Ben Bartosik

03. Organizing Religion

Why the church should support the labour movement (2023).

I heard it said once that if the church really cared about family ministry, they'd support worker's rights.


Around the middle of the twentieth century, a strategic refocusing began to emerge within the Christian Church in North America. Largely in response to the growing concern of divorce and other forms of moral panic, the Church increased its attention on the family as a core target for its mission, specifically through a new emphasis of programs and publications. While the family, of course, has always been an important focus for the Church, it was this emphasis on a more targeted programmatic approach to both reach and support the family that was unique. Take, for example, these words from Clifton J. Allen writing in the first ever issue of Home Life, a Southern Baptist publication that launched in 1947. “The home front is under siege. This peril is a call to action. Fathers and mothers must awake to their God-given privilege and responsibility. Churches must grasp their supreme opportunity to help parents build virile Christian homes.” It was out of this zeal that family ministry was born.

Fast forward from that point to the turn of the century and family ministry had become an incredibly profitable industry, with an abundance of books, conferences, education tracks, and even celebrity pastors becoming household names. Church congregations across North America started increasing their budgets to invest in family ministry staffing and programs. More recently the past decade or so has seen an increased emphasis on understanding developmental psychology and offering counselling in order to take a more integrated approach to caring for the holistic wellbeing of families (as both individuals and units). This more nuanced focus has opened up the door to examine the diverse factors that affect the wellbeing of people’s lives. Yet, there has been a surprising lack of attention paid to possibly the single most crucial determinant of a family’s wellbeing: their work life.

In a 2016 study on exploring the impact of work on the lives of Canadians authors Graham Lowe and Frank Graves state,

"Positive experiences at work improve one’s overall quality of life, while negative work experiences detract from it. Specifically, three out of four workers who are very satisfied with their life are also satisfied and engaged when it comes to their job. The same can be said for less than a third of workers with low life satisfaction. More than half of workers with high life satisfaction have manageable levels of work stress, compared with 30 per cent who are dissatisfied with their lives."

This study reflects an important consideration of the role that work-family conflict plays on the overall wellbeing of a family. Described as the “conflict that occurs when the energy, time, or behavioural demands of the work role conflicts with those of the family role,” work-family conflict can be a leading cause of multiple negative outcomes to one’s professional, physical, and familial wellbeing. Lowe and Graves report that the stress caused by work-family conflict can lead to depression, alcohol and substance abuse, mood and anxiety disorders, and emotional exhaustion. It should also come as no surprise that the stress levels that parents experience have a direct relationship to the wellbeing of their children. Work likely constitutes a significant portion of the average congregant’s daily stress and prayer life. Yet, most Christian congregations over the last 50 or so years have largely been silent in supporting workers advocating for more secure, safe, and healthy work environments.

It is my opinion, and the focus of this essay, that this is a missed opportunity. As Dr. David Marine Mabry, Director of the M.A. in Family Ministries at Barclay College in Kansas puts it, “family ministry is any work that is with families or their members for the sake of the kingdom of God.” Thus, there is this sense that improving the wellbeing of the family is participating in the kingdom of God. Advocating for better working conditions for workers improves the conditions that improve the family: more time for families to be together, less financial pressure, less health and safety risks, less overall stress. In this way the church could have an impact on improving the system itself rather than merely treating the symptoms that the system causes. It is a way of thinking about care that not only improves the lives of people in a congregation, but can improve the lives of workers - and their families - within an entire community. By entering into and partnering with the struggle for worker’s rights, the local church can play a vital role in contributing to the shaping of a common good for the flourishing of people both within and beyond the context of their congregations.

We'll start with some theological reflection, then move into looking at the relationship of the church to all of this, and finally end with some specific rights issues that the church can - and should - parter with.

I. The Common Good

One of the tragedies of the contemporary church is the way theological reflection has been removed from the context of the local church and placed in the hands of academics. The reasons for this are nuanced but the result has been unfortunate; communities of faith that do not know how to think theologically about their context. I will return to the role of the church later, but what is important here is to lay the groundwork that for the local church to understand itself, it needs to be formed by regular theological reflection.1

Thus, for the church to try and orient itself towards working for a common good it is essential that it has a theological sense of what that common good is as it emerges from its particular context. This will require (1) defining ‘common good’, (2) examining the dominant capitalist system against that definition, and then (3) exploring how the role and function of work might contribute to shaping and sustaining a common good.

