No more “rent a collar”

Mary Kay Henry made a striking admission yesterday–that organizing at the workplace and mobilizing for elections were insufficient for accomplishing the goals of the union she leads. The 25th International Convention of the Service Employees International Union, meeting in Denver, re-elected Henry as their International President yesterday, and she met last night with several hundred guests of the union–strategic partners, they assert–to share a vision for union-community partnership which will re-invigorate a progressive movement in the United States. Such a movement is necessary if our society is to see an end to the rapidly growing gap between the super-rich and “the rest of us” and the tremendous decline–by the millions annually–of people leaving the middle income “American Dream.”

I have been attending the convention as a representative of one of seventeen cities where SEIU has launched “fair economy” organizing. “Good Jobs Better Baltimore” has sought to capture the mood of people in Baltimore facing foreclosure, especially due to long-term unemployment. It has encouraged the investment by the federal government in transportation infrastructure–notably re-building bridges–and has called on banks to show flexibility and creativity in keeping people in their homes. It also has raised the banner on corporations who are not paying taxes, continually asking what a “fair” economy might look like.

I’ve participated in three actions with Good Jobs Better Baltimore, and was pleased that they (and Maryland SEIU) supported BRIDGE Maryland’s “Pilgrimage for Jobs and Justice” in West Baltimore last fall. The relationship has been a little “transactional,” I do something for you, you do something for me. Lots of life is like that, and it can be one way of getting things done.

But if I and my congregation are not involved in the planning of an action, but only in its execution, it can feel a lot like “rent a collar”: figure out what you want to say and do, and then find a clergy person to jump up front and add a little moral and ethical suasion.  Even with the best intentions, and for the best causes, such activity is unsustainable because it does not capture the particular creativity and passion that my congregation could bring to the “transaction.”

In our conversation, the SEIU leadership called itself arrogant, assuming that they can do what none else can do and projecting an attitude that they know better than anyone else what needs to happen and how to get it done. Last night they proclaimed that this was insufficient for the task which lies ahead of us. The Center for American Progress reports that the numbers of middle income families in the United States have dropped from over 60 per cent to under 50 per cent, and wonder what our entire political system will look like when it is dominated by poverty on the “people” side and extreme wealth on the “money” side. This divide may make for profound social instability–is making many community unstable.

SEIU has pledged that in the upcoming years, they will refocus their organizing so that they are in collaborative partnership with more organizations, using their resources to assist efforts like BRIDGE Maryland, the congregation-based community organization of which First Unitarian is a leading member. They hope to help us get our work done where our visions for a more just economy are shared: an expanding jobs market with wages and benefits that will sustain families, with significant public investment in sustainable communities, with accessible transportation and quality education. These are values that we share, values, I believe, that cohere with our emerging focus on ministry among the most vulnerable people in Baltimore, the poor and homeless. 

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