Everybody’s Right to Vocational Dreams

Phil Tom

The Reformation idea of the dignity of work was revolutionary. It made it possible to view all good work as a divine vocation.The question now is: are twenty-first century churches still in touch with this heritage? Are they willing to stand up for it?

Before John Calvin, society regarded work as a necessary evil to provide food, clothing, and shelter. Calvin, the founder of Presbyterianism, changed this grim understanding of labor. He understood work as a calling from God. He envisioned social conditions that would help build a better community free of sin and injustice – a means of glorifying God, the true goal of work. All work should be shrouded in fair- ness, dignity, just relations. Those who abused, exploited, or sought advantage of others were sinners.

The Reformation elevation of labor unleashed new economic and spiritual energies, inviting people to follow their vocational dreams and adopt practices of discernment to hear the call of God. But there’s another side to this discovery. Because work connects all of us in the interdependent human economy, it implies that everyone has a role in either contributing to the dignity of everyone’s labor – or eroding it. We cannot talk long about vocation without thinking about the millions of workers who languish in unjust conditions – their own vocational hopes or accomplishments frustrated by unfair or illegal practices at work. We should be paying attention when, because of heartless social policy or inhuman conditions, labor becomes cruel and undignified.

Wage theft, for instance, afflicts many workers in this country, yet it gets little public notice. At the U.S. Department of Labor, the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) handles wage theft cases, getting hundreds of calls every week from workers across the country who say that they have been exploited by their employers – not being paid for the hours they worked or for overtime, or just not getting paid at all. In a recent study of low-wage workers by the National Employment Law Project, they had on average 15 percent of their wages stolen by their employers – about $2,500 per worker per year. WHD also gets calls from workers who say their employers have misclassified them as contractors rather than as employees so the bosses don’t have to pay benefits and payroll taxes. Some of these workers did not realize they had been misclassified until they were injured on the job and learned they could not file a disability claim.

A Personal Stake

In my work I connect our Department of Labor worker-protection agencies with interfaith and ecumenical leaders and their organizations to tackle these trends of injustice. As a person of faith, I believe this fight for worker justice is the right thing to do. As a clergy member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I believe work is a godly endeavor: it should contribute to the transformation of society. For Presbyterians, these two values of integrity and justice are at stake every day in the workplace.

This is especially true for the work of low-wage American workers, one of the most vulnerable groups exploited by dishonest employers and a down economy. These laborers are the folks who grow and harvest our food, who provide us with the goods we want at the lowest prices, who serve us in the places we eat, who care for our parents and children, who clean our hotel rooms. These are the invisible ones at the bottom of the food chain in our global economy.

I come to this fight with personal memories: I grew up watching members of my own family work in sweatshops and in the restaurant industry. Some- times they had to work seven days a week, earning less than minimum wage and receiving no overtime pay, no benefits like sick or vacation days. Because of these working conditions, their health and quality of life suffered. And the family suffered. Like many low-wage immigrant workers such as restaurant and domestic workers today, my family members did not have the chance to enjoy the fruits of their labors. They tolerated these conditions because they had limited vocational options. Their goal was simply to provide for their families as best they could.

I advocate for worker justice so that all workers today, especially low-wage workers, will have a life of health and hope for their families’ future. That challenge is greater than ever in an economy where corporations drive down the cost of labor to increase their bottom line, look overseas for cheaper labor in a globalized market, and use technological advances to replace workers. Worker representation has weakened. Union strength is in serious decline: only 6.9 percent of private-sector jobs are now unionized. As faith communities, we should stand in solidarity with our vulnerable brothers and sisters and resist patterns of economic injustice.

A Faith-Labor Disconnect

Unfortunately this message often falls silent. Labor issues are rarely a priority in national church deliberations or in churches’ legislative lobbying efforts. Nevertheless, these dire labor trends affect the churches themselves – workers are often parishioners or the children of parishioners. The issue finally is not just a matter of employee empowerment. It’s a matter of human dignity – protecting people’s rights, their assets, their retirement funds.

Who will stand up for the dignity of people’s work? In the first half of the twentieth century, mainline Protestants and Catholics were closely associated with the union movement and union member- ship. Many of their churches were working-class and blue-collar. But these congregations moved away from union sympathies as they moved into a middle- class/professional/managerial demographic in the prosperous latter decades of the century. When I was a student at McCormick Theological Seminary in the early 1970s, the Presbyterian Institute of Industrial Relations was still in operation. In its heyday, this program at McCormick played a significant hands-on training role by exposing Presbyterian pastors to worker justice and labor issues, putting us to work on the assembly line during summer months. It would be difficult to imagine this today: a cadre of pastors signing up to work on a factory floor for weeks or months at a time! By now, in other words, the disconnect between faith communities and the labor movement is dramatic and severe. We have moved from the assembly line to the management side of life. And labor justice has suffered.

Two decades ago, theologian Matthew Fox of- fered a broader diagnosis of the damaged relationship between work and spirit. It’s relevant today. In The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time (HarperOne, 1995) he wrote: “Life and livelihood ought not to be separated but flow from the same source, which is Spirit, for both life and livelihood are about Spirit, … living in depth, living with meaning, purpose, joy, and a sense of contributing to the greater community. A spirituality of work is about bringing life and livelihood back together. … Jobs are to work as leaves are to a tree. If the tree is ailing, the leaves will fall. Fiddling with leaves is not going to cure an ailing tree; just as one cures an ailing tree by treating its roots, so we cure the crisis in work by treating the root meaning and purpose of work. … With the industrial revolution work itself was revolutionized. … Humans changed from producers to consumers. The worker became an assistant to a machine. We should not allow ourselves to be deceived that today’s crisis in jobs is just about more jobs; it is not. The job crisis is a symptom of something much deeper: a crisis in our relationship to work, and a challenge put to our species today to reinvent it.” 

We hear a lot today about celebrations of up- from-the-bootstraps success stories. What about the dream of the beloved community? How do we learn again to stand up for each other?

Some people of faith are demonstrating passion for it, certainly. Congregations are working with their local or regional workers centers through ecumenical and interfaith coalitions such as Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) and Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) California, or through community organizations like Jobs for Justice and the National People’s Action. Some congregations challenge wage theft and misclassification issues, advocate better working conditions, support bills for a living wage, and persuade businesses to provide health benefits and family leave.

Scripture Speaks

These are not mere “secular” actions against economic abuses. Scripture itself speaks to the issue of exploitation of workers. In Isaiah 65:17-25, the prophet proclaims to Israel the hope of a new age where there will be true peace and security, the fruits and blessings of a full life. In Matthew 25:41-46, Jesus proclaims that the decisions made by humanity will help determine its destiny in the age to come. The criteria are whether individuals have performed acts of mercy and justice toward their fellow human beings.

As partners summoned by God to usher in God’s new reign, we are called to work for peace and security that everyone can enjoy. When natural disaster strikes, churches respond with their hearts and pocketbooks. But where is the attention upon daily labor abuses that can lead to setbacks and disasters for whole families and communities? It’s not necessary for an entire congregation to embrace this work. It just takes a couple of people to step forward and get started. If they organize well, others will see their efforts and join.

Let us find the courage of Isaiah and encourage each other until that day as the prophet proclaims: “For behold, I create a new heaven and new earth. … They shall plant vineyards and eat them. They shall not plant and another eat, for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall enjoy the work of their hands.” 

The Rev. Phil Tom is Director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Labor. For some thirty years, he served in Presbyterian parishes in Chicago, St. Paul, and Indianapolis as well as in the denomination’s national office in Louisville.