(Almighty God our heavenly father, you declare your glory and show forth your handiwork in the heavens and in the earth: Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good; for the sake of him who came among us as one who serves, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen)
Labor Day is a special time of giving thanks for the blessings of Almighty God and I appreciate the invitation to make my thanksgiving on behalf of working families today in this magnificent Cathedral Church—it is truly “a house of prayer for all people.”
Dean Baxter, thank you for having me here. Even more, thank you for the work you and the Cathedral staff do every day on behalf of our Washington community and our national community.
You are part of the nation’s fabric and we treasure you for that.
If you are visiting the Cathedral for the first time today, or even if you’re a regular, you may want to take a minute after the service to view the beautiful stained glass windows that celebrate the dignity of work and workers in the middle row of windows in the 2nd bay of the north nave and the 3rd bay of the south nave.
They were gifts of America’s unions to express our thanksgiving for hope and renewed strength at the historic reunification of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955.
The windows are dedicated to the memory of three pioneers of our unions: Samuel Gompers, William Green, and Philip Murray.
They depict biblical and diverse secular scenes of work and they include the seals of the 103 unions that were joined together by the merger of the AFL and the CIO.
Like so many other parts of this structure, those windows are a salute to the heavenly Father crafted by workers who in their work were participating in God’s ongoing act of creation.
Not many of us have the skill or the opportunity to give such magnificent tributes to God and gifts to other people as the artists in stone and glass who built this Cathedral, but
what they’ve created stands as a reminder to us all of the spiritual dimension of all work.
Whether we’re stone masons, school teachers, bakers, bankers or lawyers, our work enables us to share in the work of our Creator. Our work serves our neighbors and our communities and honors the Creator in this way as well.
The dignity of work is a cornerstone of social justice teaching and respect for work and workers is an essential element of a just society. As Pope John Paul II has written: “work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question.”
Today’s New Testament readings admonish us to practice solidarity, not just with those like us, but with all people, especially those experiencing adversity.
At the same time they signal that our own happiness comes from devotion to the Almighty and an understanding that whatever our station in life may be, we are all God’s children.
At the dedication of the Labor Windows, the Rev. Francis B. Sayre, then Dean, reflected this same theme when he wrote: “As long as the Cathedral stands, they will remind us that man, whatever the walk of his life, is made in God’s image. He is meant to be free. He is meant to be humble. He must be respected, for in the daily offering of his working life he is blessed by his Creator.”
I’m here this morning to extend this theme as part of a new tradition of labor leaders and union activists speaking to congregations at Labor Day services, a tradition being nurtured by the AFL-CIO and the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. This year, more than 800 congregations in 140 cities have invited union leaders and workers into their pulpits, and we thank the Interfaith Committee and the entire faith community for opening its arms to us and to our message.
The Episcopal Church, of course, has historically supported the unfettered right of workers to join and form unions in order to better their lives, and the Washington National Cathedral has always had its heart as well as its arms open wide to working families.
The connection between labor and faith is especially real to me—it’s part of who I am.
My parents were Irish immigrants who came to this country seeking a better life.
My mother took work as a domestic, and she spent the rest of her working life keeping other people’s homes as clean as she kept her own. My father was lucky enough to get a job as a New York City bus driver, and that meant he had a union behind him—the powerful Transport Workers Union.
When my sisters and my brother and I were growing up in our little home in the Bronx, three things were central to our lives—our family, our faith and my father’s union.
We knew that without our family there would be no love.
We knew that without our faith, there would be no hope of redemption.
And we knew that without my father’s union, there would be a lot less food on the table.
Thanks to my father’s union, he made a good salary, enough to provide a decent life for his family and to send his children to college. He worked hard for what he got, and he taught us all to think of our work as an expression of our dignity and creativity in the tradition of our Catholic faith.
At the end of every summer, we celebrated with a long, restful and playful Labor Day weekend, not unlike the one all of us are now enjoying.
This Labor Day weekend, we do have cause to celebrate.
Our economy is struggling, but still strong—despite the fact that corporations are laying off workers at three times last year’s rate and we’ve lost over 800,000 manufacturing jobs this year alone.
Consumer spending and new construction are still hardy—my brothers and sisters in the building trades say there are still fewer workers “sitting the bench” than within recent memory.
We are also a nation at peace, and we indeed thank God for that.
Yet even as we celebrate, we have much to contemplate because the just and inclusive nation we’ve worked together to build is in need of repair.
There is a sharply rising belief among workers that neither their employers nor the government can be trusted to protect their workplace rights, that a shift in power from labor to management has taken place.
And just this week, we learned from the census analysis that in our two largest states—California and New York—the poor got poorer and the rich got richer over the last 10 years, while our large middle class made no gain at all.
As our members in the building trades also like to say, “The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining,” and I would suggest we get busy while there’s daylight left.
