Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

God at work among the janitors

Most if not all of the business people I know have not had a good word to say about labor unions for decades. It seemed that the glory days of union-organizing, immortalized in the movie Norma Rae, were long gone. But as long as we live in Advent (between the Comings) there is going to be a need for the poor and exploited to have a union. Here are some excerpts from an article describing the role of the church and its teachings in Houston:

Janitors' Drive in Texas Gives Hope to Unions
By Steven Greenhouse
New York Times, November 28, 2005

Union organizers have obtained what they say is majority support in one of the biggest unionization drives in the South in decades, collecting the signatures of thousands of Houston janitors...

In an era when unions typically face frustration and failure in attracting workers in the private sector, the Service Employees International Union is bringing in 5,000 janitors from several companies at once....labor leaders are looking to the Houston campaign as a model.

The service employees, which led a breakaway of four unions from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. last summer, has used several unusual tactics in Houston, among them lining up the support of religious leaders, pension funds and the city's mayor, Bill White, a Democrat. Making the effort even more unusual has been the union's success in a state that has long been hostile to labor...

The service employees' success comes as the percentage of private-sector workers in unions has dropped to 7.9 percent, the lowest rate in more than a century...

With its campaign to organize the janitors, the union has focused on two groups it says are pivotal if labor is to grow again: low-wage workers and immigrants. The janitors, nearly all of them immigrants, earn just over $100 a week on average, usually working part time for $5.25 an hour.

Some of Houston's business leaders oppose the unionization drive, saying its pledge of higher wages may hurt business.

"I don't see how it's going to help Houston from a business standpoint," said Mark Jodon, a Houston lawyer who represents employers. "It has the potential of raising the cost of doing business."

Flora Aguilar, a Mexican immigrant who cleans an office tower for $5.25 an hour, volunteered to help the organizing drive as soon as the union gave the janitors questionnaires asking what aspects of their jobs they thought needed improvement.

"The wages are terrible, there are no benefits, there's nothing," Ms. Aguilar said. "I have to stretch myself like a rubber band to make ends meet. I want a union because it will give me a better life."

...Even if the union is recognized, it still faces a big obstacle in negotiating a contract that delivers some of the hoped-for improvements in wages and benefits. Yet the union's Texas achievement stands in stark contrast to the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s failed drive in the early 1980's, which sought to recruit tens of thousands of Houston workers...

Workers were told of the union's success in New Jersey, where the salaries of 4,500 recently organized janitors had risen to $11.90 an hour from $5.85 an hour three years ago, and where many part-time workers had been converted to full-time status with health benefits.

The union announced its campaign last April, but two years earlier, it sent a community liaison to Houston who helped line up backing from the city's mayor, several congressmen and dozens of clergymen, including the Roman Catholic archbishop, Joseph A. Fiorenza. The archbishop even celebrated a special Mass for janitors in August and spoke at the union's kickoff rally, telling the janitors that God was unhappy that they earned so little and did not have health coverage. "They work for the same companies that are in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, and their counterparts there are getting much higher salaries," Archbishop Fiorenza said in an interview. "It's just basic justice and fairness that the wages should be increased here."

But business leaders say the wages are consistent with what other unskilled workers earn.

"The wages that are paid in Houston to janitors are generally above minimum wage," said Tammy Bettancourt, executive vice president of the Houston Building Owners and Managers Association. "Their wages are very much in line with every other part-time job and with the city's retailers. That's what the market dictates."

Ercilia Sandoval, who cleans offices in a prime office tower, says she has not had a raise in eight years and does not have health insurance. A school dentist recently found that her 7-year-old daughter had six cavities, and fillings will cost $750, when her weekly take-home pay is $91.50.

"Everything has gone up except our wages," Ms. Sandoval said. "If we ask for a raise, they say, 'Anyone who doesn't like it here, there's the door.' "

....Expanding on the Houston effort, the service employees hope to unionize 4,000 janitors in Atlanta, 2,000 in Phoenix and tens of thousands of shopping mall janitors nationwide. But even the service employees have encountered problems. For instance, their effort to organize 7,000 condominium workers in Miami has stalled because of opposition from the largest property management company there.

Still, the Houston effort has gone more smoothly than union officials had expected.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Queen defends the faith

In a remarkably forthright address, Queen Elizabeth II has spoken in warmly personal terms of the unique character of Christianity. Read more at this link:

Quote of the month:

"There's a shadow over our nation that needs lifting."
--Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois

This quotation concludes an article by Jane Mayer, "A Deadly Interrogation," in The New Yorker, November 14, 2005. The article details the failure of the CIA and the Department of Justice to investigate deaths of prisoners in American custody.