What Do We Mean By Common Good?

Though seemingly self-explanatory, the term 'common good' requires some unpacking within a theological lens in order to give the church some grounding here. Luke Bretherton in a collection of essays on this topic, suggests that a common good “cannot be reduced to individual happiness as we are not atomized monads but mutually vulnerable, interdependent creatures whose flourishing depends on being embedded in just and loving forms of common life.” The good life, according to Bretherton, is good precisely because it is common. The ideal of the unaffected individual is a myth; human beings are born into and interact with one another through, as David H. Kelsey describes, “dynamic systems of energy and energy exchange.” As some of the earliest words in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures attest, “it is not good for [people] to be alone.” We need other people. Yet, it is not enough for those relationships to be self-fulfilling. As Bretherton rightfully notes, our flourishing is connected to the flourishing of others via love and justice. Thus, the working out of a common good is found amidst a complex give and take between the relationships of people working for something better for us all.

However, a truly common good requires the participation of “those who are the same and those who are different.” If a common life is forged through the relationships between people, it is important to note that these relationships are made up of a diverse network of families, friends, neighbours, strangers, and even enemies. This means that a common good cannot be achieved by homogenizing society and eliminating differences; which is, unfortunately, how many churches seem to define unity. In her seminal work, The Human Condition, the twentieth century political theorist, Hanna Arendt, uses the metaphor of sitting around a table to describe the common life. The table represents a common focus while the act of sitting around it represents diversity of perspective. She writes,

"For though the common world is the common meeting ground of all, those who are present have different locations in it, and the location of one can no more coincide with the location of another than the location of two objects. Being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position. This is the meaning of public life."

It is this working towards a common life from a real diversity of experience and perspective, be it race, religion, gender, sexuality, age, or socio-economic bracket, that gives it any real sense of being good. It means the flourishing of all without reducing who they are.2 The table metaphor is an apt one as it calls to mind the need to ensure every point of view has a seat. When we deprive the table of a particular perspective or experience we deprive us all.

A working definition of the common good at this point might be the mutual flourishing of a diverse population of people within a shared context. It is a flourishing that celebrates rather than limits difference and is achieved through the relational interactions between members. The church participates in the shaping and sustaining of this common good, not by positioning itself as outside of that population of people but rooted within it – a topic we will return to later.

Is Capitalism Even Capable of Producing a Common Good?

It is impossible to talk about the role and nature of work in the twenty-first century without reflecting on the capitalist system in which we are embedded. Under it, employment is the means by which workers earn a living, turning their labour into wages in order to afford goods and services. Businesses, meanwhile, are oriented to maximize profits for their owners, in turn driving workers to work harder and more efficiently. These two halves of the worker-owner relationship are fundamental to understanding capitalism’s impact on people’s lives. While a full critique of this system is well beyond the scope of this study, the question that needs to be addressed is whether or not capitalism is capable of producing a common good – as defined by the previous section. Can capitalism contribute to the mutual flourishing of all - including both employer and worker?

While the roots of capitalism can arguably be traced back to the late middle ages, it was the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution where it really took hold as the dominant economic system in Europe. In 1776, the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith published his most well known work, the Wealth of the Nations, in which he argues that a free market driven by self interest will lead to the best possible outcome for everyone.3 He uses the metaphor of an “invisible hand” that guides people to produce goods and services that others value to describe this. Basically, demand will force self-interest to conform to the good of society. This would have the effect of adding jobs, pushing economic growth, and driving innovation and technological advancements. As advocates of capitalism have argued, no other system in human history has brought such economic prosperity and freedom to our world.

But the question is whether or not this can be considered a truly common good. In her work, Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy, Mary Hirschfeld suggests that despite all the good that capitalism has brought, a theological response is still needed. She writes,

"The elevated status of economic concerns in modern culture is at once understandable and problematic... It is problematic because once the public square is shaped around the shared goal of achieving prosperity, the instrumental; character of prosperity becomes obscured. We forget to ask what our material wealth is for and often end up sacrificing more important human goods for the sake of greater income. The resilience of critiques about the excessive materialism and injustice of modern market economies reflects the incoherence of a society that de facto treats the instrumental good of economic prosperity as the highest common good."

