Thursday, September 9, 2010

Laboring for Justice


By Rev. Gary Kowalski

Americans are more likely barbecuing this Labor Day weekend than singing “Which Side Are You On?” We’ve forgotten the workers who were our own forebears.

My wife’s family, for instance, came from Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. Today it’s an unremarkable crossroads, but a century ago, it saw a titanic contest between labor organizers and the Reading Railroad, which ran the nation’s coal mines. The union wanted an eight hour day and took 100,000 men out on strike. The walk-out finally ended six months later when Teddy Roosevelt established a commission for binding arbitration. In his closing argument to that commission, the railroad CEO testified that “These men don't suffer. Why, hell, half of them don't even speak English.”

Three years after the strike, a government report found thousands of children still picking chunks of coal by hand from the mountains of slag. And this was my wife’s hometown. Her great-grandfather Balliet died of black lung, as did great uncle Ellis. Grandmother Jeanette told stories of her brother Evan, who was so small when he trudged off to the pit that his lunch bucket dragged the ground; he perished in an accident at age 14. So the history of labor in this country is our family history. It’s a story whose repercussions are still felt.

Labor Day started long ago, but the financial panic of 1893 was eerily similar to the current economic meltdown. Then, robber barons accumulated vast fortunes through speculative investments. Waves of bankruptcies ensued as gambles went bad. Banks went belly-up, wiping out the savings of folks who then couldn’t make their mortgage payments. With balance sheets plummeting, companies slashed payroll, leading to revolts like the one in Nanticoke and the Pullman strike of 1894, where federal troops were dispatched to smash the union. Facing re-election that year, President Cleveland declared a “Labor Day,” to mollify the workers whose dreams he’d destroyed. He lost. But it took years, not until FDR, before reforms addressed the boom-bust cycle that left so many in distress.

This brings us to now. Many New Deal regulations have been de-regulated and the gap between rich and poor has never been greater. True, most Americans consider themselves “middle-class,” not working class. But that’s because they’ve gone deeper into debt for that college degree and for homes their actual earnings no longer justify. Forced to borrow beyond their means, many defaulted on loans they couldn’t repay and, as in 1893, banks went bust while ordinary stiffs got evicted and saw nest eggs evaporate. But now as then, Goldman Sachs did all right, disbursing billions in bonuses. Perhaps the biggest difference between 2010 and a century ago is that instead of a Populist or Progressive movement, we have the Tea Party.

I believe in the dignity of labor. I’ve hauled cable and washed dishes; I’ve never felt anything demeaning in hard work. I was taught to be self-sufficient, but I’m well-educated enough to realize I’m not self-made. Whatever advantages I enjoy come from living in a land that other people helped build -- people who deserve a share of the riches they worked to create such as farm workers, child care providers, and nurse’s aides who do jobs that are absolutely necessary and ought to pay a living wage but don’t. They deserve more. We deserve more. And it’s about time we achieve it.

So in regard to that old song, “Which side are you on,” I’m not on the side of trickle down, but on the side of acting up. I’m not on the side of a rising tide lifts all boats, but on the side of a rising demand for justice.
Kowalski is new interim minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the New Mexico Editorial Forum 9/10