Progressive Christianity, Worker’s Rights and Social Justice
by pastor Paul J. Bern
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The recent settlement of the West Virginia teacher’s strike, which resulted in a 5% pay raise after lasting for nearly two weeks, will soon echo across the landscape of American labor, and hopefully for the entire world as well. People everywhere – and I mean globally – are literally starving for a pay raise. Today’s labor market – not just in America but globally – already has within it the seeds of revolution, and the people are most definitely ready to rise up, if only I could get you all to turn off your damned televisions and gaming consoles!! This isn’t about religion, this is about justice and equality, and the Bible has plenty to say about both. So, for those of you who may think the Bible is some antiquated rule book that has lost its relevance, allow me to set the record straight.
In Psalm 106 verse 3, it says, “Blessed are they who maintain justice, who constantly do what is right.” In Proverbs 29 verse 4, it says, “By justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down.” Come to think of it, I’m going to send that Bible verse to every member of Congress in Washington, D.C.! The prophet Isaiah lamented the lack of justice in his own time – so this problem is not new – when he wrote, “So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, and honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes prey. The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice.” Here’s one more sample of the mind of Almighty God: “And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts, do not think evil of each other’.” All of the above truths were brought sharply into focus most recently by the West Virginia teacher’s strike. The ugly truth we all must face is this – if our net take-home pay won’t even cover the most basic of living expenses, we are economic slaves! Rather than elaborate here, allow me to post an excerpt of my first book from 2011, now in its third updated edition. Enjoy!
The Ongoing Battle for Worker’s Rights Across America
(excerpt from, “The Middle and Working Class Manifesto”, by Rev. Paul J. Bern)
America has become a ticking time bomb of inequality and lack of opportunity. The rights of US workers have been trampled underfoot by the rich multinational corporations and the top 1% elite, who have outsourced all our jobs overseas as they leave us high and dry on the island of minimum wage jobs with no futures. There are also a growing number of employed people who, despite having a job, are still living in poverty. There are at least 19 million US workers who now fall into this rapidly growing category. The median US income of $35,000.00 a year is not going to get you far in today’s economy, and half of the country is making less than that. The reason we struggle with these things is because the Economic Elite have robbed us all through the systematic confiscation of middle class wealth, security and prosperity. This has caused tremendous suffering among workers throughout the world, it is no less than a criminal act, and it is the result of the largest single transfer of wealth in all of human history from the world’s middle classes to the rich.
The first thing on any list of worker’s rights is that of a fair and realistic minimum wage, and more fundamentally, the basic human right to a decent livelihood. Unemployment as we have previously known it must now come to an end forever. This does not mean unemployment will be eliminated, but periods of unemployment can and should be converted to times of retraining to acquire new skills or to even completely change careers. What gives any wealthy corporate 1%’er CEO or their subordinates the right to tell anybody, “Sorry, you are not needed around here anymore. Your skills, experience, and your work ethic no longer matter here. Our company’s bottom line and the interests of our shareholders are far more important than that of our workers.” This is the essence of what it means to be fired. In my view, this is demeaning to the point of being abusive, and it is therefore an abuse of authority.
This brings me to the point that I wish to make. In today’s world, if the net take-home pay of any given individual does not meet, or just barely meets, that same individual’s daily cost of living, then that is tantamount to economic slavery. Let me say that again because this point simply cannot be overemphasized. If your take-home pay won’t even take you home, you are a slave. Oh, you are free to move around and to come and go as you choose and take care of business, that is true. But if after you go to the grocery store, pay the light bill (assuming you are fortunate enough to be able to do that), put gas in your tank (assuming you are lucky enough to still own a car) and set some money aside for this month’s rent or mortgage (if you’re not already on the street or living with relatives) – and then, after all that you peek into your wallet and realize that you have $7.00 left to live on for the whole stinking’ week, that’s when you know you are a slave! What happens to the people whose incomes are at or below minimum wage? They go hungry and are often homeless. Many of these newly homeless, formerly middle class people also have kids who have fallen into poverty along with their parents. As I write this, it is profoundly sad to report that 1 in every 5 American kids will be homeless at some point in their childhoods. And this is happening in the United States of America, supposedly the richest country in the world? This is a moral outrage, a social injustice, and it is economic discrimination of the worst kind!
