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The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Labor Day Sunday Sermon

Labor Day Sunday
Sunday, September 2, 2007
Church of St. John the Evangelist, San Francisco
Proper 17, year C
Pentecost 14

Each Sunday nearest Labor Day, I remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, which caused the death of 146 garment workers who either died in the fire or jumped to their deaths. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers in that industry.

The company employed 500 workers, mostly immigrant workers from Italy and the Eastern Europe. Some of the girls were as young as twelve and worked fourteen-hour shifts during a 60-hour to 70-hour workweek, sewing clothes for a wage of $1.50 per week.

Lighting was by open gas lighting, smoking was commonplace and there were no fire extinguishers. Only two exits, a fire escape that collapsed and an elevator that failed to work as women fled the fire. Many jumped out the ninth story, window or down the elevator shaft. Many waited until they died of smoke inhalation.

Many today wonder about the need for unions, which are celebrated on Labor Day. That awful fire and the deaths of those mostly young immigrant women continue the necessity of forcing owners to take care of their employees.

On a personal note, the building was refurbished and donated to New York University where it presently houses the science building. I walked by that building every day for the four years I attended NYU and took classes in that building. Whenever I preach or write on Labor Day Sunday, I remark on the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the continuing need for labor unions in the era of the 24/7 work ethic.

Jesus says, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” “The first will be last and the last, first.”

In recent weeks we have read of six miners lost in a Utah mine disaster. Last year many men died in a mine cave -in in West Virginia. Safety standards are lax in many of these events.

The struggle goes on. In Tarheel, North Carolina the Smithfield Packing Company is a slaughterhouse employing 5,500 largely African American and Latino workers. They process 32,000 hogs a day. The workers suffer excessively high injury rates, provocations by management to stir up racial hostility and are hostile to union organization. The courts have found the company illegally assaulted, arrested, harassed, intimidated, coerced, threatened, fired, suspended, disciplined and spied upon employees engaged in legal efforts to organize a labor union.

Labor Unions fought for medical care, pensions, job security, better pay and safe working conditions in the past and still need to do the same today.

Over the years the congress has passed laws making it very difficult for workers to form unions. A friend of this church who works in labor wrote me that:

“Basically, workers have lost the right to organize unions in this country. Employers routinely fire, threaten, harass and bribe to make sure working people don’t have a voice in working conditions. Statistics say that in 25% or organizing campaigns, an employee is illegally fired. Penalties on employers are so minimal hat they gladly flout the law rather than deal with the consequences of their employees have a say in the workplace.

The labor movement is trying to get passed the employees Free Choice Act which would make it easier to organize.”

Certainly there has been corruption and misuse of power by labor unions. But the need for employees to organize is especial important in this day when medical care and pensions are seldom offered employees, working conditions are ruinous. Take the very idea of 24/7 and tell me this is not harmful to physical and mental health of labor and management.

I suppose you have been waiting for me to preach some Bible stuff. Everything I have already said lays the groundwork for Jesus’ word. God is active in and through the work of unions. God is working in and through the life and work of management. Jesus words give us guidelines.

“The exalted shall be humbled and the humble exalted.”
Contrast this with a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle, “CEO pay = 364 X worker’s salary. CEO’s averaged 10.8 Million dollars a year. The average pay of production workers is 29, 544 a year.

“The exalted shall be humbled and the humble exalted.”
He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away.”
“The first shall be last and the first last.”

Jesus is always on the side of the hungry and oppressed. The Christian churches at their best have always supported the poor and downtrodden. All too often church leaders like Bishops and church executive hob-nob with the rich and are seldom seen in the streets of the Mission, East Oakland and Richmond. We are seen in the best clubs and finest mansions and never in union halls.

Jesus our leader calls us into unity with one another and in caring for the hungry and oppressed.

Our Eucharist calls us into unity with each other here in the church. On this Labor Day we are called to see surely what God is working in and through the halls of Labor. We can see what we can do and are doing to foster humanity in the work place.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good sermon Robert (as usual) Too bad I can't use it here in Panama where Labor Unions are frowned upon and the common worker has no clue about what they are about. When I try to relate the "moral ethics" of Labor Laws here most people scratch their heads and look at me with blank eyes--so I just do a regular homily about the gospel for the day and let it go. Ignorance is NOT bliss as workers here do have some rights presented by the goverment, but not enough to make a significant difference in their lives. My prayers go with you--Many Blessings---Kenny

5:35 AM  

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