A Labor Day Story: Workers’ Dignity and Prophetic Voices

As some of us take our rest on Labor Day, may we ponder the meaning of what it means to labor. Labor creates productivity that then (with skills and tools) creates the means to capitalize on that productivity.  Labor is physical, mental, emotional, and yes, spiritual because our work and how our work is valued plays into the ways in which we see ourselves and experience the world.  Labor is often hierarchical when business suits, uniforms, and “big deals” are placed above the harvesters, the builders, the store workers, the servers and all the people and professions that create the foundation of the labor force.  Labor is plagued with racism as much of this country was built without reparations on the backs of enslaved peoples, an oppressive history carried forward in the racialized inequality of US capitalism. These oppressions even penetrate the places that teach us to fight against oppressions.

Vanderbilt Divinity School recently went through a much-needed remodel on its facilities. This remodel required contracting work that came to include an act of injustice.  This injustice was resisted and reversed, not without strained relationships and much sacrifice of time, yet to the ultimate benefit of Vanderbilt, its Divinity School, and the larger community of Nashville.

The narrative below is from Sarah Jordan, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA and a former student of Vanderbilt Divinity School. Below is her story about the events that unfolded:

It is Labor Day Weekend 2014. I am a brand-new student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, “The School of the Prophets,” looking for ways to connect to justice work in Nashville, TN.  A new friend invited me to go to the Labor Day march. Eager to make friends and to get involved, I joined the long, hot Labor Day march and celebration. This was my first encounter with Workers’ Dignity/Dignidad Obrera, a local workers’ center. They had organized the event that was both protest and celebration.

From the beginning, Workers’ Dignity has impressed me with their passion, strategy, persistence, joy, commitment and sense of community. Over the years, I kept showing up. I joined the safety team, painted floats and puppets and yelled chants. With this community I found my prophetic voice, more of my righteous anger, a community, and roles I could play in the movement for collective liberation. These people have been a large part of my life in seminary and in Nashville. They have shaped me into a better person, comrade and pastor.

Fast forward a few years. Between May 2018 and June 2019, Armando Arzate and his fellow workers put in long hours of skilled labor to do the concrete work on Vanderbilt Divinity School’s expansion. Vanderbilt University contracted with Orion Building Corporation, their frequent construction partner, to oversee the project. Orion Building Corporation then subcontracted with Joe Haas Construction Company for cement work, and Joe Haas Construction hired Armando and his team. Joe Haas Construction, however, began withholding wages from Armando and his team. Yet, the workers continued and completed the work determined to stay true to their word. At the end of the project, Armando and his team were owed $66,000 for their work in laying concrete. Armando came to Workers’ Dignity/Dignidad Obrera for help with this wage theft case.

Workers’ Dignity reached out to a few alums and current students of Vanderbilt Divinity School to see if we would be willing to get involved in a wage theft case that involved the Divinity School. I did not hesitate to join the team working on the case because I was deeply disturbed by the news that the new building for this center of theological education known for its commitment to justice had been built on any kind of exploitation.

A small team, supported by Workers’ Dignity staff, walked with Armando in the process of reclaiming his wages. We met every Thursday night for months to plan and take action. We sent letters to the parties involved in the building project to make them aware of the wages owed and give them a chance to pay them. We called each construction company and Vanderbilt University to set up in-person meetings to discuss payment.

After little to no response, we went public with the information, met with faculty and administrators then created a petition and announced a direct action to disrupt the building dedication ceremony. We shared the petition and event with Vanderbilt students and alumni as well as other residents of Nashville. We gathered 500 signatures. The petition, the threat of a disruption at a public ceremony and bad publicity were enough for Vanderbilt University to put pressure on Orion, the construction company overseeing the project, to pay Armando and his workers for the concrete work they did on the renovation. On August 22, Orion wrote a check for $66,000 to Armando and his team.

I still have many questions and concerns. If the Divinity school or the larger university had no knowledge of the wage theft concerning the concrete work, does that mean that they naively trusted that the workers were treated fairly and did not prioritize economic justice in the expansion project? It is not a secret that construction workers often face terrible working conditions and wage theft in Nashville and across the nation. As justice-oriented faith communities, we can do better. Intentionality and accountability is needed because one injustice within a renovation can spoil the entirety of the project.

As a student of the School of the Prophets and a pastor in the Reformed tradition, I am called to be a prophet to and reformer of institutions, even the ones that taught me. We cannot be a community that preaches the Gospel in a building built on the exploitation of Jesus’ beloved workers. There is nothing just or faithful about that. The way our buildings are made matters. Every worker matters.

We do not have a school, a church, a sidewalk, a chair to sit in without workers. And our workers deserve to be paid for their labor. Their labor is sacred and has dignity. We must show up in solidarity with low-wage workers. This means knowing the injustices that people face every day and making necessary changes before injustice can show up again.

May we center ourselves, center this story, and center our hearts on the lives of people who work, who sweat, who put their souls into their labor. May we also center the places we love, that teach us, mold us and empower us to be voices of change. Let us pray the prayer students and organizers prayed after Armando and his company were compensated and may this prayer be a prayer for all peoples:

Everlasting Maker,
Today, we are splashing in the puddles of Justice’s rain.
In the meeting rooms, around every organizing table, and across all of our keyboards, you made your presence known.
Today, we are celebrating labor justly compensated, and humanity honored.
You gave Armando and his allies the courage to persevere in the pursuit of justice, and we lift our thanks in praise of you.
The hearts of those in power have been softened and hope enlivened in us all. 
Today, we raise our faces, eyes closed, and stand open armed to the sky.

Prayer by Rachel Ternes and Abbey Labrecque

Rev. Sarah Jordan, (she/her/hers), Gulf Coast native and southerner for life, is a white, cisgender, queer woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA).  She is interested in the intersections of art, social justice movements, and faith. She dreams of a church that is moved by the Holy Spirit, deeply rooted in the gospel, and oriented toward collective liberation. Currently, she lives in Nashville, TN with her partner and works at a residential recovery center for women in Nashville.

Abbey Labrecque and Rachel Ternes are 3rd year Master of Divinity students at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and volunteer advocates with Workers Dignity.

Editors’ notes:

  1. RJ Robles is also a part of Workers’ Dignity/Dignidad Obrera and RJ’s efforts in the events spoken about in this article may be found here.
  2. Presbyterian Mission Agency mission yearbook prayer for Labor Day: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/yearbook/September-2-2019/
  3. Readers concerned about wage theft may wish to contact Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), an organization that has made fighting wage theft one of its key campaigns: http://www.iwj.org/
  4. Christian support for a “living wage” or a “family-sustaining wage” in the US was expressed with particular clarity in the original Social Creed of 1908 and then a century later in the Social Creed for the 21st Century: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/1-connectingtothecreed-2008.pdf

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