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God’s Solidarity With Workers

In 2016, former First Lady Michelle Obama, delivered a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention in which she made the memorable statement: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” Immediately, there were people who challenged her statement about slave labor, and fact-checkers rushed to get to the truth. It turned out to be true. The White House Historical Association released a statement affirming that slave labor was indeed involved in every aspect of the construction of the Executive Mansion, beginning in 1792.

Using slave labor to build an executive mansion is not a new thing. As you can see from the reading from the prophet, Jeremiah (Jeremiah 22:14-17), God condemned Judah’s King Jehoiakim for using forced labor to build his palace. Jeremiah added that refusing to pay his “neighbors” for their work was the equivalent of literally building injustice into the walls. Jeremiah makes it clear how God feels about withholding wages from those who do the work.

But lest we think that this issue of slave labor and God’s condemnation and things of the Biblical past or early American history, we need to consider that our nation is still using forced labor to build wealth.

But you may object and say, “But we don’t have slaves anymore! We abolished slavery and involuntary servitude with the 13th Amendment.” While it is true that the 13th Amendment ended slavery officially in 1865, there is a significant exception that was written into the amendment. Let me read it for you, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.

As director Ana DuVernay has shown in her documentary, “13th”, this exception was immediately utilized after the amendment was ratified. In 1866, Southern states passed laws known as “Black Codes” that were designed to criminalize freed slaves. These laws made everything from talking loudly in the company of white women to walking besides railroad tracks to not having a job a crime, and acts that were formerly misdemeanors were turned into felonies with prison sentences. According to historian Khalil Muhammed, the “Black Codes” resulted in an explosion of the prison population. In Alabama, for instance, the prison population shifted almost overnight from 99% white convicts to 85% black convicts. And because of the 13th Amendment exception, convicted freed slaves could be forced to work through “convict leasing.” Convicted freed slaves were leased back to their former owners to work the plantation fields—without pay.

We no longer have “Black Codes,” but convict leasing and convict labor is still big business. Every state except Alaska has “prison industries” or a convict leasing program. Convicted prisoners do everything from building church furniture in Iowa to making Victoria’s Secret underwear in South Carolina to putting eggs in cartons in Arizona to making Honda car parts in Ohio. The average wage nationally for convicts is $.87 an hour. But four states–Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas—pay convicts nothing. No wonder author Douglas Blackmon has called convict leasing “Slavery By Another Name.”

Convict leasing is just one way that workers are denied wages. Undocumented workers are often exploited with low pay and wage theft. Workers are routinely misclassified as “contract workers” so that employers don’t have to pay benefits. And during the COVID pandemic, essential workers have had to strike for hazard pay and proper protection, and unemployed workers have watched their income evaporate especially since the federal unemployment extension expired (and has failed to be renewed). In some states, unemployment benefits are less than minimum wage.

Low-wage workers are suffering during the pandemic, but the richest people in America have gotten richer—amassing an additional $685 billion since the middle of March.

This Labor Day is literally a matter of life and death. In 1931, union activist Florence Reece wrote a song, “Which side are you on?” God has chosen a side. And we must too. God’s law is clear, “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” (Deuteronomy 24:14) James wrote to wealthy employers, “The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:4-5) God doesn’t tolerate exploitation.

God always stands on the side of fullness of life. God stands with workers. And so must we. Just as God could not bless King Jehoiakim because of his exploitation of workers, God will not bless the nation that is built upon and maintained through worker exploitation and oppression. However, as Jeremiah reminded Jehoiakim that God blessed his father, King Josiah, because he gave justice to the poor and needy, there is hope that God will bless the nation that ensures that all workers the dignity and justice and the living wages they deserve, because workers should always be given what they need (See Matthew 10:10)

So, on this Labor Day as people of God, do something to stand on the side of worker rights and worker protection. Here are some suggestions:

Participate in Labor Day Moral Monday sponsored by the Poor People’s Campaign online at 2:30 pm with Rev. Dr. William Barber.

Pray for Essential Workers – especially Chicago teachers and staff as they prepare for the first day of online school. Also remember child care workers, postal workers, farm workers, undocumented workers, and first responders.

Watch a documentary on worker justice and the origins of Labor Day. Here is one on the Haymarket Affair.

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