The Reshaping of Word

by Richard W. Gillett

Father Gillett, an Episcopal priest, is coordinator for the Church and Society West, a project of the Episcopal Church Publishing Company..

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 5-12, 1983, pp. 10-13. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The Christian Community has paid little attention to work as a religious issue. As technology makes jobs increasingly specialized, work is becoming meaningless, alienating and dehumanizing.

Imperceptibly, but far more rapidly than we might imagine, we are entering a period in American history when the issues of work and organized labor may again become paramount. The historical forces now pushing those issues toward the top of the social agenda -- and therefore toward serious consideration by the churches -- are different from those of the turbulent 1920s and ‘30s, when the masses of working people in the United States were struggling for the basic right to have a union, a decent wage and tolerable working conditions. Then, although sporadically, the churches involved themselves with labor issues. Now the nation, along with the entire industrialized world, is in the midst of profound shifts in the very structure of the work force itself. Such shifts, as well as automation, computerization and the widespread introduction of robots into the manufacturing industry, are increasingly distancing workers from any sense of meaning and satisfaction on the job.

These new developments compel the attention of the American religious community, for they are now affecting millions of workers, their families and their communities in the form of massive plant closures, huge movements of industrial capital overseas and a downshifting of the work force into lower-paying and more menial jobs -- when such jobs can be found. The highest unemployment rate in America in 40 years, although attributable in part to the disastrous policies of Reaganomics, thus points to conditions developing prior to this administration.

It is astonishing that the Christian community has paid so little attention to work as a religious issue. Our seminaries briefly introduce students to the subject through such classic texts as Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and through reviewing medieval and Reformation views of work. But once seminarians become pastors, that one-half of a parishioner’s weekday waking hours which is given to a job is almost totally ignored as a part of the Christian scheme of things. How much does a typical pastor really know, for instance, about his or her parishioner’s work life? What Christian education curriculum seriously examines work and the Christian life in a modern context? Furthermore, the very word "labor" has to many a distinctly pejorative ring, especially in mainline Protestant churches. Such congregations -- perhaps because they are made up of a disproportionate number of parishioners who are in management -- commonly think of labor unions as corrupt and grasping. They may even consider them the chief cause of the economic troubles of management.

Yet "work, as a human issue, is at the very center of the ‘social question,’" asserts the recent papal encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Performing Work) issued by John Paul II. Not only is work central to the fulfillment of the individual, it is central to the shape that society itself ultimately assumes. The economic system is built around the very content, shape and outcome of work. The social relationships that work creates (in modern industrial society it fragments and stratifies them) and the manifold and profound cultural expressions that spring out of work and the workplace are critical to the quality of society itself.

The pope’s encyclical, putting the issue of work in a modern context, states, "We are on the eve of new developments in technological, economic and political conditions . . . which will influence the world of work and production no less than the industrial revolution of the last century." What are these recent developments which draw our attention once again to the world of work and its implications for the well-being of society?

First, a widespread and deep "deindustrialization" of the American economy is under way. Economists Harry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison (of Boston College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respectively) define deindustrialization as "a widespread, systematic disinvestment in the nation’s productive capacity." Bluestone and Harrison believe that the essential problem with the U.S. economy can be traced to the way capital -- in the form of financial resources as well as plants and equipment -- "has been diverted from productive investment in our basic national industries into unproductive speculation, mergers, acquisitions, and foreign investment. Left behind are shuttered factories, displaced workers, and a newly emerging group of ghost towns."

By now it should not be news that plant closures are sweeping the entire country. Bluestone and Harrison estimate that 30 to 50 million jobs have been lost nationwide in the 1970s as a direct result of private disinvestment by American businesses. The firms that have shut down have in many cases moved overseas, or diversified into other product lines, or obtained huge tax write-offs with which to buy other companies or simply invested at high interest instead of improving productive capacity. For example, General Electric shut down a profitable and stable flat iron plant in California and opened iron plants in Singapore, Mexico and Brazil, where labor costs are many times cheaper. U.S. Steel obtained a $900 million tax write-off when it closed 15 steel plants nationwide in 1979; later, instead of investing in a renewed American steelmaking capacity, it bought Marathon Oil for $6.4 billion. General Motors closes auto factories here while investing heavily in Japanese Isuzu cars which it will later import, after having demanded substantial cuts from its American auto workers.

The plant closure devastation sweeps far beyond the traditional auto, steel and rubber industries; it affects such industries as timber, canneries, meat-packing, electronics, airlines, cosmetics and department store chains. It reaches into the deep South, into the Pacific Northwest, and into prosperous California, where an estimated 210,000 jobs have been lost in just two years.

