Labor In the Pulpit Sermon
Melissa Baumann
August 24, 2003

Last Sunday, Jerry Hancock joked about how the seminarians always ending preaching the hottest Sunday in August. Well, today looks like it will be a close runner up. But I’d like to start with story that will really set the bar for hot workplaces.

Now, imagine a day as hot as those we have had this past week.
Now imagine what it is like in a factory where they are melting aluminum – and aluminum melts at 1800 degrees. At the Ravenswood Aluminum Company in West Virginia, the room where the molten metal was processed was called the pot room. One particularly hot June, a midnight shift worker Jimmy Rider was told that when he finished his regular shift, he was to report to the pot room to work a second shift.
But even before the end of his regular shift, he reported to the company nurse that he was not feeling well. He asked to be relieved of the extra shift. The request was denied, and Jimmy was sent back to work.
After finishing his regular job, he took his position in the sweltering pot room, but continued to request that his supervisor allow him to go home. His requests were denied. After two hours, Jimmy walked into the employee lunchroom and died of a massive heart attack. He was 38 years old. As he was taken away, the remaining workers were sent back to work.

Later that day, a Mike Schmidt 25 year old working in the pot room collapsed from heat stroke. The company packed his body in ice, in an attempt to cool him. Only after it became apparent that they were not going to be able to do it, did they allow him to go home. Workers tried throughout the summer to get Ravenswood to hire more workers and put an end to forced double shifts. The company responded with a threat to shut down one pot line and lay off workers unless the workers agreed to work 12-hour shifts. Out of fear for their safety, the workers refused the 12-hour shifts and the company shut down the pot line. (The nature of aluminum manufacture is that it cost more to shut the line down than it would have to hire more workers.)

Three more workers were killed at the plant that summer. This was not the summer of 1880, or 1920. It was the summer of 1990. The story of Ravenswood is the story of union solidarity in the face of such horrendous greed that it cost people their lives. The search for economic and workplace justice in response to this type of greed is the fundamental reason that people seek union representation.

Unfortunately, workplace horror stories are becoming more common rather than less. Workers report being timed when they leave their workstations to use the bathroom (often they are penalized if it takes more than 3 minutes), some workers have gone to the extreme of wearing adult diapers to work so they don’t lose their jobs over a bathroom break. Strict work rules mean that employees who are a few minutes late face being fired. Low wage workers are subjected to “honesty tests” as part of the application process. Increasingly workers are finding that the 40 hour workweek is a myth. Refusal to work overtime can cost them their jobs. And often the consolation prize of time-and-half pay for overtime is illegally withheld. Wages and benefits are stagnant or decreasing for the working classes…

Why do things seem so bleak for the working class? Many would like to blame the GLOBAL MARKET, the fact that their jobs are going to people who are willing to work for a pittance under horrendous conditions in other countries. But that is only the symptom. It is a symptom of greed and the desire to make a quick buck now -- with no thought to the future.

Is it really worse now? Is today really any different from the past? Actually, things aren’t so different from the past if you compare today to the late 19th century when VanderBilt said it well: “The public be damned. I’m working for my stockholders.” Consider these statistics. And I ask you to bear with me. It is a long list, but I just couldn’t find any I could cut.

· The top 20% of US income earners earn 50% of the income. The top 5% earn 22%.
· The wealthiest 1% own nearly 50% of the wealth, while the bottom 90% control only 27%.
· The wealthiest 1 % owns 45% of all stock. In 1976, they only owned 20%.
· CEO salaries are now 420 times what the average worker makes. In the 1970s they were only 40 times the average workers’ income.
· In the 1940’s individuals shouldered 43% of the tax burden, in the 1990’s they shouldered 73%, while corporate portion slipped from 33% to 15%
· An average of 16 workers die on the job each day.
· Workers in two-income households are working 14% more hours now than they were in 1989.
· 44 million people do not have health insurance, and more than half of these people are working.
· 25% of all children under the age of 6 go to bed undernourished in the US.
· 90% of all clothing, 80% of all toys, and 95% of all shoes are imported. Many of these are manufactured under sweatshop conditions where workers earn less than $1 a day.
· Walmart’s sales are larger that the economies of more than 100 countries.
· Under NAFTA, Wisconsin has lost more than 19,000 jobs, mostly to Mexico.
· Average wages in Mexico fell more than 10% between 1994 and 1999.
· A sweater that retails at the Gap for 20 dollars, earns only 12 cents for the young woman who sewed it together.
· In union organizing drives, more than half of all employers threaten to move their facility overseas if the union wins.
· Union workers earn an average of 34% more than nonunion workers, but Union membership in the US has declined to less than 10 % of all workers.
The Ravenswood story captures many of these statistics. During the contract dispute that followed the hot summer of 1990, the workers were facing cuts in healthcare and wages, as well as cost-saving measures that were costing lives. Workers were being forced to work extended hours. The ultimate owner of the company was exhiled billionaire Marc Rich (yes, the same one who Bill Clinton pardoned on his way out of office). The full story of Ravenswood is a fascinating tale of how these workers were able to take on this extremely wealthy and powerful man – and win.

They were able to do so, because they were union members. The company had a plan to break the union. They brought in armed security guards, built a fence around the plant, stashed food in the plant so management workers could live in the factory and continue operations after locking out the union workers. Once things were rolling, the company threatened them with their jobs and bussed more than 1000 replacement workers in. But in the face of aggressive anti-worker tactics, the workers stuck together. They took care of each other, and they appealed to union members throughout this country and Europe to assist them.

