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Montgomery bus boycott

Montgomery bus boycott

Follow the money. For decades, that was the advice given to journalists trying to understand how things worked, and didn’t work, in business and politics. That was in the days before corporate consolidation of the news media. Before Huntley & Brinkley and journalist anchors gave way to Tom Brokaw and pretty-boy celebrity pitchmen.

Before Huntley & Brinkley, union leaders followed the same advice while trying to get decent pay and benefits for their workers. Workers trying to organize and pressure employers to be fair, to pay workers decent wages for decent work, went where the employers had their money. When employers made workers suffer, the workers shut down mines and factories and cost the employers lost production and sales, and negative public exposure. If the workers were going to hurt, they were generous enough to return some of the pain to their employers.

Employers set the police on workers. They paid politicians to sic the army and various states’ National Guards to try to break union actions. They tried to prosper by paying soldiers less to brutalize workers than they would have to pay if they treated workers fairly.

And they came to realize that their costs were not limited to the price of soldiers and the bribes paid to use them. Their efforts reaped a harvest of critical public opinion and increased competition. Henry Ford, no friend of labor, prospered and grew by paying his workers enough to afford the cars they built, while GM plants were idled by sit-in strikes.

The Civil Rights movement learned from unions and adapted the follow-the-money concept. If a lunch counter wouldn’t serve black workers, a sit-in would take the profits out of the segregated business.

The Montgomery bus boycott was carefully designed to strike the segregationist municipal government right in the pocketbook, just as it was carefully designed to shine the light of public attention and ridicule on a system that relied on government-enforced segregation to protect the ‘freedom’ of some people while denying other people their freedom.

Businesses learned from the unions just as the Civil Rights movement had. And businesses learned from the Civil Rights movement. Both the unionizing effort and the Civil Rights movement were organized in churches. Synagogues taught the Commandments of Judaic tradition and Christian churches preached Jesus’ commandments, his Sermon on the Mount and his Beatitudes. Building on long traditions, churches became centers of social education and social activism for social justice.

Prosperity Gospel Hypocrisy

Businesses felt this activism in their pocket books and their public images. They followed the money as it flowed to workers and newly empowered minorities. Money they wanted to spend on Cadillacs and cotillions and continental vacations was being diverted to pay for living wages and for benefits and safer work places. And the business community remembered that it had church traditions of their own.

American Baptists had a long tradition as underdogs. Discrimination against Baptists was one of the things that motivated James Madison to press for religious freedom in the 1st Amendment. Baptist organizations had pressed the government for education spending and rights for women and children. But most Baptists were in the southern states, and many plantation owners were Baptists.

In 1845, plantation owners formed the Southern Baptist Convention, with the express purpose of creating a business-friendly, “Christian” theology supporting slavery and business rights. Their Southern Baptist Convention opposed education, particularly for slaves and other impoverished workers, who would only be ‘corrupted’ by being taught to think for themselves, rather than to merely obey their masters.

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In the 1960s, Jerry Falwell and a few other Southern Baptist huxsters reaped millions in profits by preaching that integration was far worse than education. They opened “segregation academies”, promising white families a protected environment, safe from the integration happening in public schools, with the added promise that they would not teach children to think for themselves, or to learn ‘unnecessary’ and ‘unbiblical’ things that might lead them to be disobedient or question their parents or other adults.

Businessmen saw the profits reaped by Southern Baptist segregation academies and recognized the market and the opportunity. They poured money into the pockets of dynamic preachers and created a new “christianity” spreading a ‘prosperity gospel’ that worshipped profit, capitalism and class distinctions. Creating a class of churches where ‘services’ were more theatrical spectacle than worship, they offered congregants christotainment in place of the hard lessons and organizing found in the churches that had built the union and Civil Rights movements.

Prosperity Gospel Hypocrisy

Jerry Falwell

As christotainment drew congregants away from the more demanding lessons of Jesus, business also moved to co-opt union leaders and activists. As they hired dynamic televangelists to preach their prosperity gospel, they invited union leaders to meet in executive suites, to dress in business attire and to accept those perqs that symbolized success. They convinced union leaders that success meant short-term gains and transient comforts. Strikes were passé. And demonstrations of any sort became banal, or embarrassingly old fashioned.

Business’ televangelists of for-profit “christianity” and non-confrontational unionism sold the business messages to their flocks. And as they gained ever more comfort themselves, they even began to see the ‘old ways’ of hard work, demonstrations, and struggle to obey tough Commandments as dangers to their positions. And they embraced ever more comfort and complacency. Enjoying the benefits became more important than following the money.

But actual workers still need union protection. A report issued on February 4, 2014, by the UCLA Labor Center and the National Employment Law Project reveals that just in California in the years 2008-2011 (the lastest years for which data is available), California issued judgment for $282 MILLION dollars in unpaid wages to the lowest tier, minimum wage workers. The study also found that 26% of California workers receive LESS than minimum wage, for jobs that require minimum wage, and 76% do not receive overtime pay for mandatory overtime work in jobs that require overtime pay. Of that $282 MILLION dollars in judgments, less than $42 million has been collected.

The rest of that money, $240 MILLION dollars, has gone into the pockets of employers, and then on to the churches they worship at, the Mercedes dealers they spend at, and the country clubs to which they drive those Mercedes. Since the economy has been on a recovery path since 2009, the amount stolen from minimum wage workers in later years is certainly much higher.

It’s really swell that unions want to hold marches and make speeches. But what about using some of the old tactics? What about showing up at the churches that these business thieves attend? The money stolen from workers gets dropped into collection plates and well fed ministers preach about how generous and “christian” their flocks are. Why not draw attention to their hypocrisy?

Every business that steals from its workers does so with the help of attorneys and accountants, who get much more than minimum wage for designing ways to steal from minimum wage workers. Why not have protests at the restaurants where these facilitators drink their three-martini lunches, paid for with money stolen from minimum wage workers?

The judgments against these criminals are public records. But no one reads them. What might happen if union workers read them, and shined the light of public attention on the people who help businesses steal? What happened when public attention focused on Montgomery, and Selma, and Mi Lai?

Tom Hall

Unions have gotten away from following the money. And the people who take the money from workers have gotten used to anonymity. Might it be time to start asking the public to pay attention to the specific people who steal from workers, and start asking them why they target the lowest paid workers, who are least able to absorb the theft?

 Tom Hall