And when we think of the roof over our heads today, we must think of a home that is now global, because never have the peoples of the world been more connected.
If we were to draw up a list of the repairs we need to make to this home we share, it would be a long one.
We need to shore up Social Security, to rebuild our health care system to provide universal coverage, and to weave some new safety nets for millions of families being left behind in the wake of welfare reform.
But if I were to draw up my personal short list for this Labor Day, at the top would be immigration reform.
We’re a nation of immigrants, yet we daily visit injustice upon new arrivals to our shores—a cruel irony not lost on those of us who share experiences as children of immigrants.
At the AFL-CIO, we believe immigration reform should include a new program of legalization for the millions of hard-working people who make enormous contributions to our communities and our economy.
We believe our entire system of laws should be reviewed in light of those contributions.
As our President meets with the President of Mexico this coming week, I hope you’ll join us in praying for a just immigration agreement between our two countries, and for immigration reform that protects all workers from all countries.
Next on my short list of repairs this Labor Day would be to fix the legal and moral framework that for the past 60 years has allowed and even encouraged millions of workers to lift up their families by joining and forming unions.
In the union movement, we believe the freedom to choose a union is just as important as the freedom to worship as you please and the freedom to speak as you please.
Our constitutional rights of assembly and speech are directly related to the right to join together to petition employers for fair wages, benefits and working conditions.
But unfortunately, the freedom of workers to join or form unions is being abridged in our country on a wholesale basis.
Let me offer just a few examples.
Last October, eight undocumented Mexicans working as housekeepers for Holiday Inn Express in Minneapolis joined their co-workers to form a union and gain a voice at work.
The hotel management retaliated by turning them in to immigration officials.
Four years ago, Marie Sylvain and her co-workers at a nursing home in Florida tried to form a union and she was fired for it.
Even though a judge ruled she was fired illegally, she’s still not back on the job—and she’s the sole provider for four children and an elderly parent in Haiti.
When 500 workers at Certech in New Jersey decided to form a union, the company launched an intimidation campaign against them—shadowing workers, showing anti-union videos, even firing 10 union supporters.
In 1991, the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church courageously took a stand on this most vexing issue, and I quote:
“The Executive Council deplores reprisals taken against workers who exercise their rights to initiate collective bargaining as protected by federal and state statutes; calls upon corporate and business leaders to respect the letter and the spirit of the National Labor Relations Act; supports all working Americans, whether organized into unions or not, in the struggle to restore fairness in the workplace; and calls upon our congregation and local communities to reach out to working people who have been denied their jobs, their respect and their livelihoods, joining with them in their struggles for justice and fair compensation.”
Thanks to this kind of support, not all situations like those I just noted end in tragedy.
The 500 workers at Certech in New Jersey finally got their union because community, political and church leaders took the company to task and publicly forced Certech to honor the workers’ right to have a union.
So when it comes to workers trying to form or join unions, we ask for more than your prayers, we ask for your active participation—as lay leaders, as people of faith, and as good citizens who believe in the rule of law, rather than of men.
Finally, my Labor Day list of repairs would include our new winner-take-all global economy and the institutions charged with regulating it—the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. And the job before is so big and so challenging that I’m going to ask you for more than your prayers and your participation, I’m going to ask for your protest.
We believe the ultimate test of globalization is whether it increases freedom, promotes Democracy and helps lift the poor from poverty ….. whether it empowers the many, and not just the few …. whether its blessings are widely shared ….. whether it works for working families here and in other countries.
Simply put, we believe we can no longer allow multi-national corporations to continue scavenging the world for cheaper and cheaper sources of labor, pitting workers against workers in a cruel contest for more profits.
At the end of this month when the IMF and the World Bank hold their annual joint meeting here in the District of Columbia, we will lift our voices in protest.
Tens of thousands of union members and students will join people of faith, as well as environmental, women’s and civil rights activists in a series of peaceful mass protests.
We ask for your prayers that our voices will be heard, and that demonstrators and public safety officials will join together in a spirit of non-violence, with mutual respect for our city and for our right to assemble and speak the truth to power.
We also invite each and every one of you to join us, because our goal is to put so many people of good will into the streets that people of ill will cannot distort our call for global justice.
Speaking from this very pulpit three days before he was murdered in Memphis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dramatically articulated the challenge we face this month here in Washington when he said:
“No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution.
“The world in which we live is geographically one; the challenge we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.”
On this Labor Day, we ask for your prayers, your participation and your protest.
So we can take up the challenge of worldwide brotherhood and sisterhood.
So we can make the repairs that are needed to this free and glorious home we’ve built together.
So we can extend our guiding principles of human dignity and equality to working families the world over.
And we pray that God’s spirit will guide all those charged with making decisions about our national priorities, so that justice may triumph.
May God bless each and every one of you.