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Franciscan Friday: Solidarity with Workers


Continuing this week’s Walking in Solidarity theme of “Living Solidarity: Work, Family and Citizenship,” Secular Franciscan Susan Burke offers a reflection on what her work has taught her about solidarity.

When I went to work for a union almost 18 years ago, I wasn’t as excited about it as I might have been. It didn’t have the “social justice glamor” of working for, say, the United Farm Workers or the SEIU. This was an airline pilots’ union—weren’t they powerful and well paid enough not to need a union? They sure look fine in those blue and gold uniforms.

Nevertheless, I was grateful to have a good job, and I also discovered that for the first time, I would be joining a union myself —the Union of Air Line Pilots Association Professional and Administrative Employees. And as I learned later, a big reason for my good job was my union’s negotiating efforts over many years.

As a Secular Franciscan, I am conscious of our order’s commitment to “going from Gospel to life and life to the Gospel” in all the venues where we laypeople can be found. One milieu that our rule specifically mentions is the workplace. How could I bring the Gospel to a well-paid, good-benefits job working for people with “well-paid, good-benefits” jobs?

First, I got a reality check:

• Not all pilots are well paid—some start at about $17,000 a year.

• Flying is a naturally dangerous profession that, until the pilots union was formed in 1931, had no protections against owners forcing pilots to fly in thunderstorms, for 16 hours at a time, in planes that weren’t always well maintained.

• Airline companies sometimes make a lot of money that they don’t want to share with the people who do the day-to-day work that brings in the profits.

It’s a matter of justice, I learned, whether the workers are strawberry pickers or people in suits. And then my conscience perked up. I had been disparaging people who had money and benefits and education (not to mention myself), just as some look down on the poor and the marginalized who don’t have those things. In fact, as I should have remembered from that Gospel, categories are beguiling and dangerous and needlessly separate us from each other. Jesus knew better.

“Walking in Solidarity,” the Franciscan Mission Service theme for these Lenten reflections, echoes the watchword of the labor movement: Solidarity! No union can stand without it. The very word “union” demands it.

And so does the Christian journey. Francis of Assisi had his opinion of lepers (not good), until finally he met one on the road and the grace of God urged him to look and see and get down from his horse and kiss that leper. And he was transformed.

I pray that my Lenten journey will lead me to get down off my high horse and stand in solidarity, in union, for justice, with all of God’s people, rich or poor or just right.

 Susan Burke is a Secular Franciscan, a spiritual director, a part-time hospital chaplain, an editor, and a mother and grandmother of one each, as well as a cat owner of two.

Susan Burke is a Secular Franciscan, a per-diem chaplain at a medical center in Virginia, and a spiritual director.