The union label and working with dignity

Aug. 02, 2014 @ 12:04 PM

When I was a child, a catchy advertisement aired between reruns of “Scooby Doo” and “Josie and the Pussy Cats.”  It went like this:  “Look for the union label/When you are buying a coat, dress, or blouse/Remember somewhere our union's sewing/Our wages going to feed the kids and run the house!”  The one that aired in Texas was introduced by an avuncular, southern man wearing a bolo tie.

 I thus have early associations of unions and the country music show “Hee Haw.”  Like the “Made in the USA” ads from 1986 (featuring Bob Hope and Carol Channing) the “union label” advertisements encouraged work with dignity in the textile industry.  My mom was a teacher, and my cousins were actors, so I heard stories from them about how unions also helped women to educate or entertain without exploitation.  Labor unions seemed to me as American as apple pie.

My first summer home from college I worked at a law office.  I thought I might go into law, and the job paid slightly more than babysitting.  I was as inquisitive then as now, so I read things as I made copies.  I figured out pretty quickly that two senior partners were defending big oil companies against people who had been injured on the job, or loved ones left behind.  The firm that filed workers’ compensation suits was in a building even fancier than ours, so I was disabused early of the idea that I could just switch sides and be made righteous. 

I knew kids whose fathers worked in oil fields.  They were not raking in the financial benefits of a system that exploited people on the job.  But the heads of both law firms had homes with swimming pools, and not the kind you use an air pump to inflate.  Maybe juries made up of people in states with anti-labor laws are more prone to award large sums to someone who has been egregiously wronged at work.  I reckoned that a brutal way to win in a broken system.  Also, the rules by which a normal person could gain a settlement or win a suit seemed as reckless and random as a state-run lottery.  It was a precipitous decision, but I decided then against law school.

I chose instead the inviolable institution that is “the academy.”  (That was irony.)  While going to graduate school in one of the most union-infused states, I not only learned four languages but also the inflection of life at an organization patterned by labor unions.  Professors were not unionized, but they benefited from the fact that people who worked in the support services were.  At both the Divinity School and in the Religious Studies Department, people took time actually to eat lunch away from their desks.  Many professors went home around 5, because a 9 to 5 rhythm was a norm established through arduous, union organizing for decades by the women (and most of them were women) who did the work with paper and numbers and copiers and such, work that allows scholars to do the differently hard tasks of teaching and writing pristine prose.  I was privy to the benefits of a university that actually did take time to sleep.  I trained for the Christian ministry and, eventually, for the theological academy, at a place that held the wisdom of Sabbath rest more seriously than many churches I know.

In my dream Oscar speech, I’d have lots of people to thank for being able to complete my Ph.D. at a swanky school, but I would have to include my friends with whom I organized for the graduate-student labor union.  “Our work makes Yale work” was our motto, and we shared it with members of the two established unions there.  Sitting in strategy meetings with electricians and clerical workers, historians and anthropologists, I learned a way of thinking about my work that is best characterized by the word “solidarity.”  The academy can be as unapologetically competitive as a cage fight.  And an elite university can be every bit as arbitrary in meting out reward and punishment as the workers’ compensation game in Texas.  But in organizing I learned how to compete with my own best self, not over and against my peers.  Along with the people baking bread or painting dorm room walls, we took pride in our labor, and I learned what it feels like to work with dignity.  Today, if someone asks me the Scriptural basis for the pro-union label, that is my best answer.  Labor unions are a tried and true way to remind yourself, your co-workers, and your boss that you are a human being, worthy of respect.  You are not a tool.  I think God approves of that.

Amy Laura Hall is an associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University.