Powerful People: Improvisational Worship, Improvisational Unionism

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of power people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities.

This post comes from Michael Oswalt, a dear, sacred friend who arrived on the Church of the Pilgrims scene in the early 2000's. He left for several years to get his law + M.T.S. degree at Duke, where he refused to get sucked into the pull and financial incentives of corporate law. After graduating from Duke, Michael returned to D.C. and Pilgrims to work for the SEIU. Michael now commutes daily from the skyscrapers of Chicago to the cornfields of Northern Illinois University to teach labor law at NIU's law school. Here Michael writes about the intersection of improvisation and unionism. 

Improvisational Worship, Improvisational Unionism

Michael M. Oswalt

 First of all, let me say that I’m absolutely delighted to have the chance to explore some thoughts on Ashley’s wonderful God of the Sparrow blog. Having seen first-hand the creativity and intention that she puts into thinking about the structure and possibilities of church life, it is no surprise to see those same gifts reflected here on a weekly basis. And indeed, with the space that I have I’d like to touch on a way that some of the innovative things that happen at Church of the Pilgrims have influenced the thinking that I do in my day job as a labor law teacher outside of Chicago.

nerf ball
nerf ball

Most memorably for me, in 2012 Pilgrims spent a season focused on worship as improvisation. A newcomer walking into an adult education class that year would have been more likely to see a Nerf ball flying across the room or web of bodies miming a fantastical scene than a lecture. A visitor to the service might not have noticed anything particularly out of the ordinary (at least for Pilgrims!), but those who had a hand in planning it out would have felt a fluidity in the order of events that was palpable, a sense that the unexpected was not just to be expected, but somehow the “point.” A famous example of what I mean was an instance where a congregational send-off to a member moving away unexpectedly morphed into a formal laying-on of hands at the urging of someone’s child, who had simply wondered out loud: “Why aren’t we putting our hands on her?”

What made that instance and so many others “improv” was the congregation’s embrace of something called “yes-anding.” Yes-anding is the life-force of improvisation. It is what gives improv its free-form, spontaneous quality, because making a commitment to yes-and means accepting whatever comes along and building on it, no matter how bizarre or seemingly out of place it might at first seem. You want laying of hands? Let’s do it. And somebody get a candle up here too. That’s yes-and.

So how does any of this relate to labor law?  Well, I think that in some ways unions have recently adopted their own commitment to improvisation, only the setting is the workplace, not the church, and the activity is strikes, not worship.

Understanding my point requires recognition that in recent decades unions have essentially abandoned the strike. Because of how judges have limited the right to strike and expanded employers’ rights to defend against them, strikes have generally been viewed by unions as risky propositions with little upside.

A protester holds up a sign at a demonstration outside McDonald's in Times Square in New York
A protester holds up a sign at a demonstration outside McDonald's in Times Square in New York

But things changed in late-2012. That year Walmart workers staged a nationwide strike on Black Friday, and days later fast food workers struck for the first time in New York City. Both happenings were preludes to more and bigger strikes that continue today.

To this point the strikes have generated media attention and some popular momentum to hike the minimum wage, but as Walmart and the major fast food companies like to point out, in absolute terms the number of workers actually walking off the job has been quite small. Moreover, unions ultimately need members to survive, yet the Walmart workers group, Our Walmart, says it’s not interested in unionization, and the fast food workers, who do say they want a union, seem unlikely to reach that goal anytime soon based on how the employment structure of the industry interacts with modern labor law.

So why would unions be excited about these efforts?

For the same reason Church of the Pilgrims scrapped its usual script and did a laying-on of hands to say goodbye—they’re pushing improv. At Walmart and in fast food the decision to strike is the ultimate yes-and. Imagine plugging in orders at a McDonald’s register when a group of activists comes streaming through the door cheering for you to stop what you’re doing, walk outside, and join a chant for “$15 and a Union.”  It’s a scary proposition, no doubt, but for over two years now unions have prompted a good number of McDonald’s workers to accept that invitation. In the moment they have been saying “yes-and.”

Putting resources into this type of improvisational workplace activism is a major departure for American unions. Strikes are usually considered useful only where they impact employers where it hurts—the bottom line. Here unions seem excited to raise up the courage of a select few who opt to strike, even if the vast majority of their colleagues do not. Most labor strategies come with some goal related to getting more members, or at minimum an identifiable end game. Where all of this might lead, however, is unknown and probably unknowable.

But that’s improv. The right number of participants is the number of participants. Wherever the action takes you is okay.  If the era of mass mobilization is over, the era of working with whoever happens to show up has begun. With improvisation, that’s enough.

Will any of this help fix inequality or maybe rebuild the labor movement? Who knows?  But many of the workers involved in the strikes echo the sentiment expressed by Walmart striker Dominic Ware: “It’s amazing, it’s really amazing . . . [I]t just touched me in so many ways that I really haven’t taken it all in . . . It’s just beautiful man. We’re winning. No matter what Walmart says, we’re winning.”[1]

For unions, the hope is that Dominic’s co-workers, and Dominic’s friends, will see his experience not as some brave personal feat but as an invitation to see his activism now and raise it later—because you can bet there’ll be another chance to yes-and right around the corner.

[This post is adapted from a forthcoming article, Improvisational Unionism.]

[1] Josh Eidelson, Historic Walmart Strikes Hit 100 Cities, The Nation, Nov. 23, 2012.


Michael Oswalt-DB-13-web
Michael Oswalt-DB-13-web

Professor Michael M. Oswalt joins the Northern Illinois University law faculty in fall 2013 teaching primarily in the areas of labor and employment. Professor Oswalt’s research focuses on the relationship between law and activism, particularly how legal and other regimes transform the possibilities for engagement in civic and institutional arenas, including the workplace. His work has appeared in the Duke Law Journal, the Minnesota Law Review (with Catherine Fisk)and theJournal of Catholic Legal Studies.

Professor Oswalt graduated from Haverford College and holds a joint degree in law and theology from Duke University’s Law and Divinity Schools. At Duke Law he was a member of the Duke Law Journal and served as Note Editor for the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy. After law school he clerked on the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals for Judge, now Justice, Sonia Sotomayor. Most recently Professor Oswalt was a law fellow for the Service Employees International Union where he provided counsel to a variety of low wage worker organizing campaigns. He is a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and has been active in a number of IAF-affiliated community organizing networks.