Today’s quote, from Mushim Ikeda-Nash, really more of a short essay, comes with a call to action — and is very appropriate given that today is Labor Day.
Mushim is a dharma teacher, diversity consultant, writer, and editor who lives in Oakland, CA. She is a core teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center (also in Oakland). For many years, Mushim wrote a “Family Practice” column in Turning Wheel that was one of the most beloved parts of the magazine. She has a gift for bringing the dharma into the every day details of our lives, whether that is being a parent or being an engaged citizen.
Mushim wrote this piece in 2006 for Interfaith Worker Justice. It’s titled “American Buddhists and Worker Justice: A Call to Action.”
“Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh
In the richest country in the world, more than two million full-time, year round workers live below the poverty line, struggling to pay for necessities such as food, housing, healthcare, transportation, and childcare (U.S. Census Bureau, “Poverty in the United States: 2002”).
The Thich Nhat Hanh quote, above, is a contemporary interpretation of the traditional Buddhist precept, “Do not steal.” It calls upon us to deepen our investigation of what “stealing” is: we may not be robbing banks, or breaking and entering other people’s homes, but are we supporting exploitation of workers through the clothing, shoes, and food we buy? How far are we willing to go out of our usual comfort zones, how deeply are we willing to dig into our pockets, in order to support fair trade goods and worker justice?
How many Buddhist clergy and lay leaders turn up at worker strikes to show their support, in alliance with interfaith efforts? How many teachers giving Dharma talks or Buddhist sermons address the issues of living wage and worker rights? And if we ourselves are Buddhist and are laboring in exploitative workplaces, do we feel we can reach out to Buddhist coalitions for solidarity and support?
Buddhist teachings provide a “big picture view” spanning many generations, acknowledging that systemic greed, hatred, and delusion do not change overnight. When we examine the “ancient twisted karma” of innumerable human choices and actions, we can see that intertwined with the cause of worker justice in the United States is the plight of immigrants and undocumented workers, the “life threatening disease” of racism, and the breakdown of American public education.
We all need the basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. Grinding poverty, for those who are working as hard as they can, leads to constant suffering and fear. As American Buddhists, we need to help ourselves and others realize the means to attain Right Livelihood, or non-harmful ways of making a decent living. Everyone, without exception, wants to live with dignity and safety, in happiness and in peace. When we help others, we help ourselves.
So, what can we do? Reflecting on our own actions, we can appreciate choices we’ve made in the past that support worker justice. When my son was seven years old, the Oakland public school teachers went on an extended strike. We never crossed the picket line, but I hadn’t been prepared to do home schooling, and my own work schedule was disrupted completely. I recall arriving at a local science museum one afternoon and finding a group of similarly desperate parents sitting outside, with screaming kids swarming over a large cement dinosaur. Greeting each other with exhausted nods, we sat together in silence. Convenient? No. Necessary? Yes! We supported the Oakland teachers’ union, and we made it through the strike, one day at a time.
Let’s take a vow today to take a step, small or large, for worker justice. Let’s think of one thing we can do, no matter how seemingly small, to help workers in our neighborhood, our schools, our community, earn a living wage and improve their situations. Working together, we can do it!
May all beings be happy.
May they be joyous and live in safety.
Perhaps the greatest theft is that of the dignity of another. When we downplay the power of economics and education, we embezzle the future of our communities. At the same time, we must be careful that our role and intention in developing self-sufficiency and efficacy is not masked exploitation. When I read about large corporations describing how their overseas factories are “giving to the community,” I am tempted to ask if that giving isn’t unbalanced by the cheap labour. I don’t think it’s possible to be a profit-based industry and still claim largesse. Not unless there are clean wells, schools and hospitals sprouting around the factories.
Thank you for a timely post, Maia.
Thank you for adding your voice to the Labor Day mix. I tend to agree with you, as you wonder if it’s possible for profit-based industries to truly be able to be generous, if their generosity is counteracted by exploitation.
