Good morning! Greetings, good people of East Shore! My name is Katie Romich and I bring glad tidings from the Westside of Cleveland, where my husband, Chris, and I are proud members of the West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church.
We were married at First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Antonio, Texas, where, more than 10 years ago, a somewhat younger version of your Reverend Art Severance was my first UU minister. The faith, through Art’s words, had me at “Amen, Shalom, Assalaamu Aliakum, Blessed Be.”
I am a native Ohioan from just down the road in Wayne County. And I have been a union organizer for over a decade, with the Communications Workers of America which is a member of the union of unions: the AFL-CIO.
Today, in observance of Labor Sunday and in the spirit of our faith’s rich tradition of moral discourse and social action, I respectfully offer the following reflection on the principles and purposes of the union movement. And how those principles and purposes, in my view, connect inherently to a vision of the beloved community, the better world we seek to build, of peace, justice, equity and harmony for all people.
By way of a disclaimer and inspired by your church’s motto: while we all do not think alike on the question of labor unions and labor rights, we will walk together, or, at least, sit together, completely attentively, I hope– through this service.
On Labor Sunday, let us consider first the laborer.
Marge Piercy tells us in To Be of Use that “the work of the world is common as mud”. She writes, “The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real” She draws our attention to “the work of the world”. And the workers of the world: those of us who, in Piercy’s poem, “submerge in the task, who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along, who stand in the line and haul in their places, who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire must be put out.”
Her poem exhorts us to think of our work and the work of others and to think of ourselves as workers and to think of workers other than us. Yet do we? And how do we?
When we consider our great Unitarian Universalist principle of the interdependent web of life, we humble and amaze ourselves by attempting to comprehend the staggering contributions of our own and others’ labor to everything we touch, eat, wear, use. Nearly everything we need or possess or borrow or ingest or experience everything from the most basic needs of food, housing, and sanitation to the higher level pursuits of recreation or education, nearly every object or occurrence in our lives, comes from the human labor of others. Our own contributions appear very small, by comparison. And yet there it is: we work and our work makes the lives of others possible. And the work of others makes our lives possible.
Take away every garment in the room that was made, in whatever part, by someone else’s hands and we’d be quite the nudist colony. Take from our breakfast plates this morning our coffee, our bananas, our milk, our eggs, our cereal — all the food that someone else’s hand brought us. Very hungry. Downright cranky. Take from our towns every road laid by the hands of another, like Chillicothe road right out front. Very hard to get to church. And yet: how are these workers that make all things possible, us among them, how are we treated?
The labor movement and, in particular labor unions, are workers’ collective attempt to answer this fundamental social question: how are workers treated? — in the positive. Unity. Respect. Dignity. Solidarity. Justice.
For me, the labor movement is an inherent part of the moral struggle to build our Beloved Community. The Beloved Community is a concept of a better world invoked by Martin Luther King Jr. He understood the importance of labor unions to the struggle for justice. We remember that King was assassinated in Memphis while working in support of the struggle of African American sanitation workers, public workers. Those workers were members of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and they were fighting to win collective bargaining rights — those very rights that are now under attack here in Ohio and in other states.
Speaking at the 1961 AFL-CIO 4th Constitutional Convention, King said, “History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”
Professors Kenneth Smith and Ira Zepp in their article on the subject, describe MLK’s Beloved Community as “a vision of a completely integrated society, a community of love and justice wherein brotherhood would be an actuality in all of social life.” A community of love and justice wherein brotherhood and sisterhood would be an actuality in all of social life. Does this not sound like the aspiration of our own faith?
To me, the Beloved Community is also akin to the society envisioned by the labor movement in its expression of highest ideals. The preamble to the AFL-CIO constitution reads as follows:
“The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations is an expression of the hopes and aspirations of the working people of America.”
“We resolve to fulfill the yearning of the human spirit for liberty, justice and community; to advance individual and associational freedom; to vanquish oppression, privation and cruelty in all their forms; and to join with all persons, of whatever nationality or faith, who cherish the cause of democracy and the call of solidarity, to grace the planet with these achievements.”
It continues: “We dedicate ourselves to improving the lives of working families, bringing fairness and dignity to the workplace and securing social equity in the Nation. We will prevail by building a strong, free and democratic labor movement.”
“With confidence and trust in the inherent power and goodness of our people and in the virtue and promise of unionism, we proclaim this Constitution.”
How could we fail to be inspired by such a vision? And if we in the labor movement fall short in these goals as we sometimes do, do our shortcomings indict our objectives, our vision? Or does the distance between where we are and where we should be further motivate us towards to our cause? To those who wonder if labor unions are irrelevant or no longer necessary: I say take heart! The vision of the labor movement is worth fighting for.
Please consider two arguments for the great and compelling necessity of labor unions.
The first is for democracy. It is one of our greatest principles. Yet how many times have I heard the argument? More than once from my own mother but also from church members “if an employer is good, the workers don’t need a union”. This argument misses important territory, because unions are not solely concerned with fair treatment.
Unions also bring democratic practices to the workplace. Workers elect their leaders, vote on contracts, vote to take actions such as petitions or even, in some cases, strikes. Would we be content as Unitarian Universalists with the assurance that “if the minister is good, the congregants don’t need to have the right to vote?” I think not.