Where are all these jobs and jobless workers going? While traditional heavy industry is declining, the service sector (made up of office workers and computer operators, fast food and restaurant workers, health care workers, bookkeepers, optical workers, and building custodians, among others) is rapidly expanding. Some of the discharged workers find jobs in this sector, usually at much lower pay; others -- about 25 per cent -- simply remain jobless. The rise of jobs in the service sector simply does not offset the decline in the traditional industrial sector; hence the steep rise in unemployment, adding to the negative effects created by Reaganomics.

A second change in the workplace is that in the past ten to 15 years a technological revolution in transportation and communications has made it possible for large multinational corporations both to manage and to produce on a global scale. Huge cargo aircraft can now fly virtually an entire factory halfway across the globe, while decisions as to how fast that new factory assembly line must operate, what its workers should be paid and what profit is to be made are based on data from the corporation’s global computers back in Connecticut or New York. The former president of IBM World Trade Corporation put it succinctly: "The world outside the home country is no longer viewed as a series of disconnected customers . . . but as an extension of a single market."

The result for many multinationals is the decision to move increasing numbers of their plants overseas or to the largely nonunion South, where much cheaper labor assures greater profitability. According to a recent study cited by Maurice Zeitlin, a sociologist at UCLA, in 1960 21 cents out of every new investment dollar went overseas; by 1980 that figure had more than doubled. Thus, many plants, although profitable in the United States, close here and open elsewhere.

A third major development having significance for the world of work is the breathtaking speed at which plants and offices are being automated. "We are witnessing a massive infusion of new technology into industry, a technology based on computers and micro-electronics," says Harley Shaiken, an MIT expert on technology and its impact on society. For example, General Motors has calculated that in a decade 90 per cent of its machine tools will be computerized, says Shaiken. Another company has estimated that robots can economically replace two-thirds of all production painters and one-half of all production welders -- resulting in about 1 million jobs lost. And to illustrate both the international dimension of this revolution in automation and its impact even on the newly growing service sector, a German multinational firm’s study estimated that by 1990, 40 per cent of the jobs in the office could be rationalized and 25 per cent automated. The implications of this development for the loss of jobs, its impact on-workers and communities and the need for massive retraining programs are obvious.

A fourth aspect of the transformation of the nature and shape of work is what has been called the "deskilling" of jobs. Technology and the drive for the rationalization of the production process are resulting in increased -- and increasingly meaningless -- specialization for the worker. Assembly-line workers, limited as the variety of tasks they performed has always been, are now being transformed to resemble even more closely the robots, that work alongside them. An office secretary, formerly possessing a variety of skills (typing, filing, taking dictation, receiving people), now sits at a word processor all day, doing only one thing. The result: work is more and more meaningless, more and more alienating, more and more dehumanizing.

Perhaps the harshest impact of this devastation falls upon black, Hispanic and Asian workers. A recent incomplete data sample from a compilation of plant closures in California showed that the numbers of minority people laid off exceeded whites laid off -- a figure far out of proportion to racial percentages in the general population. Once again minority workers find themselves discarded by a system that had pretended at least to find them a niche in stable and remunerative employment.

Along with the personal tragedy they cause, changes in the realm of work are having an impact on the community. A recent New York Times Magazine article, "Collapse of Our Industrial Heartland," quoted Jim Beckman, head of a Chevrolet dealership in Defiance, Ohio: "You won’t believe the bleakness that has come into our lives," Beckman told a reporter. General Motors expects him to sell 680 new cars and trucks a year; last year he sold 274. "I can’t make any money. Once I run out of cash, I’m down the tube. Sometimes it’s almost more than you can take," he said. In such a community -- and there are hundreds all across the country like it -- grocery stores, small suppliers, health clinics, schools and municipal services are folding up precisely at the moment they are most needed.

What is happening to trade unions during this great shift and what ought to be the attitude of churches toward them? Wrote a labor journalist recently in the Los Angeles Times, "For the first time in decades, many of the country’s largest and strongest unions appear to be in open retreat, creating the impression that union strength has deteriorated badly." The statistics lend credence to this assertion. From a record 35.5 per cent of the work force in 1945, trade union membership has slipped to about 21 per cent today. Among the causes of the slippage are the shift from blue-collar to service industries (the latter more diverse and harder to organize), the moving of jobs overseas and a resurgence of antiunionism, tacitly encouraged, many labor observers feel, by the Reagan administration.

As might be expected, trade unions are not of one mind concerning the causes of, and remedies for, the new threats to labor. But in some parts of the country a grass-roots movement of laid-off workers resisting the plant closures is exerting surprising pressure upon its own leadership, as the recent vote by the rank and file membership of United Auto Workers to defy its own leadership and decisively reject a wage agreement with Chrysler Corporation appears to indicate. Leaders like William Winpisinger of the Machinists, newly elected Richard Trumka of the United Mine Workers and Anthony Mazzocchi of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers also Inspire many rank-and-filers with their "fight back" spirit and their longer-range vision of alternative policies.

