to talk about their jobs and they don’t have to pretend they find fulfillment or joy in them. In fact, they should know that we welcome their complaints, their disagreements, their struggles.
I recently read Lillian Mason’s Uncivil Agreement. In it she writes about how our identities drive and shape our politics often times more so than our beliefs or policy goals. One section in particular stood out to me. She found that people’s personal identification more strongly predicts the likelihood of their political activism than either
For instance, someone that believes that abortion should the country should outlaw abortion in every circumstance but does not strongly identify themselves as “pro-life” is less likely to be politically active than someone that thinks is should be restricted but allowed in some circumstances that does identify as pro-life. The extremity of one’s views on abortion do not correlate with political activism as strongly as someone that identifies themselves as “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”
When you ask people if they are planning to participate in the upcoming election, the intensity of their abortion opinion does very little to push them into action. However, their sense that they are socially connected to other people who call themselves pro-choice or pro-life is quite powerful. These single-issue activists are driven to act not by the intensity of their beliefs, but by the sense that they are supported by like-minded others. Other people, not simple opinions, push activists into action.
When you think about it, this makes intuitive sense. Once we identify with a group, we want to do what that group does and we feel empowered to do it.
Many of us on the left often wonder how to help people move towards organizing a union in their workplace. Usually we start with the logical case for it. Union members make more money, get better benefits, and generally have more power in their workplace. But if we think about how Mason puts it, people also need to know that a community of like-minded others supports them in their efforts and considers them apart of their community. In fact, group and community identification work to drive political action more than strongly held beliefs or even more extreme beliefs. What do you think will inspire people more to organize their co-workers: a strong knowledge of the fundamental contradictions of the capitalist mode of production or believing that they live in a community of people that wants them to take collective control of their workplace with their co-workers? I know which one my money’s on.
With Workers Anonymous, we hope that people can come in, talk about what’s hard in their jobs and what they’d like to change, and leave having identified themselves as workers and as a part of a community of workers. From there we want them to know that they can and should organize their coworkers. I just got Labor Notes excellent little book Secrets of a Successful Organizer, an incredible guide to the ins and outs of workplace organizing. I imagine we will use this as a resource as we have conversations around what to do with what people bring to W.A. meetings.
I believe Herbert McCabe is right when he says, “The class struggle is not something we are in a position to refrain from. It is just there; we are either on one side or the other. What looks like neutrality is simply a collusion with the class in power.” We have to pick a side: workers or owners. I know which side my faith instructs me to stand on and with Workers Anonymous we hope to communicate to people that when they standup on the frontlines of the class struggle, a whole community of people has their back.