The article is readily accessible in the New Yorker archive where there is a folder called Iraq which contains all the magazine's coverage since the war began.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Unitarians and Trinitarians (the torture issue, cont'd)

Here's a letter to the editor of The New York Times today. Have there been letters like this to the editors of newspapers in other parts of our country? and have they been written by generously orthodox Trinitarian Christian leaders, or are we leaving it to the Unitarians?

To the Editor:

I praise you for keeping the torture issue front and center during this critical time of Congressional consideration of the shameful United States practice of abuse at secret prisons abroad ("Blaming the Messenger," editorial, Nov. 10).

It's puzzling that there has not been a greater public uproar over this immoral, illegal, ineffective and cruel practice that so compromises our security.

Our congregation, by resolution, has unanimously condemned this practice and trusts that others will join us in an overwhelming show of moral outrage.

(Rev.) Paul S. Johnson
Manhasset, N.Y.
Nov. 10, 2005
The writer is senior minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock.

God and the devil in the wake of Katrina

David Remnick reports in The New Yorker (issue of October 3) from New Iberia, Louisiana, where hundreds of African-Americans from New Orleans had taken refuge. Here is some of his account:

A friendly man in his late 30s named Walter Hays sat down to talk. Hays is African-American, a Navy veteran...Walter Hays wanted to tell his [story]. He was in New Iberia with a group of 28 close family and friends, including 3 infants and several small children. The adults had vowed to bring everyone out together....

[A description of four horrific days on the Claiborne Avenue overpass follows]

[They] knew they had to get out of town, but there was no transport. A police officer told them that they should break into cars and see if they could steal one. Hays and his best friend...found a key that fit Bus No. 9322 and picked up the rest of the extended family and headed out of town...On the road to New Iberia, a police officer pulled them over. "I was scared," Hays said. "After all, we'd looted the bus. The cop, a white guy, looked inside...and he gave us a police escort...And in New Iberia, an officer said to me, and I will remember this forever, he said, 'I want you to understand something. You think this is the end of life as you know it for you. But this is a new beginning. You have a lot of people pulling for you.'"

Walter Hays had been telling his story for a couple of hours, with many other details of disasters averted and kindnesses provided. By now many of his friends had gathered round him, adding clarifications and saying that, all in all, they were blessed.

"All along the way, things were strategically placed in our way by the Lord," Hays said, in agreement. "The dopehead who helped us, the people in Houma, wading through the water...the tiny infants who made it out, sleeping on the bridge, like it was a terrible desert. It's Biblical, isn't it? After everything we've been through, if you aren't changed morally, spiritually, then you're dead inside."

And then, just at the point where the story seemed over, with a flourish of amens and thank-the-Lords, [a young man from among Walter Hay's friends] said, "Now, just remember." He paused and lowered his gaze at me [Remnick]. "Remember, he said, "this was a premeditated disaster. They flooded the city. It happened on a pretty, sunny day, two days of rising water. You tell me: where the rich people at?"...The others nodded. They agreed with this no less than they agreed on the saving grace of God....

At the Reliant Center in Houston, a woman named Patricia Valentine, a fifty-four-year-old woman from Treme, a black neighborhood near the French Quarter, told me...that she had no intention of returning home..."I was in Hurricane Betsy forty years ago...and the levee broke. What are we, stupid? Born yesterday? It's the same people drowning today as back then, They were trying to move us out anyway. They want a bigger tourist attraction, and we black folks ain't no tourist attraction."

...Scholars...have written extensively on the role of rumor and conspiracy theory in the African-American community, especially among the poor...These counter-narratives emerge from decades of institutional racism and from particular episodes in American history such as the use of hundreds of poor African-Americans, between 1932 and 1972, as lab rats in US government trials, known as the Tuskegee experiment, on the effects of syphilis...."Perception is reality, and their reality is terrible," Jim Amoss, the editor of the [New Orleans] Times-Picayune, said. "We are talking about people who are very poor and who have a precondition to accept this belief...they know a thing or two about victimization."

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The tying of hands: the torture debate (cont'd)

Regarding the Senate resolution put forward by John McCain and others, asking for a clear prohibition of torture, it has been reported many times during the last two weeks that Cheney and Rumsfeld oppose the resolution because they “do not want their [i.e. the CIA's] hands to be tied.”

Contrast this, from the respected (and by no means consistently liberal) Michael Ignatieff:

“It is the very nature of a democracy that it not only does, but should, fight with one hand tied behind its back. It is also in the nature of democracy that it prevails against its enemies precisely because it does ” (from The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror).