Working Class Heroes – 9/1/13


The Origin of Labor Day by Rev. Meredith Garmon

The stock market crash of 1893 brought a depression in which 150 railroads closed and unemployment was massive. George Pullman cut his workers’ wages by 25 percent, but did not reduce rents in the town of Pullman at all.

The next year, 1894, 4,000 Pullman employees went on a wildcat strike:…. Soon 100,000 railroad workers across the country were refusing to handle trains with Pullman cars.

The strike shut down much of the nation’s freight and passenger traffic west of Detroit. Various sympathy strikers prevented transportation of goods by walking off the job, obstructing railroad tracks or threatening and attacking the replacement workers the railroads sought to hire. At its peak, the strike involved 250,000 workers in 27 states.

Pullman called up his friend and fellow railroad director, United States Attorney General Richard Olney. With President Grover Cleveland’s backing, troops were sent to Chicago. The federal government secured a federal court injunction against the union, …The Army moved in to stop the strikers from obstructing the trains. Violence broke out in a number of cities: millions of dollars in damages and 30 people were killed.

The Army broke the strike. …The railroads fired and black-listed all the employees who had supported the strike. As soon as the strike was over and the trains were running, President Cleveland and Congress moved quickly to make conciliation to organized labor.

Six days after the 1894 Pullman strike ended, legislation was pushed through Congress declaring that the first Monday of September was a Federal holiday, Labor Day. So we have Labor Day as a consolation prize after the Feds sent in troops to protect corporate interests and break up a strike. … And they put it in September, instead of giving official recognition to the more widely known International Workers Day on May 1, because they wanted to pull attention away from the more radical labor movements.

(some of the information in the sermon was also obtained from the above source.)

Music: “Joe Hill” as sung by Beth Dion (click)


Ah, yes, Labor Day weekend is here.  It is the last weekend to have a summer fling before the autumn comes.  Fall usually comes fast in Utah, but not this year.  We seem to be experiencing an endless summer of 90-degree weather.  So much for the climate science deniers, I wonder if they have even noticed the lingering heat and the out of control fire season.

Labor day is not just about a late summer holiday or catching the back to school sales.   It is a day to celebrate the working people of this country.

People like Joe Hill should be remembered on Labor Day, particularly here in Utah.

Joe was a union organizer and a songwriter who worked for the Industrial Workers of the World, or the Wobblies as they were known.  In 1914 he was working for the Silver King Mine in Park City.

Joe was arrested for the murder of two men in Salt Lake City.  The trial had many irregularities, but he was convicted and executed anyway by firing squad in November of 1915. It was a national controversy, with labor leaders insisting that the copper bosses framed him.  Mining is still a big deal in Utah.  We know how much power they still have today.  Look at what happened to Tim De Christopher, who went to jail for trying to save our public lands from exploitation.

Hill had said that he “didn’t want to be caught dead in Utah,” so his ashes were sent to labor groups in every other state. Huge funeral demonstrations took place throughout the nation in answer to his admonition; “Don’t mourn, organize!” He was a working class hero.

I have always wondered why we celebrate Labor Day on the first weekend in September rather than of May 1, which is the International Workers Day.

More than 80 countries celebrate it around the world, but not here in the US.

The reading this morning gave us a clue as to why.

George Pullman was not a working class hero.

He was, however, one of us too.

A few weeks ago, I told the story of the Sharps, a Unitarian couple who were true heroes in WWII as they rescued people from Nazi Germany.  Their story is one we are all proud of.  After the service, someone asked me if we had other stories in our history, ones that are not so good.

George Pullman was a lifelong Universalist.

George’s parents had both converted to Universalism, drawn to the “God is Love” message. Both of George’s older brothers became Universalist ministers.

Later in his life, he used some of his railroad money to build a Universalist Church in his hometown of Albion, New York.

History is complicated.  It is never good to gloss over the parts that might make us feel uncomfortable.

There were Unitarian abolitionists and Unitarian slave traders.  The same was true of the Universalists.  Sometimes how you apply your theology to your life depends upon who you are and the position you hold in society.  No wonder Jesus commented on how hard it was for a rich man to enter heaven.  I have wondered this week, at all the self-righteousness about Syria using chemical weapons on civilians.  Have we Americans forgotten that we are the only nation to have dropped an atomic bomb on civilians?

There is a great myth about America being a classless society, that with hard work and effort even the poorest child can aspire to wealth and power.  I am not sure if that was ever really true.  It certainly isn’t true today.

There was a time, however, when things were better.  It was the time when unions were at their strongest.

