Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

United We Bargain
distributed 9/4/15 - ©2015

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Glady Gifford of Buffalo, New York.. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

In the US, we're headed into the Labor Day weekend -- a holiday that has come to be associated primarily with a change of seasons.

Colloquially, Labor Day is "the end of summer." It used to be the start of the school year, but many classrooms have been in full swing for weeks. For politicians, it is the start of the high-pitched election season . (Oops! That is for election years. So maybe we can ignore all the candidate hubbub until this time in 2016?)

But, historically, Labor Day commemorates the accomplishments of the labor movement. I challenge you, over the next few days, to pay attention to the news media. See if you find any reference to "labor" among stories of holiday festivals, and the fall shopping ads.

In honor of this important weekend, I ask us to remember the heroic and visionary individuals who have reformed the workplace. [ -- satire alert -- ]

  • Let's remember the factory worker in Detroit who went to his boss, and asked politely for a safer workplace, health insurance and retirement benefits, and a level of pay that would be the envy of the world. His ideas were so good and right, that they were implemented immediately for him and all of his fellow workers. Other factories saw how great it was, and they joined in, too.

  • And let's remember the migrant farm worker who, one hot day, went to his boss. "Por favor, señor. If it is not too much trouble, could you give us some water in the field, and maybe a bathroom that we can use? I have not talked to my compadres about any of this, but I think they might like it, too. And, could you read to us the warning labels on the chemicals that we spray, please?"

  • And of course, there is the secretary in a large office who wrote a memo to her boss, asking if he'd stop pinching the "girls" when they went by his desk, and wondering if they could be paid more than 60% of what some of the guys in the office earned.

This weekend, let's remember Vince, Juan and Helen, who acted on their own to launch great ideas that revolutionized worker-management relations!

Of course that's not the way that it worked. Advances in working conditions, pay and benefits came about because of years and years of highly organized worker initiatives using collective bargaining, strikes, and boycotts. The United Auto Workers, United Farm Workers, and 9to5 are among the many groups that continue the long and hard fight for rights, dignity and justice. Because of the efforts of many movement partners, countless laws were changed to guide and implement (or deflect) the demands of labor.

In that long struggle, many Vinces, Juans and Helens lost their livelihoods -- or their lives. Many people suffered because the boss and the industries didn't say, "That's a great idea. Why didn't I think of that?" We need to remember the "labor" in Labor Day to honor the multitudes who joined in a hard and passionate movement for economic and social justice.

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I belabor the point about a labor movement, instead of individual actions, because I see a persistent and dangerous problem in today's environmental movement. Far too often, I hear good and committed people suggesting that individual actions will bring about the changes we seek.

  • If we all buy fuel efficient cars, I hear, then our nation's greenhouse emissions will be reduced. (But those cars are available for us to buy because of federal fuel efficiency standards that mandate a certain level of performance among all cars made.)

  • If we install solar panels on our homes and churches, then there will be less pollution from dirty power plants. (But we're able to tie small-scale solar into the grid because of hard-fought arrangements about net-metering rates. And the incentives that have made solar affordable relate to the need for utilities to meet renewable energy portfolios established by law in some states.)

  • If we all buy organic food, then our buying power will reshape the market. (This one has been true to a remarkable extent, but consumer requests for labeling of genetically modified ingredients have been blocked by powerful agricultural interests [take action!].)

Individual actions in purchasing (or not purchasing), in conservation and simpler living, are important. But I fear that we're setting ourselves up to be ineffective if we stress personal behavior and choices as the primary strategy.

One of the things that I appreciate about the recent encyclical from Pope Francis is his clarity about the powerful interests and systems that shape our relationship with God's creation. He writes of "the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule." A deep-seated "technocratic paradigm", he says, "tends to dominate economic and political life." "The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests." These systems define the rules within which our society operates.

Without collective efforts and unified goals, we have little impact on these economic and cultural systems. Personal choices may help influence the products and services that are offered in the marketplace, but they can't operate strongly enough to rewrite the social rules. As a labor movement poster says, "United we bargain; Divided we beg." Collective action toward institutional and systemic change is necessary to challenge and break down the societal rules that lead to environmental devastation.

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The charge has often been made that the mainstream environmental movement is too white and too privileged. Not enough people of color are in leadership, and the movement does not understand urban issues, toxics, and environmental injustice. There is some real truth in that -- and some misunderstandings about "environmental" definitions.

But perhaps the deeper truth about the privilege of the mainstream environmental movement is that too many of us have expected the system to serve us well, to respond to our money and our polite requests. We've thought that our consumer choices, and some occasional emails to legislators, will bring about change. Our privilege lets us think that we are powerful.

Many good environmentalists have not understood, deep down, the clash of values and interests that has to take place. Too many of us have not taken seriously the extent to which our environmental goals are a threat to business-as-usual for powerful industries. We have not seen how hard we will have to fight to achieve our goals. We have committed ourselves to the complex, conflict-filled work of changing laws and shifting economic systems.

This weekend, remember and celebrate the careful work, dedication, sacrifice and accomplishments of the labor movement. And ponder what a similarly passionate and empowered environmental movement would look like today.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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