In short, economic prosperity is not the sole metric for a common good, despite what the economists assert. What Hirschfeld is rightfully noting, is that there are wider concerns of materialism and injustice that the system must be held accountable for. While capitalism may provide a flourishing in an economic sense, it is no way equal in its mutuality. The system is designed to benefit a few more than everyone else.4 Not only that, but the gap between those who benefit most and everyone else is only growing bigger.5 This is because the true invisible hand of capitalism is not self-interest that benefits society, but profit that benefits those at the top. And the fuel for that profit is efficiency, extracting the most labour for the cheapest amount of pay possible. As Kathryn Tanner puts it, “a relentless drive to maximum profitability” through the “maximally efficient use of as few workers as possible with minimal unnecessary expenditures.” The results of this have not been as simple as increased jobs, economic growth, and innovation; but income rates that have struggled to keep pace with the cost of living, a growing reliance on debt to afford essential goods and services that have been privatized under capitalism, the reduction of workers to their output, and the outsourcing of labour to cheaper alternatives, threatening job security under the justification of increased profit.6 There is also the increased awareness that an economic system that depends on unlimited growth is wreaking havoc on our planet, depleting our natural resources, and threatening our very survival as a species. So, while the economic prosperity for some – maybe even many – may be an argument in favour of capitalism, it hardly amounts to the mutual flourishing of all.

What's Work Got to do With it?

A final point of consideration here is how the role of work itself can contribute to a common good. While the previous section explored a more macro level, this one will take a look at the micro. As has already been explored in the introduction, there is a direct connection between one’s work life and one’s overall sense of wellbeing. Worth noting, the previously mentioned Redesigning Work report found that Canadians are reporting lower levels of work satisfaction as well as a lower standard of living over the last couple decades. On average, work hours have increased for Canadians, bringing more stress and less time for leisure, relationships, and personal care. Job precariousness has also risen, leaving workers anxious about their long term financial stability.7 This anxiety is heightened under this current stage of capitalism, as Tanner notes, “losing one’s job could very well mean living on the street.” The point here is that having secure and safe employment, benefits, and reasonable working hours has an immediate bearing on the state of one’s health, wellbeing, and general outlook towards life. While financial stability is certainly an important factor in determining flourishing as it relates to a common good, issues such as happiness, mental health, hope for the future, autonomy and growth, and leisure time are also relevant considerations. A healthy workplace has the opportunity to help nurture all of these goods in their worker’s lives. However, wellbeing cannot be entrusted to those at the top who are primarily motivated by efficiency driven profit. This is why capitalism is not capable of a truly common good; those two objectives come into direct conflict with one another.

There is one more dynamic between work, capitalism, and the common good that is worth considering: the notion of sustainability. As previously mentioned, an economic system based on the endless pursuit of more is having disastrous effects on our planet. Many companies are building out an ESG infrastructure, which is a step in the right direction but doesn’t get at the core problem. This extraction of resources is directly related to our own habits of consumption and work itself plays a critical role in this cycle. The market drives production and that production is what provides employment. This is why “more jobs'' is the constant refrain from those who seek to maintain the status quo. Without employment, workers have no means to survive under capitalism. As an alternative, author and economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel, has suggested decommodifying the essential goods and services we need to survive. Hickel, a strong proponent of the degrowth movement, writes,

"When essential goods are privatized and expensive, people need more income than they would otherwise require to access them. To get it they are compelled to increase their labour in capitalist markets, working to produce new things that may not be needed (with increased energy use, resource use, and ecological pressure) simply to access things that clearly are needed, and which are quite often already there."

His argument is that if we provide these essentials to people for free, not only would they not need to work as much in order to simply live, but it would decrease the strain on our resources by eliminating the need for employment as a justification to keep producing. The practicalities of making something like this happen are far from simple, but Hickel represents an important perspective of those who are saying we need to imagine a society decoupled from capitalism if we are to achieve a sustainable way of being on this planet. Our relationship with work can play a key role in this transition if we have the courage to think beyond the limits of our current structures.

II. The Church

Now that we have spent a significant amount of time considering the relationship between what a common good can and should look like, the way our present economic system limits our ability to achieve that common good, and the role of work as a key driver of that system; it’s time to turn our attention to the church. Using our working definition of a common good as the mutual flourishing of all people within a shared context, it is necessary for us to reflect on how the way the church8 might shape and sustain that common good through its relationship to the struggle for worker’s rights.

The Church's Relationship to Society

In his book of essays exploring the way in which religious devotion in the West ‘migrated’ from Christianity onto the state, William T. Cavanough offers a helpful illustration for how the church might conceive of herself in relationship to the surrounding society. Drawing from Augustine’s two city model, Cavanough suggests that rather than seeing society as a single public space that the church must find its own place in, the two cities represent two intermingled performances taking place alongside one another wherein the church’s task is to “interrupt the violent tragedy of the earthly city with the comedy of redemption.” We might very well interpret the violent tragedy of the earthly city in our context as the capitalist system that promotes the good of a few at the expense of our individual and collective wellbeing. In this performance analogy, the church is not separate from the striving towards a common good but in fact has a vital role in helping the world see what that common good might look like. It places the church in the same public space of asking what a good and proper distribution of resources and ordering of life looks like as the capitalists and proclaims an alternative. Importantly, it also redefines the relationship of the church with other groups and movements working for a common good. Cavanaugh writes,

"There is no sense that the church’s social presence is for the sake of the church, nor must all other kinds of social bodies be shunned as impure. Not only does the church find itself involved with other troupes, but the improvisation that goes on to try and prevent death from having the final work often leaves the boundaries between what is church and what is not church permeable and even ambiguous."

The local church is not limited to a specific time or a place but is defined by a community of those who claim to follow the way of Jesus within a particular context, and what Cavanough is suggesting here is that this ‘ambiguity’ gives it the freedom and advantage of working alongside all others who are trying to advocate for and sustain a common good. However, a tension that the church often finds itself in is how to posture itself towards groups who hold different values, beliefs, and practices.

As we have been discussing thus far, a truly common good requires the mutual flourishing of a diverse relational network of people within a shared context. Yet the complexities of those relationships are often what stand in the way of making this possible. As stated earlier, these relationships are made up of a conflicting web of families, friendships, neighbours, strangers, and enemies. For the church to step into this web in hopes of advocating for an alternative vision for society, it needs a posture that can build partnerships across these differences without diminishing them. For Luke Bretherton, the answer is found in the traditional Christian practice of hospitality; the intentional act of welcoming strangers. He writes that true hospitality “involves listening to and learning from strangers, as this entails forming a relationship with those not like us that we disagree with or find scandalous.” Thus, there is always a risk to hospitality as it requires a willingness to let go of our preconceptions and assumptions of how things ought to go. When we listen to and learn from those who are unlike ourselves we are necessarily changed. Importantly, hospitality is also something that the church can both give and receive. This is a theme that Cavanough picks up in an essay on mobility and how the church might consider how it ‘moves’ through the world. He offers two metaphors, those of pilgrim and monk, as a way for the church to see itself both as those who travel in solidarity with others, receiving hospitality along the way; and as those who remain in place, offering hospitality to others. That second one, the role of monk, invites the church to work with others to “build strong local communities and cooperative social arrangements deeply rooted in their places.” In this sense, hospitality itself becomes a form of common good that works across our differences to build more welcoming communities. It also helps us resist the assumption that we encounter each other as equals, teaching us to pay greater awareness to the relational imbalances that exist. As Bretherton notes,

"Hospitality is a way of framing how to forge mutual ground in a context where the space— be it geographic, cultural, or political— is already occupied and no neutral, uncontested place is available. To be hospitable is not simply to accommodate another, but, on a Christian account at least, it involves a process of reconfiguring/conversion wherein both oneself and the other change in order that all may encounter God and each other in new ways."

A posture of hospitality sets the stage for the performance of redemption to be heard, breaking down some of the relational barriers that exist – not in a way that diminishes difference; but in a way that lets that difference challenge one another towards mutual growth. It is only in this sort of coexistence within a local context can the church effectively advocate for and enter into the struggle for the rights of workers in such a way that it calls forth mutual flourishing.

