Putting "Labor" Back in Labor Day

In 1935, a US government truck pulled up to my grandfather’s house, a two-room sharecropper’s shack in which sixteen people lived. They were starving to death. Not malnutrition. Starvation. The truck brought surplus food, which on that particular visit consisted of a gallon of mustard. My father was eleven years old at the time. He and his sisters and brothers thus became the first generation of children raised on what came to be known as welfare. I come from a long line of poor people. Part of what has come to be known as the incorrigible poor. That first delivery proved to be a harbinger of things to come. These were subsistence farmers. None of them had ever seen mustard. They thought it must be what rich folks eat, so they ate it. It made them incredibly ill, so they decided the government must be out to poison them.

When we tell the story of Nineteenth Century immigration we tend to neglect mentioning that nearly fifty percent of the people who moved to this country left and went back home. Then there’s my family. When they got here they wanted to go back home, but they couldn’t. No money. I’m reminded of discussions about the Katrina victims in New Orleans. “Why didn’t they just go to an ATM and get some money?” Good question! “Why aren’t poor people grateful for their mustard? Goes good with the roast beef!” My forebears should have just gotten themselves a home equity loan and gone back. But somehow they forgot to do that. Many of you in this room may have similar stories, whether you know it or not.

And so three generations after arriving in this nation, the family was starving in a two room shack. My father was one of thirteen children. Of that group, three eventually escaped poverty. How did three escape? My father was able to join a labor union. And two of my aunts married men who were able to join labor unions. The rest of those children died in the poverty they had been born into. I think about the mathematics of my family and I can’t help questioning the line about this being a land of opportunity; it seems—at least for poor people—more like a land of random chance.

Their children, my first cousins—and at one time I had 64 cousins before death started weeding them out—my cousins for the most part remained in the welfare system. I was—three generations later I still am—the only one from that family ever to complete a college degree. Random chance. My father did not try harder or work harder than his brothers and sisters. I haven’t tried harder or worked harder than my cousins. Yet I’m the only one ever to have had a salaried rather than an hourly job. I didn’t try harder or work harder to become an English professor or teaching college classes; they were working two and three jobs. Yet almost all of them will die poorer than they were born. Random chance. Except for unions. That’s a little anecdote about what works and what doesn’t work. It’s a little story about how working people need unions. The most effective anti-poverty program ever in the United States. The rest is handing out mustard.

Why talk about poverty when you can talk about the good old days and the golden age? Some of my first memories are the bitter cold when my father marched on the picket line. Mom and dad got worried sometime in December; they hoped there wouldn’t be a strike that year; usually there was. And dad’s paycheck stopped. There was a strike fund that paid those who walked the picket line. So Dad walked the picket line. And my father made extra money tearing down old fences and old houses that provided firewood to burn in fifty-five gallon drums so that the picketers could stay warm. (I loved tearing down houses as a kid.) Sometimes the strikes lasted weeks; sometimes months. One lasted for two years. This was the 1960s, the Golden Age of American labor unions. And my father was indeed fortunate to have a union job, a job that provided a living wage, some measure of safety in the workplace, a health plan, provision for overtime pay, and a pension plan.

Well, it wasn’t that great. We still had to count potatoes to make sure we could eat all week. But, unlike both of my parents when they were kids, I never went hungry. That was the Golden Age of American labor. Yet sometimes we forget that those unions were mostly Euro-American male institutions. For the most part, those unions addressed one American disease: the oppression of working class Euro-American males. Racism and sexism had to wait. My mother worked in a factory the same years that my father did. A shirt factory. Non-union. All the bosses were men; all the workers women. My mother, too, theoretically, worked eight hours a day, but she worked on a quota system: she had to sew twelve-dozen shirts a day. It was an assembly line. She sewed the collars. Twelve dozen a day. That pace meant no lunch break; no water breaks; and restroom breaks only under the direst of circumstances. The only time those women got to rest—on company pay—was when they sewed their hands into the machines. Something that happened fairly often, given the fatigue of the workers.

My mother got no overtime pay, no health benefits, no pension. My mother lives today in constant pain, barely able to walk, due to the damage to her vertebrae from her job. She gets no disability payment. And the company that perpetrated those crimes has now moved operations to Burma where a military regime can guarantee that no unionizing will take place. And another and another generation of women will end up just like my mom.

Yet, despite the continued oppression, my parents did work in the Golden Age of American labor: two people who grew up in abject poverty were able to own a car and a house. The American Dream. We were able to eat and--unlike my 64 cousins--I was able to work my way through college. I benefited from the Golden Age of American labor. I wish I could say those were the bad old days. Yet what my parents and I accomplished is even harder today. Those were not the good old days. Yet it was as good as it has ever got. The American labor movement—made nominally legal by the Roosevelt government in the 1930s and mostly illegal by the Reagan government in the 1980s—is the best anti-poverty initiative in United States history. Demographically speaking, many Unitarian Universalist baby-boomers are much like me, with working class parents who benefited from rising union-sponsored wages. We got educations. And the jobs our parents spent their lives doing got out-sourced.

Unions work because they go to the root of the poverty problem: instead of handing out gallon jars of mustard they help human beings get paid fairly for a day’s work. That seldom happens today. Between 1979 and 2001 the earnings of the top twenty percent of Americans raised by fifty percent. The earning of the bottom twenty percent did not change at all. Today, the AVERAGE CEO makes more money in three hours than a person making base wage makes all year. Each year for the past decade 20,000 workers have been fired for talking about unionizing.

