Changing the Conversation

by richard k. macmaster

In their recently published manifesto, The Rich and the Rest of Us, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West challenge us to change our attitudes and our language.  “Before we can get people to seriously consider the end of poverty, we have to shred destructive misconceptions. .  .  . We need to reframe the dialogue.”  While compassion and philanthropy have their place, Smiley and West are not afraid to use the language of justice, reminding us that the common goal in the struggles for abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, union organizing, and farm worker strikes was always economic justice.  “In these times of increasing scarcity when we can find little hope, there is a desperate need to resurrect social justice.  We need leaders in the prophetic tradition, like Rauschenbusch, King, and Gandhi.  They must stoke the embers of righteous indignation into an almighty inextinguishable blaze.”[1]

Sometimes it doesn’t take a prophet.  Sometimes an ordinary person can change the conversation.  Nearly two hundred years ago, in 1824, an elementary school teacher in the North of England wrote and self-published a small pamphlet that changed the history of the world.  Elizabeth Heyrick was one of many antislavery activists in England at the time.  They were talking about ameliorating slavery, working for a gradual emancipation of slaves within the British Empire over a generation or two, and finding a suitable home for freed slaves in Africa.

Elizabeth Heyrick’s pamphlet, Immediate Not Gradual Emancipation, changed all that.  She argued that if slavery was truly as evil a system as they agreed it was, they could not temporize with it.  It must be destroyed now.  “The perpetuation of slavery in our West India colonies is not an abstract question, to be settled between the government and the planters; it is one in which we are all implicated, we are all guilty of supporting and perpetuating slavery. The West Indian planter and the people of this country stand in the same moral relation to each other as the thief and receiver of stolen goods.”  The issue was a moral one.

Elizabeth Heyrick changed the conversation about slavery on both sides of the Atlantic.  It wasn’t a labor system to be weighed against less productive alternatives or a necessary prop of the sugar-based economy of the West Indies, it was something evil, a crime or a sin.  It had to be destroyed.  Antislavery organizations everywhere adopted new goals in response.  They were now abolitionists, committed to immediate freedom for all slaves.

She proposed new tactics for advancing their goal.  Heyrick thought petitioning the British Parliament a waste of time because of the influence of “the West India Interest”.  It would be better to convince grocers to refuse to stock slave-grown produce and use their collective buying power to deny slaveowners a market.  Although it did not bring down slavery of itself, the consumer boycott of sugar, coffee, and other products proved invaluable in enlisting support for immediate abolition.

Do we need to change the conversation about exploitation of workers in our time as Elizabeth Heyrick did about slavery?  The twentieth century dawned full of hope that somehow the spirit of the age, organized labor, government legislation, free market forces, or educational opportunities would put an end to the worst abuses.  But by the close of the century unions were weaker than they had been for a hundred years.  It is now commonplace to dismiss strikes as efforts by greedy union members to get more money for less work.  Poor people are poor because of their own lifestyle choices.  Efforts to assist them are branded the politics of envy. Universal health care is rooted in an alien ideology.  The list is endless.

Like the world the slaveholders made, every argument for the status quo immediately reduces to selfishness and greed.  We cannot discuss anything on those terms.  We need to think and speak out in terms of social justice.  To paraphrase Elizabeth Heyrick:  The exploitation of labor and the systems that plunge millions worldwide into poverty are not abstract questions to be settled between corporations and government.  We are all guilty of supporting and perpetuating exploitive systems, since we profit from cheap food and cheap manufactured goods.  We stand in the same moral relation to American corporations as the receiver of stolen goods to the thief.

No group of workers has been more exploited than those who harvest the fruits and vegetables on our tables.  Led by Cesar Chavez and United Farm Workers on the West Coast and Baldemar Velasquez and Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in Ohio, they fought back.  Velasquez had first-hand experience of the civil rights struggle, working with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and committed his group to non-violent action.  Some leaders, wedded to traditional union ways, were unwilling to engage in moral and emotional appeals  and wanted nothing to do with an approach like that of the civil rights movement or a religious campaign.  These turned out to be tactics that energized the farm labor movement.

After unsuccessful strikes against individual farmers, Velasquez realized that the big tomato buyers should be the targets and FLOC concentrated first on Campbell’s Soup.  Although they had powerful allies in the United Auto Workers and the World Council of Churches, it was only after Catholic nuns began asking questions at stockholder meetings that Campbell’s gave in.  After winning an agreement for fair wages and working practices with them, FLOC went on to sign up all the major companies buying tomatoes for ketchup and soups and then to tackle producers of relish and pickles were bought cucumbers harvested by migrant workers.

With this example before them, after unsuccessful efforts to pressure individual Florida tomato growers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers turned their sights on Taco Bell and sought the help of faith communities and university students.  With these allies, CIW’s Fair Food campaign has gone from strength to strength in the past ten years, as fast food and institutional food buyers fell in line, culminating in an agreement with 95% of the tomato growers in Florida last November.  Supermarkets have been the last holdouts.  Even as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s signed earlier this year, Publix and other major buyers have stonewalled.  At the same time, churches, synagogues, and mosques across the country have become active in the Fair Food campaign, standing shoulder to shoulder with students and other activists.  They understand the language of economic justice as reflecting the prophetic cry for justice in every religious tradition.

Gainesville’s Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice was formed in 2010 to mobilize these potential allies in the struggle for economic justice and to help them move from giving charity to confronting systemic injustice and exploitation of farm workers and so-called illegal immigrants.  Eight Gainesville churches and synagogues now form a coalition of faith communities working together to right these wrongs and others work with us on a less formal basis.  They have joined in protests and pray-ins at Publix stores here in Gainesville, in Ocala, and Jacksonville and at corporate headquarters in Lakeland.  More than forty religious leaders have signed a letter to Publix urging them to join other corporate tomato buyers in supporting the Fair Food Agreement and many of them took part in a press conference August 24 to make their stand public. Our experience is that many of our local faith communities are ready to link arms with labor unions and movements for social change in efforts for economic justice.  We need to break down the artificial barriers that separate us and to work together in a common cause.

Social and economic justice can not be achieved until we have a mass movement pushing for change.  Like-minded individuals can only do so much.  They need to share their vision in their own communities, with friends, work-mates, fellow students, clubs, leisure groups, sports teams, churches and synagogues, if they want to be effective.

My friend Matthew Smucker put it this way: “I don’t know of any mass movement in the history of the world that was composed of all self-selecting individuals (at least no movement that lasted longer than a flash). Take the Civil Rights Movement. If Bob Moses, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks had been oriented toward the center of a small circle of self-selectors, they would not have been the leaders of a movement. (Picture them inspiring each other with status updates like, “No one should have to give up their bus seat because of the color of their skin. Please post as your status if you agree.”) It only became a movement when these and other good leaders helped to move whole communities—most notably black churches and schools—into action as communities. Membership in these communities came to imply movement participation. This is how movements become movements.”

The first step is undoubtedly to recognize that we have a common ground in seeking a just society for ourselves and our children.  Fair wages, job security, access to health care, and immigration reform are primarily justice issues, not political markers, and as such admit no compromise.  Injustice, like slavery, is a moral evil.  As Elizabeth Heyrick made clear nearly 200 years ago, there can be no negotiating, no temporizing with evil.

[1] Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, The Rich and the Rest of Us (New York: Smiley Books, 2012), 134, 149-150.

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