The Church's Relationship to the Labour Movement

In their collection of essays that trace the relationship between the history of Christianity and the history of labour in the United States, Christopher Cantwell, Heath Carter, and Janine Giordana Drake make it clear that the majority of congregants in American churches were working class citizens, living most of their lives somewhere ‘between the pew and the picket line.’ Despite this, the authors contend that there has been a reluctance to trace that connection in contemporary reflections on Christianity, stating, “working class faith was written out of the story early.” There are several reasons for this “history of absence;” including Marx’s interest in working class faith, a growing prejudice against non-evangelical faith in America by those who were documenting its history, and a desire to bring Christian discourse into intellectual circles. Either way, it has only been recently that the relationship between Christianity and the working class throughout the last several centuries has been taken up by scholars. What is important for our study is to affirm that the Christian church has a rich and complex history of relationship with the working class. Of particular note is the way some historians are recognizing that it was in fact the very faith of the working class that “fuelled labour’s spirit of rebellion;” citing examples of churches becoming the organisational infrastructure of multiple labour struggles. It is from this rich history that the contemporary church should draw from in order to find models for how to come alongside the struggle of the working class today.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor) advocated for local churches to take up the cause of the working class in response to the collapse of the workman’s guilds. In it he argues that the guilds advocated on behalf of workers within their local contexts and that without them, workers have been left “isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.” By calling for the churches to step up and fill the gap left by the guilds, the Pope is acknowledging an important reality; workers cannot be left to the mercy of their employers to ensure their wellbeing. They need a local network of advocacy to support them in their struggle.9 The encyclical itself provides a strong example of a way in which the Church entered into solidarity with the working class in an attempt to shape and sustain a common good. It is not a matter of church and state separation or the church resigning itself merely to the realm of the ‘spiritual;’ rather it might be considered itself a theology of the common good addressing the social needs of its time.

"The interests of all, whether high or low, are equal. The members of the working classes are citizens by nature and by the same right as the rich; they are real parts, living the life which makes up, through the family, the body of the commonwealth; and it need hardly be said that they are in every city very largely in the majority. It would be irrational to neglect one portion of the citizens and favour another, and therefore the public administration must duly and solicitously provide for the welfare and the comfort of the working classes; otherwise, that law of justice will be violated which ordains that each man shall have his due." (par 33)

As has been argued, employers under capitalism are oriented towards efficiency driven profit and not the wellbeing of their workers. But workers themselves are not always capable of taking up their own struggles. Our current model of capitalism dominates through fear. The dual nature of the precariousness of work and the financial weight of debt as well as the cost of essential goods and services create a scenario where many workers are afraid to advocate on their own behalf. What Pope Leo XIII so insightfully gets at is that local churches are situated perfectly to act in solidarity on the behalf of the working class.

Another example worth briefly reflecting on is the 1949 strike of a union of gravediggers who worked at a Catholic cemetery in New York. After working six day weeks for less than $60 per week, when it was time to renew their contract they requested a five day working week for the same amount of pay plus overtime for Saturdays. After the Archdiocese rejected their demands the workers decided to strike. The Archdiocese responded by threatening to fire the striking workers, attempting to bring in seminarians to break the picket lines, and the cardinal called the strike “unjustified and immoral.” While this may seem to be an illustration of the church acting against the working class, what occurred in response to these events is what is worth noting. The Catholic social activist, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, joined the worker’s struggle and publicly challenged the cardinal to meet the demands of the workers. She also noted that they supplied the strikers with, “pickets, direct relief, and encouragement wherever possible.” The strike was eventually settled and although not all the workers' demands were met, the archdiocese agreed to an increase of wages by 8%. What Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker reveal is an example of how the institutional church and the church as a local community of Christians can sometimes fall on different sides of these issues. Dorothy Day was able to act in solidarity with these striking workers because she could draw on the church’s rich history of supporting the labour movement, even when those acting on behalf of the Institution of the Catholic Church were not.

By entering into a relationship of solidarity with workers within their shared local context, the church can play a crucial role in shaping and sustaining a common good in a way that promotes the mutual flourishing of all. The church will be able to do this by taking on a posture of hospitality within their community as a way of learning from and listening to those who may hold differing values or beliefs. The church must then draw from its deep history to find inspiration for how to partner with the labour movement in working for the rights of workers in their congregations and beyond. In doing so, the church can, in partnership with other groups, perform an alternative narrative to the Capitalist version of what life together looks like. With this in mind, let us now turn to two specific examples of where the church might enter into the struggle for the rights of workers in our present context.

