I did a lot of my growing up in Reagan’s America. He called his Presidency “morning in America,” but in the view from my window, his ascension has often struck me as late afternoon, hastening an early darkness.
As a student through the 70s to 90s, I also learned nothing about the movement which holiday we celebrate this weekend – Labor Day. It was so absent from my experience I have never really been able to “get” that Memorial Day comes near the beginning of summer, and Labor Day the end. When labels come free of context, they are hard to grasp. I wonder now if the exclusion of the history and reality of the Labor Movement was by accident or design; after all, if you raise a generation in ignorance of the power of organizing, they might find themselves, as adults, more easily controlled by the systems of power that emerge in that vacuum.
Just in case any of you also are largely unfamiliar with the history of the Labor Movement – and I hope you are not – I’m going to take about two minutes and paint with a broad, broad brush the history of the labor movement. There will be many exclusions and much generalization, but still, it might help us keep in mind what the labor movement accomplished.
The history of organized labor in the US began shortly after the American Revolution. At that time, skilled tradespeople still completed apprenticeships under a designated “master” worker, and “master” level artisans were the only ones who were supposed to be allowed to teach and were able to command higher wages, etc. Journeyman status was often a largely indentured servant period, but with the influx of skilled labor through immigration, a rapidly changing competitive landscape caused skilled workers to see the need to organize and band together to protect their wages and working conditions. The question quickly arose as to whether this was actually legal: could people work together to ensure benefits to themselves that they might not otherwise obtain as individuals? This went to trial in several places, but the question was settled in Commonwealth Vs. Hunt, which overturned English commonlaw and said that organizing was legal providing it was for legal purposes and used legal means to achieve its goals.
“The early labor movement was, however, inspired by more than the immediate job interest of its craft members. It harbored a conception of the just society, deriving from the Ricardian labor theory of value and from the republican ideals of the American Revolution, which fostered social equality, celebrated honest labor, and relied on an independent, virtuous citizenship. The transforming economic changes of industrial capitalism ran counter to labor’s vision. The result, as early labor leaders saw it, was to raise up “two distinct classes, the rich and the poor.” Beginning with the workingmen’s parties of the 1830s, the advocates of equal rights mounted a series of reform efforts that spanned the nineteenth century.” (http://www.history.com/topics/labor, authors: History.com staff)
The next hundred years of the movement would see a remarkable mix of success and struggle: an end to child labor, the establishment of the weekend, the right to safe workplace conditions, and an era of political influence – more about that in a moment. Areas of struggle included incipient racism and sexism; while the labor movement itself was constructed on egalitarian principles, the inclusion of people of color and of women more generally was highly problematic for most of its history. Having said that, the labor movement, in the form of the American Federation of Labor, was instrumental in working to get civil rights legislation passed.
In most countries, the labor movement has its own candidates and holds political power independently. Not so in the US. This was a question early on in the movement, and labor leaders in our history decided to attempt a non-partisan approach to labor issues. This was not successful, and instead labor has ended up as a lobbying and support arm to one or the other of the two major parties, and has in fact actively worked against third-party candidacies. However, its influence has generally made a huge and positive difference in the working conditions and wages of working people.
But came then Reagan’s morning – and particularly, Aug. 5th, 1981. The air traffic controllers’ strike was on. They were striking for higher wages and better working conditions. Air traffic control work is very critical and issues with tired controllers was becoming a huge problem from a flight risk perspective. Most of you know what happened that morning: Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers. Georgetown University professor of history said this about that moment:
“ Labor was a prominent power in 1981. When the air traffic controllers went out on strike … on August 3, 1981, the labor movement was still seen as a central force in American government and politics. Both parties, Republican and Democrat, saw labor that way.
It was an important moment in American history, though, because Ronald Reagan was in the first months, really, still, of his presidency. He’d been inaugurated in January, 1981. And he was in the middle of rolling out what we call the Reagan revolution. And Reagan wanted to really turn back the clock, you might say, to an approach to American government and politics that was pre-New Deal. And part of that meant reorganizing the relationship between government and the labor movement.