Only 17 union workers crossed the picket line to return to work during the 20 month standoff. Only 17 of 1700 workers. Talk about solidarity. Stop and think: Could you do it? Rural West Virginia, no other jobs in the area, and the company is taking away yours. Could you stand up for the working conditions of all the workers, even at the risk of losing the only job you had ever held?

This is where the connection between unionism and Christianity is most apparent. Jesus tells us to love one another, to love our neighbors. Last year, when Patrick Hickey was here, he spoke on the text of the Good Samaritan, and the difficult question of “who is our neighbor?” And the First John reading from today talks of how we must show our love through our actions, not just our words. The writer asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

For me, the involvement in my local union, and now in the larger labor movement, has been my calling to act as a Christian. Although I was trained as a chemist, I now serve as one of the national union representatives for 15,000 unionized Forest Service employees. I have gone back to school to learn more about unions, labor law, and employee rights. And what I am learning is humbling… and at times terrifying, as the earlier statistics can testify.

As I look around Wisconsin, I can see how these statistics come to be. As many of you know, workers in Jefferson are in a contract dispute with their new owner, Tyson foods. Workers have been on strike since February. Tyson wants to cut starting pay for workers by $2/hour to a starting wage of $8/hour. That's less than $17,000 a year! That’s less than the poverty level for a family of four. And Tyson isn’t even saying that they have to do it because the factory is not profitable. Tyson’s VP for human resources stated that they “merely want to get its costs in line with other Tyson plants.” At these other facilities, Tyson has been recognized as one of the ten worst corporations for its dismal labor rights and safety issues. The United Food and Commercial Workers have their work cut out for them in this fight for workplace justice.
Employees at Waukesha engine just returned from a 3-month strike related to wages, healthcare, and seniority issues. The strike was precipitated when the company cut all health benefits to retired employees. JUST IMAGINE! I can’t even conceive of a company doing that just out of spite! The company was asking the workers and retirees for concessions despite a 14% profit margin last year. The striking Machinists were forced to return to work with cuts in benefits and two-tier wage system after the company brought in 200 replacement workers.

At Whole Foods on University Avenue, the workers voted to unionize last summer, even though the company president flew to Madison on the eve of the election to pressure workers not to vote union. The workers still do not have a contract, and union supporters have been fired over minor infractions of company rules. When and if these UFCW members ever get a contract, the workers will be protected from such arbitrary actions.
Meanwhile, the workers at Kohl’s food stores are fighting for their right to retain a union, despite harassing and intimidating tactics by the new company owners Copps and Roundys. The workers are facing cuts in wages, reductions in benefits, including vacation time and healthcare, and complete loss of their pension plan.

Workers at Mirro Corporation in Manitowoc are being laid off, as the work that they were doing is moving to a plant in Mexico. The Mexican workers will make only $2 an hour, while the US workers were making an average of $14.50 an hour. Mirro is just the latest cross border casualty. Since the passage of NAFTA, Wisconsin companies have been moving across the border to cheaper labor costs, or losing out to companies who have moved: Advance Transformer, C.R. Bard, Hecht Manufacturing, J.H. Collectibles, In-Sink-Erator, Johnson Controls, Norco Windows, Rockwell Automation, Square D. Corporation, Master Lock, A.O. Smith, Briggs and Stratton, Oshkosh B’Gosh, Kohler, LaCrosse Footwear… it sounds like the reading of the necrology.

And while Wal-Mart is not a Wisconsin company it deserves mention simply because of its sheer size and power. The decision by Wal-Mart to carry a particular product can make or break the company that supplies the product, ultimately determining whether you will be able to buy the product -- anywhere. Wal-Mart “assists” their suppliers in providing lower cost goods. This assistance often includes recommendations that the companies seek cheaper labor – overseas. Wal-Mart itself contracts with nearly 1,000 sweatshops in China.

Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the US. 39 class action lawsuits have been filed against Wal-Mart for its treatment of the workers. These charges include race, gender, and disability discrimination as well as wage and hour law violations. Wal-Mart pays its employees so little that they can not afford to purchase their basic needs at Wal-Mart EVEN WITH THE “ALWAYS LOW PRICES” guarantee. Yet, 5 of the Walton family are among the richest 10 people in the US, with a combined wealth over $90 BILLION.
The scriptures warn sternly against this type of greed. “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals-- they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” “Your gold and silver are covered with rust, and this rust will be evidence against you.”
“Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”

Countering this greed will require good men and women worldwide to make serious, considered choices about how they earn and spend their money. The Christian values of justice and love will need to be displayed in choices that each of us makes – everyday -- in order to raise the standard of living and working conditions at home and worldwide.

Two years before his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King addressed the AFL-CIO convention. In that speech, he describes more eloquently than I ever could the goal of economic equality. He told that gathering of trade unionists: I look forward to the day when all who work for a living will be one, with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians, or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream – a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take the necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality.
As Christians, we have our work cut out for us.

Scripture Readings for August 24, 2003

Amos 2:6-8
6Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals-- 7they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; 8they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.

James 5:1-6
1Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. 2Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. 4Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

1 John 3:13-17
13Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters that the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

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