People yell during a protest for better wages for fast food workers in Detroit. (Mario Tama/Getty Images )
The fast food industry today in the U.S. is a veritable buffet of injustice. That is why this Labor Day, fast food workers are striking across the country. Their demands are simple: they want to be able to form unions without employer retaliation and bargain for higher wages.
These workers do not even make a living wage. Even though they work long hours, they subsist on wages so low they still live below the poverty level. They are not teenagers making some after school money; two-thirds of them are women often with dependent children. They work double and triple shifts, subsisting on little sleep, often with inadequate food and shelter.
The worker’s demands are both practical and moral. Workers want an increase in the minimum wage so they can earn enough to be able to live above the poverty level, and live with simple human dignity. They also want to be treated with enough respect to be able to negotiate with their employers without being fired. “All I’m asking for is to be treated like a human being,” said a father of two who is a shift manager at Dunkin’ Donuts.
Just as in the 19th and early 20th century, this growing labor movement today is based in this moral conviction: Respect for human dignity and worth requires decent wages and safe working conditions.
A century ago, Christian pastors started to preach what they called “the Social Gospel.” This was their effort of Christians to shine the light of the Christian gospel on the appalling working conditions that had become commonplace in the nineteenth century era of rapid industrialization. The Social Gospel, as exemplified in the work of Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden, took a new look at scripture from the perspective of the rampant social abuses of the time, from unsafe working conditions to pauper’s wages.
These early 20th century pastors were right. The Christian Gospel is a “social Gospel.” Jesus sends the disciples out to labor and tells them to accept food and housing because “laborers deserve to be paid.” (Luke 10:7) The work of the Social Gospel leaders was influential on the Roosevelt administration and the architects of the New Deal.
But today attacks on unions and an economics of austerity wages combined with huge corporate profits have again created appalling conditions for many American workers, like those in the fast food industry.
If you order food at one of these fast food restaurants today, you get a heaping order of injustice against workers to go with it.
It is clear that today we need a new Social Gospel reading of the Bible, but we also need the insights of Catholic Social teaching (think “Nuns on the Bus”!), the Tikkun olam (repairing the world) of Judaism, the Ramadan spirit of Islam, and all the spiritual insight that people of faith, and people of humanist values, have to offer in our pluralistic society. In many cities, interfaith coalitions are supporting workers in this rolling Labor Day action against the poverty-level wages in the fast food industry.
As a Christian, it is my profound belief that Jesus was right. The Kingdom of God is now, it is here, “in your midst.” Nothing is more central to the immediacy of this claim that the kingdom of God is here, right now, is the rights of workers to join together and bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions.
Worker justice is not just a civil right, it is a fundamental way we recognize that human beings have an inherent dignity and worth. This idea, that human dignity, what Christians call “the image of God,” is what connects Christian moral reasoning and action for worker rights in the Gospels, the Social Gospel, the Civil Rights movement, the Solidarity movement in Poland as seen in the work of John Paul II and a reawakened American labor movement for the 21st century.
What makes us not only people, but human beings with dignity and transcendent worth, is our capacity to work creatively in this world. When a society exploits our contribution to the whole, and refuses to recognize that we have a moral obligation to one another to insure decent working conditions, living wages and the means to support our families, it violates our human dignity and it denies the reality of the kingdom of God in our midst.
John Paul II, in his famous encyclical “On Human Work” (Laborem Exercens, V.25), stated his deep conviction of the centrality of work to human dignity and our being created in the Image of God. Work is fundamental to the truth of the human condition. Through work, Pope John Paul II argues, people become who they are intended to be. Through work, human beings share “in the activity of the Creator.”
Our economy of low wages and corporate greed is not what God intends for human life.
It’s not even good business. Some business analysts are beginning to question “the ‘profit maximization’ obsession that has taken over American business culture over the past 30 years.” Business Insider does the math: McDonalds could double workers’ wages and ‘only’ make $5.5 billion in profit.
What a deal. Workers get a living wage, CEO’s get their big salaries, and shareholders get a profit.
So why don’t industries pay a living wage? Well, in Christian theology we call that greed, and it’s a sin.
This Labor Day weekend, and from now on, all people of conscience need to reject the injustice that comes with every serving of fast food in the U.S. and demand that these bloated fast food industry giants pay their workers a living wage.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President at Chicago Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is #OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power.