Make ‘Labor Union’ Sense Common Again

Tea bag
North Carolina AFL-CIO

My daughter and my mother save things that might someday be useful or salvageable. So do I. I have used tea to stain white or pink things that I’ve accidentally spilled something on. My mother taught me to do this. Her mother taught her to do this. This way of saving something with tea is called, at least in my circles, tea-staining.

I spent most of last week with an interfaith gathering at Wildacres Retreat near Little Switzerland, North Carolina. We shared stories about practices officially related to our faith traditions and others that are more idiosyncratic to families and regions. Interspersed with officially scheduled lessons, we also taught one another informally, about rituals that may seem to one person to be common sense but that, as it turns out, is a very specific sense. It rained buckets during our four days there, and, at one point, a person on staff told us to "be aware of the lightning." Huh? What does it mean to "be aware of the lightning?" We discussed over kosher meatloaf how thunderstorms function in the North Carolina mountains, and whether we needed to be worried about tornadoes, hail, or other dangers while being mindful of lightning. What is considered common sense about weather dangers is a very particular, passed-on wisdom in a region, and not at all common.

The same mother who taught me to reclaim stained clothing with a new stain of tea also passed on the wisdom of collective bargaining. She was a public school teacher in Texas for decades, and we moved frequently due to my father’s job. She is tiny, and brilliant, and she had to maneuver creatively around inept (even sometimes malevolent) administrator after administrator across the school systems. I listened closely as she and her teacher friends sorted out how they were going to deal with some new fresh version of insanity handed down from above. They didn’t have a labor union, but they gathered to scheme together, for their common good. It was the best they could manage to approximate collective bargaining in a virulently anti-labor state like Texas.

When people ask why I spend some of my very rare free hours advocating for labor unions in my new home state, the answer is simple. I want labor union sense to be again this region’s common sense. Collective bargaining is a practice that I consider to be common sense. I learned this as soon as I could listen to my mother’s words with her friends.

Public Enemy, in its song "Welcome to the Terrordome," recommends that it is best to "move as a team, never move alone." I agree.

I do not advocate for labor unions as an act of charity, I advocate for labor unions because I am a person who works in the world, and I need a labor union. I need collective bargaining. I need a team. I learned this from my mother and from her sister’s household, also known as my cousins. My maternal cousins grew up in the theater industry.

“I’m Jane Fonda, and I’m a worker. I may be famous, but I’m a worker. And I’m lucky to have a union.” I read Jane Fonda’s words this morning, thanks to someone connected to UNITE HERE Local 11. (Thank you, Samir Sonti, for the Facebook post!) The idea that labor unions are particular to some forms of work considered "labor" is a misperception that anyone with labor common sense can correct.

Labor Sabbath is an effort to encourage people who have received a family tradition of labor organizing and participation to share what that means or has meant, or will mean, to themselves, to their neighborhood, their family, their region, their workplace.

I am not Jane Fonda. I may not be famous. But I am a worker. And I need a union. Please consider speaking up in your own faith communities this month, to name how labor unions are part of your common sense.

Amy Laura Hall has taught ethics at Duke University since 1999. Her most recent book is Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich.

This post originally appeared at the North Carolina State AFL-CIO.