Ronald Reagan said, “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.” I say, So we declared war on drugs. And drugs. . .won. So we declared war on terrorism. . . Gallons and gallons of mustard. Somebody is making money making mustard.

In the face of the tragic meltdown of the political process here in the United States, in the face of a media utterly unconcerned with issues of justice and equity, the religious voice appears to me to be one of the last holdouts against forces such as neo-liberal hyper-capitalism and globalization. To paraphrase Max Horkheimer, without the ‘totally Other’ in the end materialism triumphs. Without the ‘totally Other’ in the end greed triumphs. Without the ‘totally Other’ in the end the powerful win. Without the ‘totally Other’ the one with the pistol gets the pesos. We have a different message: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.

The anti-religious tone of much Twentieth Century pro-labor rhetoric, based on Marx’s contention that religion is the opiate of the people, designed to keep us enslaved to oppressive social systems, did a great deal of damage to the labor movement in the United States because the Right could use the label of “godless communist” for just about any proposal for social justice. I agree with Joe Hill that the “long haired preacher” was out to keep the working class in their place. Religion has been, and looking and George W. Bush and the Religious Right, still is, complicit in social evil. Fortunately the conditions that largely silenced progressive religious thought have changed, both because the Soviet Union is long gone and China is now a model capitalist state and because some churches have come to a new understanding that decent jobs are not only a civil right but also a moral responsibility of the church. In the 1840s, when the Universalist minister Aiden Ballou became convinced that the message of Jesus was a socialist and pacifist message, he left the Universalist church and become a Unitarian. In 1905, when Father Thomas J. Hagerty helped found the Industrial Workers of the World, he was defrocked by the church. Another Catholic and another member of the Industrial Workers of the World, Dorothy Day, remained Catholic, no matter what the church said about her or what she was doing. The legacy of her Catholic Workers Movement probably helps more distressed human beings every day than any other organization in the world. (Despite repeated attempts, she has been refused sainthood.) We Unitarian Universalists have a different message: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Just as history judges the complicity of churches with racial prejudice, history will judge liberal religions from our time according to our response to the rights of the working poor. Unitarian Universalists were on the side of justice during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. We need to clearly get on the side of justice for the civil rights issue of our time. Martin Luther King preached about a trinity of evil: racial hatred, poverty, and war. Dr. King went a long way in fighting the first of those evils. But today poverty and war are alive and thriving. It’s easy to create and maintain a third world economy. It’s not so easy to create a fair and equitable economy.

I work with a union called Unite Here, a union that represents hotel workers. Allow me to mention some people I have gotten to know:

Steve Jones works at the Chicago Marriot Downtown and the Hotel Monaco.

He works forty hours a week at the Marriot. He works forty hours a week at the Hotel Monaco. He parks the cars. Two jobs; eighty hours a week: He’s poor.

Marcella Reyes has a husband and three kids. She works at The W, one of the fanciest hotels in downtown Chicago. Ms. Reyes has worked there for twelve years. She makes nine dollars and twenty-five cents an hour. She works eight hours a day—just like my mother worked eight hours a day. (Wink. Wink!) On her shift, Ms. Reyes must clean eighteen rooms. No matter how long it takes. And that’s if nobody calls in sick. Ms. Reyes looks to me like she weighs about ninety pounds. She has to lift Sealy Posturpedic King Size Mattresses. By herself. Some day she’s going to be just like my mother: unable to walk. Marcella Reyes is poor.

The most effective anti-poverty program this nation has ever had is labor unions. The rest is passing out mustard. Pay Ms Reyes and Mr. Jones a fair wage and. . . they won’t be poor. And neither will their kids. And maybe those kids can get some education. This is a way to sow the seeds of worth and dignity; this is the way of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Unions are one of the few hopes for poor working people in the United States—and the world. My father’s job was portable. It’s gone. My mother’s job was portable. It’s gone. Corporations are citizens of the world; people live in nation-states. But some jobs are not portable. We have work to do right here at home. Eighty percent of the jobs in North America today are service sector jobs. These are jobs that have never been unionized. But guess what: Steve Jones’s job can’t be moved to Burma. Marcella Reyes’s job can’t be moved to China. Hotels with their fancy mattresses; four star restaurants with their napkins to fold—these can’t be moved. We can fight here for the worth and dignity of every person; we can fight here for justice, equity, and compassion. Thirty-seven million working Americans live in poverty. Poor people stop being poor when they get a fair wage. Inherent worth and dignity. Equity.

Reflect on this: In the United States today the average Euro-American has a net worth of eighty thousand dollars. The average Hispano-American has a net worth of eight thousand dollars. (That’s a whole decimal point less!). The average Afro-American has a net worth of. . .six thousand dollars. We can complete Dr. King’s work on the racial injustice issue by fighting the other two evils he named. Poverty and war are issues of equity. Dorothy Day knew that when she worked with the poor, she was entertaining angels. The Dalai Lama has said, “Dangerous consequences will follow when politicians and rulers forget moral principles. Whether we believe in God or karma, ethics is the foundation of every religion.” And so our politicians have forgotten moral principles; and so dangerous consequences are following; and so the principles of Unitarian Universalism call us to action. Take action. Join UUSC, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and get information about the wage justice initiative. Join UUJEC—Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community—and learn more about what justice and equity can mean in action. Donate to the work of Unite Here. March with striking workers. When you stay in a hotel, ask management if the staff is unionized. And when the minimum wage bill comes back to Congress this fall, insist that a raise in the minimum wage is not tied to a reduction in estate taxes, so that twenty-seven million Americans are not held hostage by the richest 8,000 Americans. We have a message for this nation and this world: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.

So may it be.