Come Labor On...

It's Labor Day weekend, a day not particularly known for much in the way of support of labor, trade unions and the like. Labor Day, US style, is mostly a day off, making for a long weekend.

Working folk on hourly pay, doing the hard at the bottom of the pay scale sorts of jobs, will have to keep at it 24/7 to get by. The minimum wage is miserly, the employers unwilling to provide benefits so often full time employment in one place is out. And on and on. Labor Day weekend is time off for the regular ol' fashion middle class.

In all the rant and rave about this election cycle in the US one of the most disturbing bits is that there is very little about the long term poor. Most economic issues seem to be about the people on the margin between poverty and marginal middle class - the one pay check away from collapse.

What about those who already live in poverty. Oh yes, we are told they are "covered" by the programs for the poor. Not likely. They are covered, if at all, until they reach the upward edge of welfare and then the system crumbles. Or at the other end, they are off the radar. For many the margin becomes the job under the table that doesn't get taxed or reported or the work outside the system by a family member that is undocumented, under aged or willing to skate the edge between legal and illegal activities.

A Labor Day that takes seriously labor - work - is a day when we ought to lift up the organizing that is needed to break the back of poverty. But we will mostly lay low this labor day and the politicians will mostly talk about the plight of the middle class.

I was proud that Senator Joe Biden of Delaware (my home state) at least talked about how the working poor call themselves middle class as part of the aspiration of a name. His family was a family of the working poor, who pointed to themselves as, God willing, emerging middle class. But many in the middle class are so marginal to the stability that we think pertains to middle class life and values that we might well revisit whether or not campaigns based on a good deal for the middle class really applies to them. Where is the fair deal for the poor? Or the good deal for those on the line?

When the working poor identify with the middle class the need for organizing for change becomes regular politics - backing candidates who will find some way to include them into stability. So there are political rallies for candidates.

Organizing for strikes for better pay, or demonstrating for Jobs and Freedom, or workers rights to participation in the use of some of the profits of the companies for which they have worked, demonstrating for safety on the job, protesting the conditions that make soup kitchens necessary but don't seem to make changes for the bottom poor necessary, and other workers concerns, all, all, get put aside when the values are about making adjustments rather than forcing change.

There are lots of things being forced on us, and change will indeed be coming. However, unless there is fundamental change in the way people at the bottom of the economic pile are included and the people at the top of the money pile are compelled to engaged the society, there will be only campaign slogans and adjustments in the tax laws, all in service to the middle class.

Of course political candidates are up for expanding the middle class (or at least I think they are). But where are the candidates who are up for standing with the miserably poor? The people who have moved beyond the marker of next weeks paycheck and paying a mortgage and dealing with gas for the car? Where are the candidates who will stand with the poor who are beyond the reach of the promise of being part of the working poor much less the middle class?

We need to keep a watch out: who visits the Vets in hospital and at home? Who talks to hustlers on the streets of New York and Chicago and St. Louis? Who is standing beside the bed of a patient with Aids? More, who among the candidates is going to talk about Labor as a day to remember the labor done on our behalf by the poorest of us in the meanest of circumstances and demand better for them?

Of course candidates are after the middle class vote. It is a wonderfully strange thing - like Americans and their love affair with religion, Americans have a love affair with the middle class. A large majority of people claim to believe in God and a large majority of people believe they are middle class. Lots of votes there.

Still I get the sense that God has a preference for the poor - I mean the poor beyond reach of the niceties of a car and a house and college for the kids - and I also believe God has an interest in the rich and powerful, for whom the issues of the emerging middle class are as foreign as those of a third world country. God will stand with the poor and challenge the rich and powerful. (Mary said that.)

So on this Labor Day weekend, being solidly middle class and quasi-retired anyway, I will be looking for any hint that Labor Day has anything to do with labor. I will be watching our candidates closely. I will also be looking at our Church and its life and role in all this. Will the churches call on the candidates to stand with and speak out for the poor, the poor in fact and spirit, whose agendas are more meager and perhaps closer to the bone than most of what is spoken of in the campaign rhetoric.

Saying all this, I want also to say that I am proud to be a supporter of Senator Barack Obama for President. However far away from the poorest of the poor he is, he is in my mind closer by far than any candidate we have seen in a long time.

This blog is mostly about Anglican and Episcopal concerns. So this will probably be my only statement about the political campaign. But here it is.

Remember the poor and don't change the subject by talking about the endangered middle class. While we are at it remember their labor and give it the dignity of a meaningful fair wage, which will lift many of the poor and the endangered together. And even then the work will not be done and the change not complete.