III. The Rights of Workers

For the church to act in solidarity with workers in bringing forth a common good, it would be useful to consider a couple potential onramps into the struggle for the rights of workers. The two areas we are going to look at are the struggle for time as it relates to work hours and the struggle for justice as it relates to migrant workers. As the church seeks to reflect on what a common good might look like in its context, these two areas can act as a starting place for joining in and lending support.

Taking up the Struggle for Time

One of the core struggles of the labour movement through the 19th and 20th centuries was the fight for the 8 hour work day. After more than a century of struggle, it was finally passed into legislation in the United States in 1940 when the Fair Labour Standards Act limited the work week to 40 hours. A slowly won victory, this struggle was rooted in one of the core aspects of capitalism: the concept of time as money. For the capitalists, there have generally been two ways to increase the value of time. They could either increase the amount of time that a set amount of money could buy or demand more work from a set amount of time. The struggle around work hours has existed on both sides of those options. As regulations on work weeks began to take hold, the shift started to fall increasingly on the latter: intensifying the total amount of work expected within a purchased hour. Marx, in Capital Vol 1, wrote, “Like all other buyers, [the capitalist] seeks to extract the maximum possible benefit from the use-value of his commodity.” This is the crux of the drive for maximizing profit via efficiency.10 If employers were unable to demand more time from workers, they could seek to demand a more efficient use of the time they pay for. In her recent book on the nature of time, Jenny Odell makes the observation that the idea of time being money is understood very differently on either side of the employer/worker relationship. She writes,

"For the worker, time is a certain amount of money – the wage. But the buyer, or employer, hires a worker to create surplus value; this excess is what defines productivity under capitalism. From an employer’s point of view, purchased time could always yield more money."

Once again we see the imbalance of flourishing that capitalism delivers. What makes this particularly insidious under the current stage of capitalism that we find ourselves in is the way in which many employers are taking advantage of the normalization of job precariousness to demand both more efficient use of time and an increase of time spent at work. With efficiency as the driving value, it means employers are hiring as few workers as they can get away with while demanding more from the ones they have. Afraid of losing their jobs, many workers are giving free hours to their employers through (often unpaid) overwork. Tanner notes the way this creates a sort of time debt, where people are borrowing against the future to service the present.

"One is inclined to use for present gain what could otherwise be put to good use later on, leaving that much less for subsequent purposes. One uses up time and resources that could be put to use later on, so that one has even less time and fewer resources when new urgent tasks roll around. Thus, using every moment now, one finds oneself behind at the start of any new project."

In short, workers with families are borrowing time and energy that they should be saving for their home life but are spending it on work.

If churches want to increase the wellbeing of families within their sphere of influence, this is a key opportunity for them to partner with the labour movement in three specific ways. First, churches should step in to support unionization efforts in companies and sectors that do not yet have them. In many of these spaces, companies are employing anti-union tactics, often through threats of repercussions, to shut down attempts. Often, a majority of the workers represented in these companies are racialized, women, or lacking access to other social protections. A union would give these workers bargaining power to fight for better working conditions, including better working hours and job security. If churches were truly building the sort of relationships within their community as discussed earlier, they would be well positioned to step in and support unionization efforts on behalf of the workers. By lending their voice and other resources, they could shift the balance of power.

A second way in which churches could help change our society’s relationship to working hours is to join into the growing advocacy for a shorter work week. As has been noted, many workers are working longer work weeks than in previous decades and that this is having a significant effect on their overall health and wellbeing. In his book, Utopia for Realists, Rutger Bregman notes that research is increasingly revealing that even a 40 hour work week is too much for an increasingly knowledge based workforce. His argument is that shifting to a societal wide shorter work week would have benefits on health, the environment, unemployment rates, and inequality. And as for reasons as to why the church might take up this cause, Bregman writes, “working less provides the bandwidth for other things that are also important to us, like family, community involvement, and recreation.” While this cause is still relatively fringe, it is important to note that imagining a society that embraced an 8 hour working day was once considered impossible as well. It took committed groups of workers and their supporters to keep pushing until the change took place.

