My friend joined a battle that was fought one hundred years ago. On Paint Creek and later Cabin Creek, West Virginia, coal miners in 1912 went on strike because work conditions nearly resembled slavery. The violence escalated to such a point that the governor declared martial law and sent in the WV National Guard. What upsets my friend is the historical presentation of the conflict as being over wages and working hours.
Higher wages was the eleventh of eleven demands of the workers, and shorter hours was ninth of the eleven. The first demand was the “abolition of the mine guard system.” The brutality of the mercenaries hired to keep the miners in line extracted severe mental anguish on the worker and his family. Free-market historians and journalists focus on the common concerns of trade unions: “wages, hours and conditions,” but seldom do they examine critically the patterns, structures and power dynamics of the workplace that speak directly to the human spirit.
Candidates for office frequently talk about creating jobs, and the word “job” could be seen as shorthand for personal economic stability. But, in our free market/capitalist system, you don’t need a job, you need income. Every slave has a job, but the sons and daughters of the rich don’t need jobs—they need only walk to their mailbox to get their dividend or interest check.
Actually the idea of a “job” came from the specialization of the industrial process when a craft like making a chair was separated into segments with many workers making one part. This led to enormous productivity through mass production. Centuries ago, farming was not a job, but a lifestyle, and unique skills like woodworking or silversmithing were considered a craft or a trade more than a job. Today, the more educated among us are not looking simply for a job, but a career. And, perhaps that quest for something more is the window into the spiritual, and it introduces how people of faith view work.
Good Jobs, Dirty Jobs
Somebody needs to take out the garbage, and somebody better clean the commode. The work that dirties our hands ultimately benefits coworkers and the community, so perhaps the job itself is not the problem, but the way it is structured. When folks work as a team, the cleanup duty goes much faster and might even become fun. By day’s end, workers may be tired, but they can feel a sense of satisfaction that they treated customers curiously, or made a good product. These are dimensions of the spirituality of work.
My point: we can structure work so everyone feels a sense of worth, dignity, belonging and pride in the effort. Work can be organized either to feed the soul, or diminish the spirit.
Currently, free marketers disparage unions. The story of the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek Strike of 1912 reminds us that the power of ownership can structure work for near slave conditions. Workers have a right to form a union because they are social beings and as isolated individuals without power they can suffer abuses to their dignity.
Free marketers frequently denigrate those who are unemployed because they draw government assistance. Economists differentiate between frictional unemployment, when a worker leaves a job to find a better one, and structural unemployment, when in a deep recession no jobs are available. We cannot blame the victim because jobs are scarce. We need to question the system because people’s desire for work feeds their need for self-worth and dignity.
I once organized a group of three women on welfare to start their own house-cleaning cooperative. After three months of meeting weekly, the Daisy Fresh Cleaning Association received its incorporation papers from the Commonwealth of Virginia and we were ready for work. In a workers’ cooperative, the workers make their own rules and structure the work. I remember at our luncheon celebration with Coke and snacks asking the folks what we want to buy first, knowing we had the money for all sorts of cleaning equipment. First purchase—not brooms or mops—but decals that said “Daisy Fresh Cleaning Association.” The folks sewed the decals on all their blouses and jackets. More than wages and hours, the decals said “I might have been on welfare but I am somebody.” The Daisy Fresh women knew more about the spirituality of work than people on Wall Street or most economists.
Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary priest, is the director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia and works against mountaintop removal. He was the recipient of the Pax Christi USA’s Teacher of Peace Award in 2007.