BY EMANI POLLARD
I entered the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) as a freshman five years ago unsure of what to expect. I learned about the history of labor movements, workers’ rights, compensation, negotiations, and so many more things. Reflecting on my time at the ILR school, the concept of collective bargaining illuminated for me what I believe is one of the most important ideas impressed upon me in college: our shared humanity.
In Fall 2014, I, like many ILR-ies before me, was asked to go to school early on a Saturday morning to negotiate a teachers’ union contract. For this assignment, we had been given materials from actual union negotiations and split into teams. That Saturday we had eight hours to reach an agreement or arbitrate, doing our final contract negotiations in front of the entire class. The details of the contract we agreed upon in the end are not important, but I will never forget the tension in the room during negotiations. I was negotiating on behalf of a pretend teachers’ union and my classmates on behalf of a pretend school board, but there was such real hostility between the people in the room. Both sides automatically assumed the other had purely selfish intentions.
We finally did reach an agreement—six or seven hours in, if I remember correctly. We tried our best. Some people were losing their jobs, others were getting raises. My heart was heavy because despite the fact that none of these people existed, in that room we made decisions for them about their livelihoods, and the entire process was hostile. An entire group of pretend people got a mediocre agreement precisely because we, the negotiators, chose to believe that the interests of labor and capital are at odds. We chose to blind ourselves to the humanity of those across the table from us and the (albeit theoretical) humanity of those on whose behalf we were negotiating.
I suppose we learned at least part of what our professor hoped we would: that collective bargaining can easily descend into an ugly power struggle where real people are forgotten. In many ways it seems logical that labor and capital interests might be at odds—but perhaps it only seems logical because it’s what we know.
For all the times I prayed, “Lord, let me see people with your eyes and your love,” I never expected it to be answered with pretend people. When God created the world, he said, “Let us make man in our image,” and in doing so he breathed life into a creative, beautiful people, all made in his likeness, to reflect and reveal who he is.1 All people are important because God made them. And so, my heart hurt for the pretend teachers who would be pretend laid off; and my heart hurts more for real teachers in mediocre bargaining situations. My heart hurts for the families of garment workers in Bangladesh who lost their loved ones at Rana Plaza where a known to be unsafe building full of workers collapsed, killing over 1,000 people. My heart hurts for real people who suffer because we choose not to see their humanity. We don’t see them in the image of God, and accordingly, we believe narratives like labor and capital have to be at odds, and we treat people as less than human.
We need to do better. Jesus is calling us to do better. He sees his people that he created suffering at the hands of people he also created and also loves so much. When will we choose to see our shared humanity? When will we choose each other over money, power, and status? Jesus sums up the greatest commandment as this: love God and love your neighbor.2 So, I’ll ask you, who is your neighbor? And did you realize you had so many?
1 Genesis 1:26 (ESV)
2 Mark 12:30-31 (ESV)