A Sermon by the Rev. Dr. William R. Murry

  River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Aug. 25, 2013


            We Unitarian Universalists have a good record when it comes to certain social justice issues and a poor record on others.  We have been out front on women’s equality and LGBT equality including of course same sex marriage.  That’s good, and I’m very proud of our record on those issues.  

            We have not, however, been strong in the area of workers’ rights and economic justice.  I assume that’s because we have few members who identify with the working class.  We are primarily middle and upper middle class people, well-educated and professional folks rather than working class, and we don’t have much contact with working people except when a plumber or electrician comes to our house to fix a problem.  On the other hand, issues like women’s rights and LGBT rights are middle and professional class issues.  

            Perhaps because I come from a working class family this has long been one of my criticisms of Unitarian Universalists.  We are concerned about equality and social justice, and we can and should extend our concerns beyond our own socio-economic class to include our working class brothers and sisters.  

            In the summer of 1977 I went to General Assembly for the first time.  I had just been admitted into fellowship as a UU minister, and I was interviewing with search committees in order to get a job as a minister.  All of the committees I saw were composed of typical middle and professional class UUs.  That’s my class now too so I felt comfortable.  However, the last committee I interviewed with was different.  They were obviously working class people.  They were dressed more casually, they spoke with less sophistication; they were clearly less educated.  Their church in a close-in Boston suburb, had originally been a Universalist church.  I was reminded of what one wag termed the difference between the Unitarians and the Universalists.  He said. “The Universalists believe God is too good to damn them, and the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned.”

            I did not accept the invitation to go the next step with that church and instead chose the Bloomington, IN, church.  Bloomington is the home of Indiana University, and since I was coming out of the academic world that made sense.  But I was glad to learn that there are working class UUs even though I now know they are a very tiny minority. This sermon is about economic justice and the importance of labor unions.  You may ask what does that have to do with religion and spirituality.  The answer is very simple.  

            Our liberal faith begins with an emphasis on the worth and dignity of every human being.  Unitarian Universalism is different from many religions because it cares more about this world than the next.  It is grounded in the natural rather than the supernatural.  It cares more about how human beings are treated than about the glory of God.  It is a religious perspective that believes that religion is about living well and being socially responsible rather than personal salvation or piety.  

            And -- if you really care about human beings you will care about their material well-being.  You will care about whether they have enough to eat, have decent housing, and educational opportunities for children and young people.  You will care that they have jobs and that they are treated well at their jobs -- with decent pay, safe working conditions, health and retirement benefits.  That’s what love means.  Social justice is the extension of love from the personal to the social level.

            Another way of saying this is to say that Unitarian Universalism is about social justice more than about personal salvation.  It is about “deeds, not creeds.”  

            Let me also put it this way.  The unique contribution of the Judeo-Xn tradition to the religions of the world is its emphasis on ethics -- on doing good, not just being good.  You cannot read the Bible without an acute awareness that God is represented as concerned about the poor and needy, the marginalized and the oppressed.  That concern is central to the tradition out of which both Unitarianism and Universalism have come.  

            “What does the Lord require of you?” asked the prophet Micah.  And he answered: “To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  But notice that doing justice and loving mercy came first even before walking humbly with God.

            And to a nation where cheating and corruption were rampant, a nation where the rich lived lives of luxury and comfort and the poor had nothing, the prophet Amos thundered:  “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  

            And Jesus taught about loving your neighbor as yourself and doing to others what you would like them to do to you.

            And, with regard to spirituality a lot depends on what you mean by spirituality.  That’s a term we throw around a lot, but it means different things to different people.  To me social justice is a spiritual matter because it is an expression of love.  An expression of caring for other human beings.  I agree with a ministerial colleague who said, “I measure the spiritual authenticity of a person and a congregation by the extent to which they care about others.”  

            I hope many of you went to the March on Washington yesterday.  I wanted to go but did not because I don’t have much stamina any more and I was afraid I could not hold up.  I was there 50 years ago.  I came down from New York City where I was living at the time -- 31 years old and not yet married.  I remember it well.  I was thrilled and inspired by the event especially by Martin Luther King’s powerful speech.

            Thinking of Dr. King in the context of Labor Day I was reminded of two things. 

First, the full title of the March on Washington was “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”  Second, when Dr. King was killed, he was in Memphis not for civil rights work but for economic justice.  He was there to support sanitation workers who were seeking better wages.  He spent most of the last years of his life working for justice for working people and poor people.

            Most Labor Day sermons extol the virtue of work.  I agree that work is not just a matter of earning a living although that is its main purpose for many people.  We spend a lot of time at work, and for most of us our work is important not only for making a living but also for expressing who we are. We become someone, we have an identity, when we work.  The importance we assign to a person’s vocation is clear when, shortly after meeting someone for the first time, we usually ask, “And what kind of work do you do?”  The kind of work a person does is part of their identity, who they are.  Who am I?  “I am a teacher; a doctor; I am a lawyer.”  Unfortunately not everyone can find meaning or a sense of identity in their work.  Too many people have to work at menial jobs, but even most of these can be meaningful if seen in terms of their contribution to others.  The clerk in the grocery store is not just tallying up food purchases; she is part of a long chain of people whose work enables others to eat and thus to live.

            The majority of workers take pride in their work.  The feeling of a job well done and of being recognized by the boss as someone who does a good job -- there are important to most people.  Feeling good about our job reinforces our sense of selfworth.

            Our jobs are also a source of meaning and purpose to our lives.   Our work is a way of contributing something to others, whether we work in health care or prepare food or build houses or drive a truck loaded with merchandise -- almost every job contributes something that people need.  