We believe that democracy makes our church stronger. Which is why our seven principles affirm and promote the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. Most of us spend between one and two hours at church each week. And at least 40 hours at work. Should not our principles of democracy extend to the workplace?
Labor unions have fought for democracy in the world beyond the workplace. Unions have historically been at the forefront of fights against fascism and totalitarianism. Which is why tyrants and despots throughout history have suppressed and banned the labor movements in their countries. Benito Mussolini in Italy in 1922, Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1933, Francisco Franco in Spain in 1939, Idi Amin in Uganda in 1973, Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1980. Just as tyrants must destroy unions to help achieve tyranny, a free labor movement can help achieve a free society.
So, I argue that we need unions because we want democracy.
The second argument for the great and compelling necessity of labor unions is that of economic justice. Alan Greenspan, our previous Chairman of the Federal Reserve declared in a speech before Congress in 2006 that economic inequality is “…is not the type of thing which a democratic society” a capitalist democratic society “can really accept without addressing.” That’s right: Alan Greenspan thinks the distribution of wealth in our country is unacceptable.
And it is. In 1915, a time when labor unions were relatively weak in this country, the richest 1% of Americans made 18% of the income. The organization of workers into unions and progressive social policy changed that. Gains were made for working people. By 1973, the wealthiest 1% of Americans made only 8% of income. Yet today, less than 40 years later, the richest 1% of Americans now earn 24% of income. Income is currently more unequal in the US than it is in Nicaragua or Venezuela. In fact, as unbelievable as this will sound, the richest 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined. Over 150 million people. I repeat, 400 individual Americans have more than the total wealth of 150 million Americans. It is not a coincidence that the dramatic increase in economic inequality has exactly paralleled the decline of the percentage of unionized workers. Labor unions are, and have been, the front line of the fight for fair wages for working people as well as social policies which help to more equally distribute wealth. As labor unions disappear, and are destroyed, economic inequality rises.
As King himself said, again before the AFL-CIO in 1965, “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.”
The history of labor unions fighting for economic justice is not only the work of 50 or 80 years ago. Last month, in my union, thousands of Verizon workers struck to stop plans to freeze pensions, eliminate sick and death benefits, and increase health insurance costs, concessions totaling $20,000 per worker. Meanwhile, the company’s own quarterly report shows that Verizon’s profits have nearly doubled over the previous year, with net income near $1.5 billion. And in 2010, the Verizon CEO made $18 million.
I ask you, without unions, how can we stop the putting of profits before people?
No, I believe that we need unions because we want economic justice. Ultimately my two arguments for the great and compelling necessity of labor unions, because we want democracy and economic justice, are two sides of the same coin. For Unitarian Universalists, and, apparently, Alan Greenspan — economic justice is necessary for a democratic society. Likewise democracy is necessary for economic justice.
So here we are, fellow Ohioans. At this very moment, for the first time in memory, we are confronted with an imminent and pressing decision on our state’s public worker union laws. Each voter will have a choice, on Tuesday, November 8th, on Ballot Issue 2, to repeal or enact Senate Bill 5, the controversial law limiting collective bargaining rights for public workers in our state. Limiting union rights for our librarians, ambulance drivers, school cafeteria workers, child abuse investigators, our garbage collectors, university secretaries, community college professors, corrections workers, park rangers, our snowplow drivers. The public servants who educate our children, pave our roads, keep us safe, care for our elderly, and who stand in a line, as Marge Piercy says, when the fire must be put out.
State labor laws have very rarely ever been passed through citizen referendum, here or in any of the 50 states. It is a historic moment for Ohio voters. And given the context of broad attacks on public sector workers and unions nationally, we know the rest of the country will be watching. So this Labor Sunday, here in Kirtland, Ohio, we must not, as people sometimes do on Labor Day, ruminate appreciatively on some remote and dusty chapter in American labor history. Rather we must concern ourselves with the crossroads of this particular moment: labor rights in the present-day, right here in our state.
From this pulpit today, I will not ask you to vote for or against repeal SB 5, though you are right to imagine I am a fierce partisan on this question. Instead I ask you to bring to your own deliberations a wider vision of the labor movement and its purposes and principles.
For me, in this present-day — in this moment in Ohio, this moment in America — we need our unions, to continue the long struggle for democracy and economic justice. And to keep us moving step by step toward that precious Beloved Community for which we strive and for which we yearn.
Though we may not, every one of, us think alike on labor unions, perhaps we can agree — in the words of the AFL-CIO constitution — to resolve to fulfill the yearning of the human spirit for liberty, justice and community; to advance individual and associational freedom; to vanquish oppression, privation and cruelty in all their forms; and to join with all persons, of whatever nationality or faith, who cherish the cause of democracy and the call of solidarity, to grace the planet with these achievements. To …dedicate ourselves to improving the lives of working families, bringing fairness and dignity to the workplace and securing social equity in the Nation.
May it be so.
“As labor is the common burden of our race, so the effort of some to shift their share of the burden onto the shoulders of others is the great durable curse of the race.”
“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.” — Abraham Lincoln
To be of use
by Marge Piercy
The people I love the best jump into work head first without dallying in the shallows and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight. They seem to become natives of that element, the black sleek heads of seals bouncing like half submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience, who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge in the task, who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along, who stand in the line and haul in their places, who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident. Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used. The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.