Missin’ Out on May Day?!

On May 1st of 1999 I left Manila, Philippines early in the morning, somewhat frustrated that I will miss out on May Day workers’ rallies and actions. I was headed for a meeting of the UMC Concern for Workers Task Force in Oregon. After I checked into the hotel and started unpacking, I was watching the local news and lo and behold, May Day actions were just starting on the streets of Portland! Still groggy from a long flight over the Pacific, I realized it was “still” May 1st in the United States! Wasting no time, I went out and joined the march around downtown. I thought to myself, “I didn’t miss May Day!”

Leaving Manila in 2003 was a different story, or so I thought. With my bishop’s instructions, I’ve been preparing for graduate school in Berkeley. I was to leave in August that year, knowing I will miss a good number of May Day actions, and leave behind friends and comrades in the people’s struggle. I felt a tinge of guilt and fear that I was selling out – getting bourgeois education in the belly of the beast. After my last May Day at home, my activist friends and union leaders threw a farewell party for me. What they said that day is etched in my heart and continues to inspire: “Even when you’re in the United States, stand in solidarity with workers and the poor masses. When you are connected to the struggle for social justice – even across the ocean – you also connect with us back home because we are one big family fighting the same good fight.”

It has been 9 years since that May Day, and the connections are pretty darn clear. I see it in the fight of over 2,600 Philippine Airlines union workers in Manila who were laid off this year and their jobs subcontracted for cheap. It’s the same fight of about 100 non-union Hyatt Hotel housekeepers in Boston who were fired and replaced by workers from a subcontracted agency a couple of years ago. I see this in the struggle of indigenous Filipinos who lost their sacred lands to mining companies and big corporations, and the story of Native Americans whose dignity as sovereign nations were trampled upon. I see this in the continuing struggle for civil and human rights where over 2,000 Filipino activists, including religious leaders, have been killed or abducted with no justice in sight. It connects with the senseless racially motivated murders in the United States. We are Oscar Grant! We are Trayvon Martin! From west to east, across oceans and continents, we are one in the struggle for justice.

On this May Day, I’m reflecting on the intersections of racial justice and economic justice. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, leader of the civil rights movement, once asked what good it is to have the right to sit at lunch counters if one does not have the means to even buy a hamburger? His question effectively ties together the struggle of African-Americans against racial discrimination, and the systemic economic oppression of working people. We remember that he was killed while in Memphis for the Poor People’s Campaign – standing in solidarity with sanitation workers. His dream was not only about tearing down walls of racial hate, but also walls of economic greed. Sadly, his dream still seems to remain a dream.

We see this dream still unfulfilled today. While economists and media proclaim the recession officially over, we find that many black women and men still languish at the bottom of the ladder that supposedly leads to economic health. The Labor Center of the University of California, Berkeley published a study early this year showing that while there was a steady decline in unemployment for most Americans, “there was virtually no movement in the official Black unemployment rate from January to December 2011.” Black unemployment stood at 15.7% in January of 2011, and 15.8% this year – virtually unchanged. Breaking down the numbers by gender, statistics show that over the course of the past year, female unemployment in the Black community rose from 13.8% to 14.6%.

Dr. King, seeing the inextricable ties that bind issues of race and economic justice, stood side by side with striking sanitation workers in Memphis. People of faith, like him, are challenged to unmask the hypocrisy of a socio-economic system that welcomes you to any lunch counter, but deprives you of resources to buy food. You might have the right to sit at the front of the bus, but without sufficient cash to pay the fare, you might end up being thrown under the bus. Such are the empty promises of prosperity proffered by today’s elite few. While we pray for an inclusive community – the Beloved Community, we should also act to make this dream a reality. We are faced with legislation cutting workers' rights to collective bargaining, balancing state and federal budgets on the back of working people, high unemployment rates for people of color, and the list of atrocities against workers continue to rise. What is your congregation doing to assist those who are marginalized by unemployment? What are we doing as Church to fulfill a vision of an economy that values the dignity of work and all workers? I consider it a great privilege to work as GBCS organizer for economic justice, helping to connect United Methodists passionate about these concerns. Below is a liturgical creed I wrote and share with you, including some resources for action.

So, are we missing out on May Day? Everyday should be May Day - standing alongside workers and community struggling for voice and respect in the workplace, and communing with those seeking good jobs. Now I have to run to a May Day action in downtown San Francisco! From my pen to the streets!

A Creed on the Sanctity of Human Labor and Dignity of Workers

In the midst of chaos, God created the heavens and the earth, and entrusted our forebears with its care and productivity.

We believe that the work of our hands is a sacred trust bestowed by our Creator.

When the children of Abraham were enslaved in Egypt, God heard their cries and delivered them from Pharoah.

We believe that people should come before profit, and wealth abundantly shared by all.

The prophets of old courageously stood before rulers of the land, calling for justice to flow down like a mighty river.

We believe that every job created should provide workers a just and living wage.

When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus spoke of a Samaritan who cared for a stranger left for dead by robbers and ignored by passers-by.

We believe that every worker deserves the benefits of health and financial security.

As work opportunities continue to be scarce, we remember Jesus who said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me.”

We believe that as people of faith, we have the Gospel mandate to stand in solidarity with the poor and the disenfranchised.

Resources for Action:

Jobs Statement of Principles, by the Interreligious Working Group on Domestic Human Needs

Standing With The Unemployed, a congregational toolkit from Interfaith Worker Justice’s Faith Advocates for Jobs campaign