Can the unions -- particularly the AFL-CIO -- overcome their frequent tendency to acquiesce in the status quo, to persist in racist and sexist bias and to hang on to narrow nationalist views of the world? The answers are not yet clear. But many of the younger rank-and-file workers seem to have a better and more realistic understanding of what is happening than their leaders do, and a corresponding will to take up the issues. In any case, it is clear that, as every papal encyclical and major Protestant pronouncement in this century on labor has affirmed, trade unions are an essential instrument of justice for working people and an indispensable and positive part of democratic societies. As the joining together of forces in last year’s historic Solidarity Day march indicated, the profound threats to the stability of workers and community now demand that labor, church and community must come together.

The papal encyclical Laborem Exercens has made an excellent beginning at the first task. Biblically centered and sociologically aware, it puts the human person at the center of work. The Genesis story, in which God commands Adam and Eve to exercise dominion over the earth and cultivate it, imparts an ethical nature to work. "The basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person. . . . In the first place work is for the, person and not the person for work," says the encyclical.

It is obvious how far industrial society has moved from that insight and how commonly we accept the reverse proposition. Adds the encyclical, "work constitutes a foundation for the formation of family life." Further, since work is for the enhancement, and enrichment of the person and not the reverse, the encyclical is critical of a capitalism which denies this truth; it upholds the "principle of the priority of labor over capital."

A second recent document, "Affirming Justice," issued this year by the ecumenical Commission on Religion in Appalachia, likewise touches several of these themes and deserves further study and implementation. In addition, non- Roman Catholic churches could greatly benefit by recovering some of their own past history. The Church League for Industrial Democracy, founded in 1919 by Vida Scudder, an Episcopal laywoman and Wellesley College professor; the ecumenical Religion and Labor Foundation, a movement spanning three decades, led by Presbyterian minister Willard Uphaus; the work of the Methodist Federation for Social Action; and the remarkable ministries of Claude and Joyce Williams to black and white workers involved in labor struggles in the South in the 1930s need to be brought to light and affirmed. Also significant was the Industrial Mission movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, pioneered in this country by the Detroit Industrial Mission under Hugh C. White.

In light of both the religious statements on work and of what is happening to us during this economic dislocation of work and the workplace, some critical moral questions begin to emerge. Are capital and community in a new conflict? To what degree is the profit motive, as it is now being pursued, basically inimical to a Christian affirmation of work as meaningful and purposeful for the whole of society? Is the alienation between work and the worker, now felt so broadly in the workplace, something a technological society must simply accept with resignation? How far should workers participate in the decisions of the workplace? And what of the operations of international capitalism with regard to all these questions?

It becomes clear in their asking that these questions pose an unmistakable challenge to the churches to wrestle seriously with the question of the justice of the entire economic system as it is presently evolving. To see the issue of economic dislocation as one affecting only laid-off blue-collar workers, for example, or as only the result of Reaganomics, would be a gross misunderstanding of what is happening.

There are some encouraging signs of the beginnings of a response by the churches. Plant-closure and religion and labor coalitions have been formed, among other places, in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Milwaukee, Chicago and California. In the latter state, after the large Western International Conference on Economic Dislocation last fall, a statewide coalition of eight local groups was formed. Composed chiefly of rank-and-file workers, churches, community groups and academic groups, it has had the political muscle to push a major plant-closure bill to the floor of the California State Assembly, and has generated widespread attention by resisting specific closures. National and regional church funding, as well as labor funding, have also provided major support. Other groups, such as the Tri-State Conference on Steel (coming out of the Youngstown, Ohio, plant-closure struggles), the National Conference on Religion and Labor and the Religion and Labor Project of Theology in the Americas are continuing indications of the churches’ slowly reawakening interest in labor and work. Also encouraging is last summer’s inauguration by the Division of Church and Society of the National Council of Churches of a national networking and support project for those hurt by plant closings and economic dislocations.

These and other emerging groups ought to have the unequivocal support of the churches. Their tasks will vary according to their locations. But they will mainly use a combination of action strategies to stop plant closures and/or to propose community-worker plant buyouts, to push legislation protecting the worker, to propose alternative economic development plans and to hold conferences and publish educational materials. Through forming and supporting such groups, the churches will identify much more closely with the people and communities affected by economic dislocation. Christian congregations must raise their prophetic voices to proclaim the kind of society of which the Lord of Creation has given us a vision.