The PATCO strike happened at this important turning point in American history, and it left a very profound legacy, because, as you say, Ronald Reagan first threatened those strikers to return to work within 48 hours of their walkout, and when they did not, he fired them. Not only did he fire them; he permanently replaced them. And with that action, he sent a powerful message that many employers even in the private sector acted upon after that, and it was a period of getting tough with the union movement that a really marked a profoundly important turning point.”
There has been an out and out campaign against labor unions ever since, waged either at the federal level or more commonly, in states through conservative governors and legislatures. “The collapse of labor’s legislative power facilitated the adoption of a set of economic policies highly beneficial to the corporate sector and to the affluent,” wrote analyst Thomas B. Edsall in 1984. And, with collective bargaining in retreat, declining living standards of American wage-earning families set in for the first time since the Great Depression. The union movement became in the 1980s a diminished economic and political force, and, in the Age of Reagan, this made for a less socially just nation.” (History Channel ibid)
Notice I shared this history without even saying the name Scott Walker.
So why, besides the obvious fact that it’s Labor Day weekend, do I share this history? Especially when my sermon is titled, perhaps confusingly, “Commit2Respond?” A few of you may be aware that Commit2Respond is actually the name of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s movement to respond to the issues of climate change. So what on earth do climate change and the history of the labor movement have to do with one another?
Let me confuse the issue more by moving to our shared theology as Unitarian Universalists. Formed in this country in the same fires that fed our Founding Fathers and the Constitution, our faith is one that is based on high levels of individual freedom, but only exists meaningfully within the context of the creation of community. That is to say, you could sit alone at home each Sunday and personal hold the values of Unitarian Universalism, but without joining with other people to create Beloved Community and to transform the world in the direction of our values, that personal belief means very little and accomplishes almost nothing. This is the thrust of the service today. It is a reminder, on Labor Day weekend, in a US strongly feeling the effects of a decimated labor movement, that it is only by working together with shared values toward common goals that we have much influence in this world.
Climate change is real. I hope that I don’t have to tell anyone here that. What I’m lifting up today is that there is a UU movement to work on the issues of climate change. At the same time, our Wyoming UU congregational friends in both Casper and Laramie have great energy in their congregations for the work that we might do as UUs to make a difference on climate issues – and to protect and preserve the incredible natural beauty and resources we have right here in Wyoming. At the very same time, your Board, at its recent retreat, identified becoming powerfully known in Wyoming as leaders on Earth Day – which we have no official citywide celebration of here in Cheyenne – as one of the goals they would like to lead on. They have big dreams to share with the congregation about how we might serve as leaders in this. And as the conversation has emerged, the Foothills congregation in Ft. Collins has offered to bring its amazing Earth Day interactive worship to share with us. Just as “things fall apart,” things also sometimes begin to come together, and now is such a moment: will we grab hold and work together for change, with a shared vision? That is the question before us as a congregation.
You might be wondering where you come into this, or how any of this might help you in the coming week. If you’re wondering that, I have a story for you – one told by the UU minister Rev. Forrester Church. <read “Acting on Sixty Percent Convictions”>
Our lives are full of times when we must decide what we will do, what we personally will risk, whether we will act. This is true for us as individuals, and it is true for us as a congregation and as a religious movement. We are at a time in the life of our congregation where we need to choose what to stand for, what to be known for, and who we will be, going forward. Being a part of the Commit2Respond movement is one choice, one possibility. Being more actively involved in the Black Lives Matter movement is another. Being known for our work on LGBTQ issues is another – there is the important question of a non-discrimination ordinance before us now in Cheyenne, and you can choose to be a part of that effort. (In fact, is Laura here? Ask her how you can help this week)
On Sunday, Oct. 25th, I invite you to plan to stay after church for an hour for a community conversation about the direction we would like to head together – what transformational work we want to do together, work that engages with the world according to our UU Principles. This is a conversation we need to have every couple of years, because we change, and the needs of the world change, and as UUs it has always been our way not to be rigid and unmoving, but to have the flexibility to respond to the needs of the world.
On this Labor Day Sunday, I invite you to join a movement, to Commit2Respond, to act on your 60% convictions and not default to your 40% through inaction. The world is hungry, and waiting. Together, we can make a real difference – we can take hold of the arc of history, and bend it toward justice. May it be so. Amen.