One of the earliest recorded labor actions occurred in Biblical Egypt. Moses demanded that Pharaoh let the Israelites slaves go into the desert to worship their God. Moses, in other words, demanded that Pharaoh treat the Israelites as people with spiritual and physical needs, rather than as construction machines useful for the raising of royal cities and monuments.
Pharaoh, as many a tyrant after him, refused to see the Israelites as full people worthy of respect and dignity. The only thing he could see was that they were “shirkers” who didn’t want to do a good day’s work. Pharaoh never dreamed that a rag tag people with a leader who stuttered and claimed to be speaking for an invisible God would ever be a threat to his rule and his country.
We all know how that turned out.
Nonviolent direct action has two goals. The first one, as my friend and teacher, and fellow CLUE-LA board member Jim Conn has said, is to turn the tables on the powerful. When the oppressed stop cooperating in a system of oppression, and start demanding dignity, respect, and just compensation, the system grinds to a halt. The only way to restart it is for the “powerful” to compromise, or accede to the “weak.”
The second goal, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us, is to force unjust power out into the open. Oppressive power likes the comfort and security of secrecy. However when the oppressed refuse to cooperate with their oppression, power (whether state power or corporate power) is forced to admit openly that what fuels the machine is the hidden violence of oppression.
Whether in Egypt; or in Roman era Palestine when the great Rabbi Akiva responded to a decree against the study of Torah by gathering great crowds in the marketplace to study Torah openly; or in the 1937 sit down strike in Woolworth’s in Detroit(which brought the women employees a raise, overtime, and other tangible benefits); or the sit-ins a few decades later in Jackson, Mississippi demanding an end to segregation; the effect of nonviolent direct action is to make the machinery of oppression visible, and then to force it to stop.
When the Walmart workers today staged a sit-in strike, they were continuing this tradition. As the sanitation workers in Selma did, they were saying:
“We are people who deserve dignity and respect. We deserve to be compensated for our labor so that we can support our families and ourselves. We should be allowed to work enough hours that we can put a roof over our heads and food on our tables. We are not merely an expense line. We are people.”
These workers courageously refused to cooperate with their own oppression. In the context of one of the largest corporations on the planet, with an atmosphere of retaliation and the quiet violence of disrespect and poverty wages, these workers said: “We are not going to stand for this anymore. We are going to sit down and stop this machine. We deserve better.”
In a response of support and love, clergy, community leaders, and workers, staged a nonviolent act of civil disobedience in front of Walmart. The point of the public and visible act of being arrested for civil disobedience is to highlight the courage and the struggle of the workers, and also to shine a light on the invisible violence and suffering that Walmart inflicts on its workers in the United States and abroad.
As people of faith, as clergy, we walk with low-wage workers in the knowledge that God revealed Godself at Sinai as the God of liberation, the God who demands that we distinguish between slave labor and wage labor. Though the chains at Walmart are not immediately as apparent as at the sweatshops in China where Walmart manufactures a lot of its products, nor as apparent as in situations of human trafficking, the chains are similarly oppressive. The inability to feed one’s family, to pay for shelter, or take pride in one’s work, or be treated with dignity, all serve to destroy a person’s self image – the image of God in which every person was created.
Aryeh Cohen, Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, is the author most recently of Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism (Academic Studies Press). He blogs at Justice-in-the-City.com.