Sometimes the best way to study a scripture is to take a field trip.
In Matthew 20 Jesus tells one of those parables that starts out “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” The main players in the parable are a landowner, and laborers who get hired at different points in the day to work in the landowner’s vineyard. At the end of the day each laborer gets paid the same amount, even though they clock in different amounts of hours. The message of the parable is summed up at the end: “So the last will be first and the first will be last.” The kingdom of heaven is like that.
What first catches my attention about this parable is that it involves a whole class of society who are in last place in the workforce. The laborers in this vineyard aren’t full-time employees of this landowner, but day laborers. A typical story of a day laborer would have been that they were former landowners of their ancestral land who had been forced into debt by heavy taxation, a poor growing season, or poor health. As a way of getting out of debt they would have sold their land to wealthy landowners and looked to support themselves by selling one of their few remaining assets – their labor. Many such laborers moved to urban centers to hire themselves out, a day at a time, to whoever needed their work. Day laborers were vulnerable to abuses and had little control over their day to day work situation. For a day laborer, the regular practice was to gather in the morning at the marketplace, the town square, and wait for somebody to come and give them work for the day. If it was harvest or planting season, there was a good chance their work would be needed. If it was in between these seasons, labor was in lower demand and they could wait hours or all day without anyone hiring them.
In the parable, the landowner goes out early in the morning to hire laborers. He meets up with them and agrees to pay them the typical going rate for a day’s work, a denarius, which was enough to feed a large peasant family for a day. There’s nothing extra here for opening a savings account, but the workers have little bargaining power and are satisfied to have the work and the pay for their family to keep their stomachs full. So they head out to the vineyard.
But the landowner isn’t done hiring for the day. He goes out three hours later, now 9:00 and sees others in the marketplace, still unemployed for the day. He tells them also to go out and work for him. This time there is no wage agreed upon. He simply says, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right. Figuring that some pay is better than no pay, these workers head out to join the others.
My field trip was prompted by my sketchy understanding that the practice of day labor still exists today. I didn’t know to what extent, what it was like, who these day laborers are, or what their average day is like. How has it changed and how is it similar to 1st century Palestine? What would it be like to read this parable from the perspective of a day laborer? I did have some foggy memory of there being a group in Cincinnati that advocates on behalf of day laborers and a quick Google search showed that the Day Labor Organizing Project, one of the projects of the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, meets every Wednesday morning at 9:00 at Our Daily Bread in Over the Rhine. So I closed the Bible commentaries and headed down to see what kind of living and breathing commentary might show up at this meeting.
When I arrived and found the meeting room there were two others already there, both volunteers at the Interfaith Workers Center. Over the next 20 minutes five others would come in before the meeting started and during that time I was able to introduce myself and ask questions about their work with day laborers. There were a couple things they mentioned up front. The first was that there is both informal and formal day labor. Informal happens below the radar of the official economy. It can happen in the parking lot of a Lowes or Home Depot with a person hanging around offering their services for installation of whatever a person just bought at the store, or it can happen in a more underground organized way with certain locations being meeting up points for people looking for work, and contractors who need their work for the day. Informal day labor has its own set of issues, especially as it relates to undocumented immigrants, but it’s not the one this group was meeting about. Formal day labor is technically legal, is run out of labor halls throughout the city, and is a lucrative business for the day labor companies who provide a steady stream of workers for different businesses around the region. This is the focus area for this advocacy group.
The other thing they felt it was important to say initially was that it is a misperception that this Day Labor industry is demand driven – companies temporarily looking for more workers with seasonal work or when they have a spike in demand of their product, much like the situation in the parable. The truth is that over the last decade or two day labor has become a regular part of the work force of some companies. In other words, some companies are structured such that they always have a certain amount of their workforce as day laborers.
Here are some other things I learned throughout that meeting. Rather than the vineyard owner/ worker, direct hiring, there is now a third player in this exchange, the day labor companies who run the labor halls. A business looking for laborers can contact the day labor company, request a number of workers, and pay the day labor company. The day labor company in turn hires workers who come to the labor hall, delivers those workers to the work site, and provides the workers their paycheck, often at the end of each day. The system is set up for abuses. Day labor companies may charge businesses say $15 an hour per worker, which saves the business money since they don’t have to provide benefits since the worker is technically not their employee. The day labor company then takes a large cut of that and pays its workers minimum wage. The workers have little to no bargaining power as they can easily be bypassed for the next worker in line. The day labor companies guarantee on-time arrival of their workers to the job site, so riding the company bus is required for the workers. It isn’t uncommon for them to be charged up to $10 for this bus ride, with the money taken out of their pay check at the end of the day. Workers have also been charged for equipment that they use on the site that they need to do their jobs, also coming out of the pay check.
The more I heard the more questions I had and the more dubious modern day day labor seemed. I wasn’t all that pleased to hear that a couple personal pastimes of mine are dependent in part on day labor. Going to Reds games and recycling. Have you ever wondered how the stadium is all clean when you walk in even though you know that after the game the night before it was littered with Peanuts and Cracker Jacks? Part of the answer, about 40% of those cleaning the ball park, is day labor. Or, more accurately, night labor. During every home game at 10pm a bus delivers workers from the Central Parkway labor hall to the stadium. If there is a rain delay or the game goes into extra innings the workers wait to begin, sometimes without access to water or bathrooms. Up until two years ago the workers wouldn’t begin to be paid until the time they started cleaning, meaning by the time they got to the labor hall, waited for the bus, rode the bus, then waited at the stadium, they could put in three to four hours before getting any pay. A recent campaign by the Day Labor Organizing Project secured their guarantee of pay starting at 10pm. The people at the meeting also said that the bus always delivers them to the stadium, but sometimes does not pick them up. When they finish at 2-3 am it’s up to the workers to find their own transportation home.