The percentage of workers belonging to a union in the United States peaked in 1954 at almost 35%. Union membership in the private sector has declined since that year, down to only 12% of the labor force.  Public sector union membership is still at 37%. (Wikipedia)

People used to be proud to be union members, but now unions are blamed for everything that is wrong with the economy.

The same is true of government workers, from employees of the IRS to firefighters and schoolteachers.

When history is forgotten it can repeat itself.  Working people fought hard to win decent wages and living conditions.  People died.  What, tell me, is so wrong with people who work for a living having enough to feed their families and to go on a short vacation every year?  What is wrong with having health care and a retirement plan?  What is wrong with having programs like Social Security and Medicare?  None these things were gifts.  They were worked for and fought for.

Let me shift gears a bit here and talk about class.  We sometimes pretend that America is a classless society, that everyone is middle class.

How many of you would define yourselves as middle class?

Politicians talk about middle class families all the time.  The subject of class warfare has also come up more than once in the last few years.  I think it is time we start having some serious conversations about class in this country.

When I studied sociology in college, a thousand years ago, the term used was socio-economic class and it involved much more that how much money you made.  Your class level depended not only on your income level but also on what kind of job you did.  Was it white color or blue collar?  How much education did you have?

Rarely mentioned, but also very relevant was what was the class of the family you grew up in?  Did you listen to classical music or country?  Did your family have the wealth and connections to give you a head start by providing you with a college education or a loan to start a business?  What kind of school was it, was it Ivy League or a state college?

All of those factors create interesting differences between people and can affect how we feel about ourselves and about each other.  Yes, as Unitarian Universalists we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all, but would Joe Hill have been comfortable in one of our churches? Actually, I think he might have liked belonging to this one.   He certainly would have been pleased with how we supported the Occupy Ogden group.

I think it is time that we start thinking about class in a different way than we have before.  It fits with the idea of Labor Day as a celebration and a time to appreciate those who work.

I think everyone in this room is in fact, working class, at least the way I think it should be defined.

In my book, you are working class if you work for a living, or did so before you retired.  It doesn’t matter what you do or even how much you make.  If your income is the result of your own labor, then you are working class. So who is working class?  And kids, trust me, you will be when you get old enough to work.

By this definition, more than 99% of America is working class.  It might feel kind of weird for some of you to think of yourselves this way.  Some of you are highly educated professionals.  But a professor teaching a class is working and a doctor who sees patients is working.  Ministers work too.

If we all see ourselves as working class, then the divisions are not so important.  I have heard people make a distinction between working with your hands or with your head.  That doesn’t make any sense to me. People who do physical labor need to keep their wits about them because their lives may depend on it.  If a roofer isn’t careful, he can be killed in a fall.

I had an interesting experience when I went, almost 8 years ago now, on a service project to Biloxi, Mississippi to help with Katrina recovery.  Someone gave me a crowbar to pull nails from some boards we wanted to use on a deck we were replacing.  It worked great for a while until my face got in the way.  Stupid.  There was no permanent damage, but it was a life lesson.  Physical labor requires using your head to think – not as a target for a crowbar.

Dangerous jobs should in fact pay better than safer ones and all jobs should pay a living wage.  But that is not the way it has been going.  Wealth is becoming ever more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

There has been quite a bit of analysis done in the last couple of years on the Walton family, the owners of Walmart.  Six members of the Walton family have together a total of $102.7 billion of accumulated wealth.  (Billion not million.)  In 2007 that amount was only (it is hard to say only with that number!) 89.5 billion.  This was an increase of 22%.  At the same time median wealth for all families fell by 38.8%.  In 2010, their share of the nation’s wealth was equal to the bottom 40% of all families.  Six individual have what 49 million families have.


Those numbers make the differences between people making $12,000 per year and even half a million dollars per year, actually paltry by comparison.

The Wal-Mart family is not working class.  No one can accumulate that amount of money simply by working for a salary or a wage. In the meantime, the wages they pay their employees are low enough that most of them qualify for food stamps.

The Occupy movement was an awakening to what was happening with power and wealth America.  The strike this week by fast food workers is a more recent response.

As people of faith, I think we need to support those efforts and to encourage a rebirth of the labor movement.

Our responsive reading this morning was from Leviticus, which may have surprised some of you.  Given how much that part of the Bible is quoted to justify discrimination, you’d think more attention would be paid to lines like these:

“You shall not strip your vineyard bare, nor gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.” (note it doesn’t say “documented immigrant” here, just alien.)

“You shall not defraud or rob and you should not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until the morning.”

It is way past morning.  It is time for all workers to receive their just pay.  We are all working class.  We can all be heroes.  Let’s get to work to make it so!


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4 responses to “Working Class Heroes – 9/1/13”

  1. Tom Schade says :

    Hurray and Huzzah !

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