            We also feel better about ourselves when we have a job, for our society tends to hold people who work in higher regard than those who have no job.  Being unemployed often leads a person to feel worthless.  People who lose their jobs through downsizing or because of a recession or because, like those who used to work at Aragon Mill, their jobs were moved overseas, tend to lose not only money but self-esteem as well.  The person who is temporarily unemployed often feels that he or she has lost some of his or her identity, and that can lead to feeling worthless and depressed.  Work is important; having a job means something.  

            That is also why retirement is a problem for some people who feel adrift without the identity and sense of worth a job gives them. 

            Like many of you I have been lucky in that I always loved my work and found it fulfilling.  I feel sorry for those for whom work is simply a job, what they do in order to earn a living.  Many have jobs that are menial and routine and not personally fulfilling.  But Labor Day is not simply about work.  It was started by labor unions in Boston in 1879 and New York City in 1882, but did not become a national holiday until 1894.  So Labor Day is about organized labor, honoring the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.  That makes it all the more important today when the labor movement has been under attack by conservative politicians for many years.  Conservatives claim that union workers get too much money and better benefits than they should with the result that the profits of the corporations they work for are too small.  But today we know that corporations are doing extremely well, and workers are doing poorly.  The conservatives have it backwards. Labor unions have played a huge role in helping to create a more humane society. A century ago the children of the poor worked in factories and coal mines alongside men; the work week was 14 hours a day for six days.  “Weekends” consisted of Sunday.  Unions were instrumental in eliminating child labor through laws adopted over a century ago.  They fought for shorter work days and shorter work weeks -- five days instead of six -- so we can thank unions for weekends.  Over the years they succeeded in getting higher wages, better benefits and more humane working conditions for workers.  Much of what unions fought for had to do with recognizing the worth and dignity of workers.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that labor unions created the middle class in America.  We have a better country today because of labor unions.  

            In the last 30 years or so the number of private sector workers who are not in unions has increased significantly and today only about seven percent of private sector workers are unionized.  Non-union workers tend on average to make lower wages and have fewer benefits.  And, there is a snowball effect on other workers.  That is, when a large percentage of workers are not in unions the wages of everyone else either decline or plateau.

             That is one of the reasons why we have such huge disparities in income and wealth in our country.  

            Public sector workers -- state, local and federal government employees -- have a higher rate of unionization, about 33 percent, and therefore have better wages, working conditions and better retirement programs.  But they are the unions whose collective bargaining rights are being taken away by conservatives in states like Wisconsin.           Workers need the power of unions in order to confront the immense power of corporations, too many of which will exploit working people if they can get by with it.  Only by organizing can workers compete with the power of their bosses.  A stark example of the exploitation of workers today is migrant farm laborers who work long hours at back-breaking jobs with very low pay, terrible living conditions, and no benefits.  Despite over 100 years of laws that prevent child labor for most children, many children of migrant farm workers work in the fields from dawn to dusk, and most of them have little opportunity to go to school for an extended period.  The situation of migrant workers is truly shameful, and we as a nation should change their situation.  It is tragic that many people work hard for low wages and with poor working conditions and few benefits.  In fact, I was shocked to learn that “the United States leads the industrial world in the percentage of its jobs that are low-wage. Fully 25 percent of the workforce makes less than two-thirds of the nation’s median wage.  (H. Meyerson, Wash Post, 8-21-13)   We are all affected by this because the whole economy slows when people don’t have money to buy things. 

            In the last thirty years in the United States the income of working class people has not come even close to keeping up with the income of those at the top of the economic ladder.  The income of the top one percent has increased by 274% while the income of most working people has not even kept up with inflation.  For example, in 2005 those in the top one percent of income received almost $600,000 more annual income than they did in 1979 while the bottom 80 percent received an average of about $8,000 less!  

            Today the average CEO of a large corporation receives 185 times the income of the average worker in that corporation.  Four decades ago it was 40 times.  Moreover, the richest 10% control 2/3 of Americans’ net worth.

            What about the minimum wage?  Doesn’t that help?  Today’s minimum wage is $7.25 which works out to be just $15,080 annually.  Corporation CEOs make more in a few hours than minimum wage workers who care for children, the ill and the elderly make in a year.  The current minimum wage leaves workers 30 percent below the minimum wage peak of $10.38 in 1968 – that’s $21,590 annually – in today’s dollars -- $6,500 l a year less than 1968.

             A few years ago the social critic Barbara Ehrenreich decided to see what it was like to live on low wages.  She worked for a while as a waitress in a restaurant, then as a cleaning woman for a house cleaning company and finally as a Walmart employee.  She rented the cheapest apartment she could, bought only second hand clothes, used only public transportation, and spent as little as possible on groceries.  She worked hard, but could save nothing.  Some of her co-workers had to live in their cars because they could not afford an apartment.

            Americans who work hard should be able to make a living wage.  Working fulltime in a minimum wage job does not pay enough to live on.  A breadwinner for a family of four earning minimum wage would be a full $7,000 below the federal poverty line.         The President has proposed an increase in the minimum wage to $9 an hour and indexed to inflation.  That’s helpful but it’s still over a dollar an hour below what the minimum wage was in l968 -- and it would still leave many full time workers below the poverty level.

            Some say that raising the minimum wage would increase unemployment, but studies have shown that that did not happen in states where the minimum wage has been increased.  

            Unitarian Universalists have been on the right side of history with respect to women’s rights and LGBT rights.  Let us also be on the right side on the issue of workers’ rights to higher wages and better benefits and on the right side of the issue of income fairness.  There is nothing wrong with being middle class as long as we do not limit our love and concern only to our own social class.