Thursday, August 27, 2015

Why I Stand With AWPPW Local 153

Listen! Hear the cries of the wages of your field hands. These are the wages you stole from those who harvested your fields. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of heavenly forces.

James 5:4 (Common English Bible)

Earlier this month, I drove down to Portland's Pioneer Square to attend and speak at a rally organized by the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers for their local 153--the local that represents the 800 or so workers at the Kapstone mill here in Longview (edit: you can see the beginning of that speech here).  A couple of those workers are members of my flock at FCC, and I wanted to make a visible show of support for their multiyear plight in getting a fair contract with Kapstone ever since their previous contract expired early in 2014.

And now today, as of 3:00 this morning, the workers at the KapStone mill are on strike for the first time in nearly forty years, after first voting to authorize a strike all the way back in December of 2014.

A condensed version of this post is being sent to the local paper, The Daily News, in the form of a letter to the editor, because I want to be clear to my congregants and neighbors on strike that there is religious leadership in the town that has their back in their quest for better working conditions and benefits.

But in an era when clergy still seem more concerned with fighting for so-called religious freedom bills or against same-sex discrimination bans, why is it even important to have Christian leaders call out the corporations that employ their flock?

In part, actually, I think it is important because in pushing so hard for those things I just mentioned--religious freedom bills, the right to still discriminate against same-sex couples, and so on--we pastors have totally missed the plot and what the Bible actually says--repeatedly--about the justice of promptly paying workers fair wages.  But we'll get to that in a moment.

This is personal for me.  My dad, currently a judge on the Kansas state Court of Appeals, had, prior to becoming an appellate judge, represented the interests of labor unions as a lawyer at various Kansas City firms for many years, and as a child at his knee, I learned of the history of labor unions in America, of the great sacrifices--sometimes of life--in order to gain the things we today take for granted, like the 40-hour workweek and time-and-a-half pay for any work above and beyond that.

And those sorts of protections of work hours and wages are basic to not only American principles, but to Biblical principles.  Not only does James, the brother of Jesus, condemn the practice of taking away the wages of one's workers in 5:4 of his letter, he also condemns the practice of the aristocracy twisting and warping the legal system to their own greedy and selfish ends:

Don't the wealthy make life difficult for you?  Aren't they the ones who drag you into court? (2:6, CEB)

Furthermore, the commitment to paying a fair wage to ones workers is not limited to James--the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Malachi each wrote on the subject, saying, respectively:

How terrible for Jehoiakim, who builds his house with corruption and his upper chambers with injustice, working his countrymen for nothing, refusing to give them their wages. (Jeremiah 22:13, CEB)


I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against the sorcerers, the adulterers, those swearing falsely, against those who cheat the day laborers out of their wages as well as oppress the widow and the orphan, and against those who brush aside the foreigner and do not revere me, says the Lord of heavenly forces (Malachi 3:5, CEB)

To be clear--this strike isn't simply about wages.  It is an unfair labor practice strike, and those unfair labor practices include those things that Jeremiah and Malachi denounce, the corruption involved in a history of worker safety violations and the injustice inherent in unilaterally imposing a contract rejected by over two-thirds of the local's membership.  And this is to say nothing of the reality that after posting record profits in 2014, KapStone kicked off 2015 by announcing over thirty layoffs in Longview.

Like the Old Testament kings of yore, KapStone and its executive management need to repent and hear the voices of their workers, workers who are being worked for less and less and have been facing, for nearly two years now, a steadfast refusal to give them fair wages, benefits, and working conditions.

This is indeed a Biblical issue, much as we in church like to act as though only matters of personal piety and morality are worthy of preaching on nowadays.  But to do that ignores the larger realities that Scripture teaches us of, including the reality, as Malachi writes, that in addition to the personal immoralities of adultery and lying, those who cheat their workers out of their wages, those who oppress the needy such as the widows and orphans, those who do not welcome others--including foreigners--are not acting in a wa in a way that reveres God.

We ignore the full warning of Malachi--and of Jeremiah to King Jehoiakim, and of James to the early church, entirely at the peril of our own souls' health and wholeness.  We cannot act like our souls are as spiritually enriched as they can or should be simply because we say please and thank you and chew with our mouth closed.  No, God will always demand so much more of us, as well God ought, for a good parent always pushes their children to be the very best versions of themselves.

Thus far, however, the leaders of KapStone have failed that divine mandate.  And so I stand fully, completely, and unambiguously, in support and solidarity with my friends, congregants, and neighbors who make up AWPPW 153 as they begin their strike for a better livelihood for them and, once rippling outward, for us all.

Longview, Washington
August 27, 2015

AWPPW logo image courtesy of

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