Since it is an issue of economic discrimination (regardless of race or religion), it also becomes a 21st century civil rights issue creating a demand for fundamental change in the way our economy works and the way our government works. This too, then, is cause for protests, demonstrations, boycotts, occupations, general strikes and other forms of peaceful civil disobedience. On this point alone, there are enough issues on the collective dinner plate of the American people to foster open revolt throughout the land. Never mind everything else that I have written about. Think about it for a minute. How does it feel to be a slave? Makes you feel kind of angry, doesn’t it? Maybe even violated on a certain level, like we’ve been raped? The time to rise up and say, “No more!” has arrived. It’s time for all of us to get out from in front of out TV’s and our gaming consoles and computers and to get our backsides out in the streets and start protesting – a lot! And that’s just for this issue alone. Now allow me to point out a couple of subcategories.
The first sub-category under worker’s rights is the right to better and more comprehensive unemployment insurance, and to also allow some independent contractors to draw unemployment provided certain conditions are met (subject to future legislation or referendum). Any worker who has lost his or her job through no fault of their own will be entitled to up to 52 weeks of unemployment compensation instead of the current maximum of 26 weeks due to a continued turnover in the job markets of most developed countries, starting with the US. Besides their job search, at any time during the worker’s period of unemployment he or she should have two other options available to them to assist in the development of their careers. The first should be the ability to sign up for public works projects to obtain immediate employment if it is needed. (The worker’s second option will be reeducation, and I will touch on that one next so please bear with me). Workers will be required to choose one of the above to qualify for benefits. We have been needing massive public works projects to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure for decades. I would conservatively estimate that anywhere from 1-3 million people could be employed this way as contract laborers, salaried employees, or subcontractors, depending on the need. The fact of the matter is that we need jobs, we need lots of them, and we need them right now! Seven twenty five an hour won’t work either. Let’s strike and protest for action while we engage in other methods of passive resistance on this matter. We might as well, because things are going to continue to get worse until we do.
The next sub-category of worker’s rights is the right to free vocational retraining for life. Period, end of story. Anybody can go back to school and get retrained at will, up to and including a 2 year degree (with a 4-year available for some additional cost) at little or no cost. Large, wealthy corporations with robust cash flows, as well as millionaires and the super-rich, will supply the necessary funding through what I call in my book “the excess wealth tax” (you can buy the book on Amazon from right here). Since corporate America made the decision to send their factories and all the jobs those factories provided overseas to lower their labor costs, and since this action has caused the obliteration of millions of American careers, it will be corporate America who will shoulder the expense of retraining these people whose careers evaporated through no fault of their own. If they take your job away, or if they export or downsize your career out of existence like I experienced myself, then it is those same corporate henchmen who must pay for your reeducation. Higher public education is a basic, fundamental human right. It is not a privilege! As of today, higher education, and the fundamental right to improve and enrich ourselves, is an essential human right that must be had by all without qualification!
Now I know what at least some of you are thinking right now – “who’s gonna pay for all this?” That is a perfectly valid question. Let me put all this into perspective for you. If your US government took all the money that was spent in a single day on the twin occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the clandestine and illegal wars and “black ops” in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere and set it aside in an enormous savings account, there would be enough money to send every American school age kid from the first grade through high school and upwards to any public college, state university, or vocational or technical school to earn their degree of choice with the tuition fully paid for, plus the cost of all their books and supplies, their meals during school hours, Internet access, new computers, and with access to public transportation covered for those who need it.
So, for those who say we can’t afford to send everyone to public or community colleges with most if not all of their expenses fully paid, or that the money to accomplish this just isn’t there, either doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or they are elitists and bigots who can’t stand to see middle and working class and minority students getting ahead. Access to higher education – and looking after the children of those who are retraining – is an American civil right that should be equally available to all without qualification, not just to those who can afford the ‘tuition’. Would you like to see test scores improve in our nation’s schools? Tell all those kids that they are all going to public college at taxpayer expense, and watch their grades shoot up like rockets at Cape Canaveral. Give them an incentive to do better and our kids will rise to the challenge every time!
The right to family and sick leave, which must include maternity leave for women, is the final right I have listed for all workers and independent contractors. Every other country in the developed world from Europe to Canada to Japan has paid family and sick leave for its workers – all except for the US. It’s way past time for Congress and President Trump to bring our country up to speed with the rest of the world. Moreover, medical, family and maternity leave should be allowed for up to 3 months per calendar year, and it must be made illegal to fire someone from his or her job because that employee needed to take family or sick leave. The right of all individuals to have medical, family or maternity leave must be had by all, without interference or fear of retribution, for the strengthening of our families and the nurturing of our children. The fundamental rights of workers must be honored and acknowledged by rule of law, and by a culture change that puts people before profits, which goes hand in hand with Progressive Christianity. As the old ways of greed-based capitalism continue to die of old age, this is the new reality we must all embrace if we are to thrive in the 21st century.