A final way the church can help advocate for a healthier view of time is by resisting the culture of efficiency and instead promoting a culture that embraces leisure as a value. In his classic work on the subject, Josef Pieper poignantly remarks that, “leisure does not exist for the sake of work, however much strength it may give [one] to work.” His point is that time off should not exist as a means for us to return to work with more energy. Yet this is precisely what leisure under capitalism has become because, as Odell notes, “the goal of capitalism is not free time but economic growth; any time freed up goes right back into the machine to increase profits.” But that’s not what the labour movement had in mind when it fought for the 8 hour day. Odell references the famous 19th century labour leader, Ira Steward, who advocated for shorter work hours as saying, the goal of fighting for less time at work was not for the benefit of work but to “give workers the time to figure out more ways to get free.” This notion of freedom has always been the point of struggling for more leisure time.11 Churches can begin to call us to an alternative way of living that resists the culture of efficiency by reclaiming leisure as a good in and of itself. By doing this in solidarity with workers, churches will be able to challenge the capitalist system in real, tangible ways.

Taking up the Struggle for Justice

The second area of struggle that the church could join into as an act of solidarity is the rights of migrant workers. A global phenomenon, the plight of migrant workers is a matter for every country. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there were approximately 169 million migrant workers as of 2019. As poverty and unemployment increase in developing nations and the demand for unskilled labour increases in more affluent ones, migrant workers are those who take up (usually temporary) residence somewhere else in order to work. In 2018, the UN officially endorsed the Global Compact for Migration (GCM), an intergovernmental agreement that helped facilitate the mobility of labour through “temporary, seasonal, circular, and fast-track programmes in areas of labour shortages.” (Harsha Walia) While this seemed to offer a more humane approach than other calls to entirely exclude migrant workers, it still fell short in offering workers the full protective rights afforded to citizens. This issue, the lack of status, is at the core of the migrants rights issue, echoed in the cry “status for all.” While the GCM makes it easier for nations to take advantage of migrant work, it does nothing to protect the rights of the workers themselves who often face substandard working conditions, inferior pay, abuse, exploitation, and racism from the communities they work within. In her book exploring how totalitarian governments take control, Hannah Arendt discusses the rise of ‘stateless’ people in the 20th century. While migrant workers may not meet her exact definition, they certainly suffer from the same lack of protections. Her point is that people who lack the protection of their own government fall into the precarious position of only having human rights to fall back on; which, according to Arendt, are meaningless to them. She writes,

"The Rights of Man, after all, had been defined as ‘inalienable’ because they were supposed to be independent of all governments; but it turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them."

Migrant workers play an essential role in our economy, many of them taking on jobs that contribute to our supply chains. They become a vital part of our communities, taking on precarious work, and yet lack the protections that come from having status as citizens. This is a justice issue that the church needs to confront if they are to take seriously what it means to work for a truly common good.12 Migrant workers represent the most vulnerable, the outsiders, the oppressed within our communities. They also do jobs that directly enable our own privileged lifestyles. Taking up the cause of full status for migrant workers is a key way the church can join into the struggle for justice within its time. Offering time, resources, and, importantly, public support would all be ways the church could begin to show solidarity with these workers.


The argument of this essay is that if the local church truly wants to make a positive impact on the wellbeing of families in their communities and to contribute to shaping a common good for society, entering into and partnering with the struggle for worker’s rights would be an excellent place to put time and resources. The common good, as described as the mutual flourishing of all people within a shared context is something that can only be achieved by working together across differences without diminishing them. As the church nurtures relationships based on a posture of hospitality it can begin to build solidarity with other groups working towards that common good as well. In order to find inspiration, the church can draw on its own rich history of advocacy and solidarity with the worker’s movement in the past. In our present context, the struggles for better working hours and the rights of migrant workers are two immediate causes the church can join into and take up. In doing so, the church can enter that comedy of redemption, performing an alternative way to the Capitalist system that will never bring about a truly common good. Kathryn Tanner noted that even though it may seem impossible to think past the limits of capitalism, our social structures were different in the past and we eventually thought past them. We are not beholden to simply accept them as they are. She writes, and with this I close,

"It is always possible, here and now, for them to become markedly different in the future, depending on what it is that people decide to do about them, in order to remedy their defects or augment their benefits. Just to the extent that people choose to do things differently now, those social relations will in fact be somehow different in the future. Present decisions inevitably have future effects – they make a difference."

Thanks for reading to the end.