I appreciate the chance to recycle and its handy to not have to sort out glass from paper from plastic. Put it in the green bin and it magically disappears. But it does have to get sorted at some point, and for that Rumpke recycling hires 25 day laborers every day. They get to wade through the broken glass and not-quite cleaned out cans of beans and all the other items that get placed in the green bins. One of the issues with Rumpke is that because they have a large contract with the city they are required by the city’s living wage ordinance to pay their workers $11 an hour, but continue to hire day laborers who receive minimum wage. This is an ongoing focus for the Day Labor Organizing Project.
So who are these day laborers? Where do they live? How long have they been doing this? How do they survive on such little pay? One of the exciting things I discovered was that these very questions are being explored by a professor at UC named Colleen Mctague who has already surveyed over 500 day laborers in Cincinnati. Because the day labor operation flies so low under the radar, and is scattered in different labor halls around the region, there is little known about it. Professor Mctague has hired two former day laborers and paired them up with UC students and is sending them out in teams to the labor halls to interview day laborers and record their findings in a survey. I called professor Mctague in her office on Wednesday and liked her immediately. I introduced myself and said I am doing a sermon on day labor this Sunday and she said “Get out! I could talk about this for hours. What do you want to know?” One of the more interesting pieces she talked about was what she was learning about the typical day of a day laborer. The typical day laborer would be in line at the labor hall at 3:30-4 in the morning. The hall opens between 4-4:30 and people then get their ticket for their job that day. They wait for the van or bus, which comes between 7 and 8:00 to deliver them to the worksite. After eight hours of work, the van takes them back to the labor hall where they wait for their check for the day. Some labor halls have the money ready. Some can make a person wait an hour or two before they receive the money. Some then offer check cashing services for a fee, or the person can go out and cash it themselves. Some workers don’t get back to their apartment, or their shelter since they can’t afford an apartment, until 8-9pm. Professor Mctague called day laborers “the most powerless people in our society,” and noted that they can’t raise issues or complaints about their work or they get a Do Not Return notice. She also talked about how much her work with this has changed her and her students and how much she’s grown to admire the workers she is getting to know and becoming friends with those working with her on this project. I sensed hopefulness in her, but she also talked about the weight of responsibility that she now has to these workers. To get their stories out and to be an advocate. Look for releases of their findings sometime in the future.
“The kingdom of heaven is like….” Well, it’s like this vineyard owner who has a lot of power and who we might suspect as being a rather shady character. He starts out typically enough, hiring workers early in the morning to work his vineyard. He goes out again and looks for more workers who don’t have work yet. He tells them he will pay them what is right, at which the workers probably nod in agreement, but scoff under their breath that yeah, they’ve heard that one before. And then this vineyard owner keeps going out looking for more workers. After 6:00 and 9:00, he goes out at 12:00, 3:00, 5:00. Who is still around? Who hasn’t found work yet? Come work for me. Come into my vineyard and I’ll pay you what is right. At the end of the day, when the workers are lining up for their pay there are some who have just barely broken a sweat and some who have been out all day. The only ones promised a living wage are the ones who worked the full day. Everyone else is no doubt unsure and uneasy about getting paid whatever this landowner thinks is “right,” maybe regretting that they’d agreed to work without first agreeing on a wage. And then something unexpected happens. Everyone gets a full day’s wage. Even if they didn’t work the full day, even if they were just able to work a couple hours, they get a full days wage. Expecting the landowner to use his power to extract as much as he can out of them for as little expense as possible, instead they find someone who pays the last the same as the first and asks that none be upset by this generosity.
Well, viewed from a strategic business model perspective, this might not be a good way to run a vineyard. Surely word will get out that this owner is a push-over, nobody will show up at the marketplace until late in the day, now expecting to get a full day’s wage for not much work, no work will actually get done, and the vineyard will go to ruin and the vineyard owner will go bankrupt from having no crop and too much overhead with labor costs. Sounds like a pretty lousy way to run a business.
Or maybe there is something more going on here. Maybe we are seeing a picture of a God who is interested in searching the marketplace all day to see that everyone has work to do. Who goes out every morning early, looking for workers. Who’s up? who’s ready? who’s in the marketplace ready to work? Who keeps going out repeatedly during the day. Who’s still here? Who’s willing to work for me? Who goes out even late in the day searching and calling out for anyone who is still available to work in God’s fields. At the end of the day those looking for great rewards for their work might be disappointed. All they get is what they were promised. Their daily bread. Like mannah – not too much, not too little. Not a lot of glory, not much more than what they need to live on for that day. But enough. And everybody gets enough. Everybody who wants to work for this master will find good fulfilling work to do.
And maybe it is a good business strategy after all. Maybe the generosity of this vineyard owner begins to be well-known. People want to buy from him or her because she has just and generous labor practices. Pretty soon demand is outpacing supply and the owner needs to buy more land and hire more people. She builds up loyalty with her workers who now have the security of full-time employment with some benefits on the side. They’re able to not only feed their family for the day, but also able to save up a little money and become part owners in the operation. Soon they’re helping make decisions, gaining new skills, and together improving the quality of the vineyard and the whole community.
There is a lot more about day labor to be learned. There is a lot more about the kingdom of God to be learned. One thing I am sure of is that our work for this generous, surprising, just God leads us in the direction of those for whom work is not just. That God’s overflowing abundance and desire that all have enough somehow flows into our lives in such a way that we become agents of justice in our relationships. And that we allow ourselves to get turned around and spun upside down by a God for whom the first will be last, and the last will be first.