Advocacy for Workers as a Spiritual Calling
I am proud to have devoted my life to advocating for workers. I have seen firsthand how coming together to form a union has imbued oppressed workers with a feeling of hope and dignity. However, when I explain that I have chosen to devote myself to this line of work, as a matter of faith, I inevitably get quizzical looks from those in the pew from all sides of our political spectrum. The puzzled expressions and raised eyebrows are completely understandable given the state of political discourse in the United States about unions.
No matter the audience, I start by explaining that the Bible has almost 2,100 verses discussing poverty or justice. I then articulate how God commands believers to treat their workers justly in both the Old and New Testaments. And inevitably, it is at this point that those I speak with will claim that I am making post hoc justifications for my view by making the Bible align with my politics. It is at this point that I then point out to them that God destroyed Sodom in large part because of how it treated its poor. As stated in the Book of Ezekiel:
“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.’” (Ezekiel 16:49-50).
God cares about justice generally, but He also cares about workplace conditions specifically (Jeremiah 22:13). God calls out the religiously pious who oppress their workers. (Isaiah 58:3). God cares about workers’ ability to make a living and consistently states that he hears the cries of workers who are victims of employer wage theft. (James 5:1, 4; Jeremiah 22:13; Deuteronomy 21:14-15). So how does all this apply to the practice of labor law and advocacy for workers?
Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act provides legal authority for workers to come together for mutual aid and protection. Workers who take advantage of these rights under federal law typically do so because something has gone awry in the workplace. They do not organize collectively unless something is galvanizing them to do so. As a labor lawyer, my calling is to help workers exercise those rights to come together to protect each other, and form a mechanism by which to protect themselves from employers who oppress them, pay unfair wages, and might subject them to other forms of abuse.
When I prosecute a case for unpaid wages, advise workers about dealing with illegal employer retribution, or advocate for low wage workers seeking to earn a living wage through collective bargaining, I pray that God is using me as an advocate to pursue what is important to Him. I hope that I am serving Christ by advocating for oppressed workers – many of who are “the least of these.” (Matthew 25: 40, 45).
Alvin Velazquez is a 2003 Alumnus of Harvard Law School who practices union side labor law.
All citations are to the New International Version of the Bible.