Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Review: ALL YOU THAT LABOR – Melissa Snarr [Vol. 4, #21]

Laboring in the Lord’s Vineyard

A Review of

All You That Labor:
Religion and Ethics in the Living Wage Movement
C. Melissa Snarr.
Hardback: NYU Press, 2011.
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Reviewed By Jess O. Hale, Jr.

As you look for a bargain on tomatoes at a large supermarket chain, the labor of a poorly paid farm worker seldom comes to mind nor does that of a hotel maid even if you leave a few dollars on the bed.   If you think about it, you know that those working folk need to make enough to pay rent, child care, health insurance and more—and you know that often they do not and the market is NOT working for those struggling ones among God’s children.  Then seeing video of noisy town hall meetings on health care or demonstrations protesting legislation affecting public employees might make you think that government is so dysfunctional that all citizens can do is go and shout, make a fuss and not accomplish anything.  In such a frustrating environment, a person of faith needs a tale of encouragement that a religiously grounded public witness can participate fruitfully in shaping a city where God’s justice means a person can labor and earn enough to live decently and perhaps even flourish.  In All You That Labor we find just such a tale as Vanderbilt ethics professor and activist Melissa Snarr uses a scholar’s tools to tell the story of the role of religion in the living wage movement in several American cities.  Snarr insightfully tells a story of local activists grounded in religious faith, Christian faith and other faiths, drawing on those resources and actually changing public policy at the local level.

Snarr begins with the story of the living wage campaign in Baltimore and moves to setting the context of the minimum wage in the United States and the developing of a progressive coalition of the organized labor and religion for living wages.  After setting the table, she analyzes the religiously resonant argument and rhetoric used by the living wage movement in terms of the sociological approach of framing.  By establishing an alternative frame, she critiques the pragmatic and microeconomic arguments about the living wage for workers and the economy generally even as she calls on activists to hold out for and utilize theologically rooted arguments that emphasize human interdependence.  Snarr helpfully expresses the limits of neoliberal economics.  Next, she turns to examining the role of ethnic and multiracial organizing for the movement as well as its gendered nature.  Snarr paints a picture of an organizing movement significantly enabled by female activists and ethnic and racial communities.  With a social scientist’s eye, she describes the role of religious and labor activists in building bridges and enhancing political participation among low wage workers and their advocates.  Snarr’s goal as an activist who has worked in living wage campaigns in Atlanta and Nashville is to develop political agency in the communities of faith and workers that care about these campaigns.  She usefully and insightfully describes the “feminization of organizing” and the quite practical challenges facing the women activists who are backbone of these campaigns.  Women activists face a lack of structural supports (think child care) and religious organizations can serve as allies of feminist groups in supporting these women activists.   Snarr also examines the role of religious ritual in shaping, enabling and “strengthening moral commitment and agency within the movement” ( 16).  Significantly she highlights the importance of this use of religious ritual in connection with worshipping communities so that the rituals remain both authentic and vibrant.  Finally, Snarr concludes reflects on what awaits the living wage movement.  Noting that the movement has recently slowed somewhat, she believes that the future is in the movement serving as a gateway to other endeavors furthering worker justice such as raising minimum wages, enforcing anti-wage theft laws, and community benefit agreements.  An important goal of the living wage movement is not so much better wages for many workers as it is that of the larger struggles of a “participatory justice” which seeks to ” build the moral agency of low wage workers and their allies in order to alter the landscape of the political economy” ( 16).

By highlighting the role of religion in the movement Snarr convincingly shows that far from being a conversation stopper or a tribal conversation, instead the religious element in this movement is positive, substantively formative and enabling.  Snarr calls for a moral agency that moves beyond the sterile public reason of a John Rawls, with its inability to use religiously grounded argument, to a vital social movement that uses the symbolic resources of its constituent communities (like scripture and hymns) to form and invigorate social change.

Snarr uses one passage of Christian scripture particularly effectively in her argument: Galatians 2:1-10.  From a context of doctrinal disagreement in early Christianity, she reminds us of an almost primordial Christian commitment to remembering and caring for the poor that ecumenically brings Christians together in a work of loving justice.  However, the commitment represented by the Galatians text can even be summoned to overcome the powerful political wedge issue of abortion.  Women’s groups and their invaluable organizers with pro-choice views in conflict with some Catholic participants sought in varying degrees to be part of the wage movement’s coalition.  Is there an ecumenical tent big enough for all who wish to be part of the movement?  In a creative argument, Snarr recognizes that  Roman Catholic social thought argues for a seamless garment of life that embraces concerns of justice that are far broader than the tragedy of abortion policy.  From there, she balances the Catholic garment of social justice with the Protestant ecumenical argument from Galatians and calls for the coalition’s parties to set aside a significant dogmatic difference in order to “remember the poor”.

By focusing on mainline Christianity in an inter-religious dialogue with Jews, Muslims and others, Snarr unfortunately ignores conservative evangelicals—even in the context of organizing Southern cities.  Were Southern Baptists friends or foes to the movement?— in a city like Nashville with its prominent presence of conservative evangelicals that is a relevant question.  Answering those questions may help Christians and others in distinguishing the faith of Jesus from a religion of the middle class.

The emphasis on local organizing lends itself more to the approach of radical democracy, but the danger of the old interest group model lurks in the background.  Her emphasis on moral argument in terms of interpretive frames provides the potential for fruitful reflection concerning deliberative democracy.  This approach to organizing builds moral agency among workers and their allies and calls for participants to perform an alternative social vision of a good society.  Does not organizing in the music of this movement call for building a consensus that we deliberate and act toward or does it elicit a trickster politics that uses the tools afforded by an unfair political economy to take real steps toward a more just society?  Even if Stanley Hauerwas might find the movement too enamored with democracy, Snarr makes a powerful argument that:  “If a democratic polity based economic justice is a primary goal of progressive religious activists, they need to focus their attention on how religious world views and practices can, and do, cultivate moral action in relation to the political economy.” ( 13).

This book does not address the limits of the local activism enfleshed by the living wage movement when it runs into globalization and the forces of macroeconomic restructuring.  While the living wage movement does have a certain resonance with the localism of the eat-and-shop-local trends, it needs to move from the gateway of wages to other locally grounded community organizing campaigns to a broader politics.  In order to restructure economies to nurture local communities in the face of the multinational behemoths and trends that buffet national, much less municipal, economies, citizens need to recover the moral political agency which Snarr describes through hard community organizing.

I can heartily recommended All You That Labor to scholars and to activists, to publicly concerned pastors and even to policy makers.  Written from the perspective of a Christian ethicist, Snarr’s scholarly competence is apparent but she makes a significant effort to explain and translate concepts from her sociological social movement based analysis so that jargon should not make the book inaccessible to activists and others.  Her activist’s heart comes across and she appropriately draws her valuable labor as a scholar to a close by recalling a rabbi’s call within a living wage campaign that this work is a labor with God in a continuing struggle.  May many find this book to be of some real assistance in bringing about a city, a polity, a polis where, in the image of Isaiah, people labor, flourish and find rest in sitting under trees.


Jess Hale is an attorney in public service who lives in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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