In the meantime, I really appreciate Mushim’s invitation to think of one thing we can do to support the workers in each of our communities. In my own town, Santa Fe, we happen to have a Living Wage Ordinance because in 2001, many people came together to address the problem that, at that time, the average earnings per job in Santa Fe County was 23% below the national average and the cost of living was 18% higher than the national average. Since its implementation in 2003, one study found that the employment rate and the economy has improved. (To be fair, there are other studies that offer a different interpretation of the impact and found some negative consequences.) Santa Fe is still a challenging town to live in for those who make the minimum wage, so I’m considering how I can be more involved in that issue in my own community.
This is so awesome! Mushim is a huge inspiration to me, and I love her committed, militant compassion on display in this essay.
The example she gives, of parent-teacher solidarity, is interesting to me because I often feel frustrated at being unable to organize myself, as a free-wheeling non-profit worker and aspiring writer. Without a base, and lacking an organic link to a labor struggle (like being a parent to a child at a striking school), how can someone get involved with labor organizing beyond the level of consumption? (i.e. only buying “fair trade” etc., which is not only sketchy as a certification system but also gives the pernicious and counterproductive illusion that our primary power as social change agents is as consumers, not producers.)
I’m fortunate enough to have lots of friends locally who are very invested in a class analysis of social change, and highly active in a variety of labor-related struggles, even beyond their own direct workplace experience. Together we organize against budget cuts to education; support the self-activity of rank-and-file city bus drivers by recording and transcribing interviews with them, and distributing flyers and surveys that they design themselves; build labor-community relations around police brutality, inspired by the killing of Oscar Grant; and recently for me, encourage the self-activity of rank-and-file subway station agents.
Unfortunately, it seems to me that unions in most workplaces have been largely absorbed into, and bought out by, bureaucratic management structures. They don’t really represent rank-and-file workers, and often discourage them from striking! This has become the norm around here, a sad departure from the radical origins of the union movement in the U.S.
So a big question for us (freelance labor organizers) right now is how to build worker power that doesn’t rely on corrupted union structures.
Is anyone else encountering this challenging trend?
I’m also really glad that Mushim’s example involved directly supporting a strike and refusing to cross a picket line. Our national culture in general has become frighteningly anti-strike, it seems to me, and very hostile to any sort of worker action that greatly inconveniences non-participants. (Maybe this isn’t true in certain parts of the country?) I saw this a lot with campus organizing in college, where most students were so focused on their own academic achievements that it was mindboggling to think that forty years prior, the majority had gone on strike and shut down Harvard’s activity.
Plus, I’ve become pretty convinced that especially where labor is concerned, direct action in the workplace is a far superior tactic compared to electoral political organizing. The political pendulum swings back and forth, policies become slightly more progressive or conservative, but in my opinion the best power lies in people’s direct access to the means of production.
Also, I’m very interested in the strike as a militant nonviolent tactic that Buddhists in particular might be able to get behind. Peaceful protest (rallies and such) is almost always depressingly ineffective. And yet, many dharma practitioners feel squeamish about violent resistance, or even property destruction. I’m excited to work with dharma communities to identify strong, viable, disciplined nonviolent tactics like strikes that actually stand a chance of (a) winning demands, and (b) correctly identifying the source of working-class power: not in the voting booth, the occupied building or the credit card, but in the places where we work every day to produce commodities, and hence make the economy go.
Anyway, thank you so much for raising this up! Happy labor day.
Your comment is worthy of a blog post of its own! Thank you so much for diving into this koan. I’d love to think this effort through with you in more detail at some point.
A number of years back, Diane Gregorio (then on the board of Buddhist Peace Fellowship) and I used to toss a similar question around… what would dharma-based organizing look like? How can we speak truth to power and do so from a place of non-dualism and love? Of course, we’re not the first to think of this, and Gandhi and MLK did a wonderful job of showing how effective non-violent direct action can be.
My own very modest project is to engage more people in the Buddhist community in these questions and to help move people along the spectrum from being phobic of politics to understanding that we live in a world of power dynamics (not a bad thing) and looking at how we can bring our practice into that situation.
Let’s keep the conversation going…