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Ellen Rasmussen: Faith, labor promoting justice

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Ellen Rasmussen

The Rev. Ellen Rasmussen serves as chairwoman of the Board of Church & Society, the social justice arm of the Wisconsin annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, as well as pastors Wesley United Methodist Church in La Crosse.

As we celebrate the Labor Day holiday this year, we feast in the shadows of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and a national day of striking by food service workers in more than 35 cities on Thursday.

We are revisiting, and witnessing anew, the collaboration and bond of faith and labor.

We are united in our call to honor the worker and the work and to have the freedom of association. Scripture teaches us that human beings first were called to be stewards of the land and to till and keep the Earth (Genesis 1:28, 2:15). Work and justice are mandates from God.

United Methodists live out a history of justice and collaboration with labor. From our social principles, we teach that:

An economic system should be ordered so that employees receive justice at their place of work and that concern for right relationships among people and with all of creation should be at the heart of any economic system.

The basic principles are clear: all workers should be treated with respect and dignity, disparities of wealth and poverty should be avoided, workers should earn wages that sustain themselves and their families, and employers have a particular responsibility to treat workers fairly and empower them to organize to improve conditions.

We also recognize that “both the employer and union are called to bargain in good faith within the frame work of the public interest.”

Historically, The United Methodist Church has been concerned about the plight of working men and women. In the United States, we were among the first supporters of the labor movement, where both lay and clergy members played leadership roles in supporting garment workers, textile workers, farm workers, and factory workers and advocating passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act.

From our beginnings and across the globe, we have led the way in seeking improved conditions and stronger unions for workers.

It is just as clear today, as it was in the time of the prophets Amos, Micah and Isaiah, that injustice against laborers continues. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon that kingdoms, nations and corporations are built upon the backs of those who live in poverty and whose work is not truly honored.

Since 1908, the Methodists have advocated for a living wage in every industry. We continue to support the rights of workers to share fully in the prosperity of society. To enable people to fully participate and share in the bounty of God’s abundance, a living wage is a must. A living wage is not extravagant —  it is a wage that reflects the cost of living in a community so that one can provide food, shelter, clothing, and health care for one’s self and family; prepare for retirement, and pursue educational and leisure opportunities.

The striking fast food workers are calling out for justice, and we are obligated to support them in their efforts.

When people make a living wage, the entire community reaps benefits. When workers are able to organize and negotiate for wages, benefits and working conditions, they are empowered to make the workplace and the community a better place. When workers are empowered through organization, they are able to offset the inherent imbalance of power between employer and employee. History has proven again and again, that left unchecked, greed can overtake society, and harm is brought to all.

As it becomes harder and harder to form labor unions and to achieve economic and social justice in the workplace, the faith and labor communities must strengthen their ties and address the worker injustices of the land. Together we already have introduced the eight-hour work day, the “one day in seven free from labor,” abolition of child labor, and many advances in worker safety and environmental justice. We must stand and press onward together until worker justice is achieved and the wealth and prosperity of society is shared by all.

This Labor Day, as we honor those who work and those who pursue justice for all workers, remember that we are a community and our destinies are intrinsically woven through the sacred and holy that is our core.

We cannot forget that we are created in the image of the creator to co-create. To work is to honor God’s mandate. To be justly compensated and treated fairly is born out of the call to love and care for one another. As John Wesley said, “There is no holiness, but social holiness.”

The Rev. Ellen Rasmussen serves as chairwoman of the Board of Church & Society, the social justice arm of the Wisconsin annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, as well as pastors Wesley United Methodist Church in La Crosse.

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