After all, this thing about Labor and the poor is finally about finding a little Justice and Mercy together. Right?


  1. Mark,
    I work with families that are, what I consider the working poor. Last hired and first fired. They work two or sometimes three jobs to make ends meet -- that is quite a feat in California. Many of them, in recent years have lost their homes to foreclosure and muddle on for thier families. These folks have no health insurance and no real protection for their income. They find the time to contribute both time and moeny to those who are worse off than they are. These families would give you the shirt off their back if you needed it because they know how it feels to be in this predicament. They are the most joyous of people and the least regarded by our politicians. BTW, they have lost more to this administration than most. I am hopeful that President Obama will make them secure.

  2. Amen, Brother.

    Those of us who grew up poor, on welfare, food stamps or other social assistance programs, who were able to go to college or other preparation programs due to government largess that no longer exists, thanks you for saying what you've said.

    Had I been born later than I was, if I had tried to attend college under the Current Occupant, I would be a nurse's aide versus a master's prepared nurse. I pay much more in taxes (gladly) than I would have otherwise. I've paid back much more in taxes than was spent to send me to college.

    And you can bet I will vote Obama. He is one of us, who were born poor but worked their way up. The Republicans come across much more as the Pharisees than I bet they would like.

  3. Bob of Fremont30/8/08 8:12 PM

    Actually, I'm thinking that a mother of five, a self-described hockey mom, married to a blue collar union worker is a lot closer to my middle class status than a multi-millionaire who has never really held a 9-5 job.
    I immediately am at odds with those who describe themselves as champions of the middle class and yet have enjoyed all the priveleges that only the uber-wealthy can enjoy. Ivy league education, access to all the best clubs and a 7-figure bank account.
    Sorry, I must disagree with your conclusion, I'll take a mother of five any day. That's living close to my status.

    Bob of Fremont

  4. I do not like Obama, or his more zealous followers. I'll probably hold my nose and vote for him in November, but stuff like the creepy Dear Leader / Big Brother posters, like the one you've got on this post, Mark, are not making it any easier. His cult of personality really worries me.

  5. The Episcopal church is a church for the poor, not of them.
    If you want to 'celebrate diversity', find the closes Hispanic Pentecostal or AME church and become a member.
    Feel guilty about being 2% of the population and 17% of the US Senate? Encourage your members to resign and have poorer people take their places.
    Feel bad about sending your kids to expensive schools? Tell the 'Headmasters' that you're not giving them a dime until they reflect the local population demographically or have at least 20% full scholarship kids.
    If you want a republic, stop hoping for any president, Obama or McCain to "make them secure". If you're waiting for a good King/Caesar/master, you've already said goodbye to democracy.

  6. The only candidate in this election cycle who spent any significant time talking about the poor - working or otherwise - was John Edwards. Like many others, his childhood was spent in one of those working poor families who called themselves middle class.

    At the risk of seeming "imperialist," might I refer my American friends to this little video that explains with much humour why the system is the way it is. You may recognize the nice young man introducing the video. I knew his grandfather.


  7. That's right, Bob: it's only elitist if Democrats work themselves up from nothing, to become multi-millionaires! Now, gotta go find a beer-heiress to marry... [Make that "beer-heir", in your world, Bob]


    Lord have mercy!

    God bless and protect the poor, make us evermore mindful of their needs. And God, bless unemployed/uninsured me, and create open hearts&minds, who will employ me? May TODAY'S job application be "the one"? Amen!

  8. Well said, Bob,

    We're hard-working poor, and we relate to hard working poor. We've got union insurance, but who knows how long that will last? We're about freaking tired of hearing about how hard Barack had it... What if you're not smart enough, not black enough, not disenfanchised enough. My kids' college plan is.. Army, Navy, AF, or Marines, die or don't get an education. The Democrats don't fuctionally have anything more to offer than the Republicans, they just have a message to change... which I'm willing to vote for, but nothing will really help my family..

  9. Fred Preuss...you have become a regular visitor here and comment often. Thanks.

    It might be helpful not to make too many assumptions. My posting was not about celebrating diversity, although that is a fine goal, but about paying attention to what candidates say and do about the poorest of the poor.

    As to the comment about AME church attendance, every once and a while I am free on Sunday Mornings and indeed do go to an AME church nearby.

    I don't feel guilty about the number of Episcopalians in the Senate, although your 2% number for Episcopalians is out of whack.

    Your last statement, re republic, you are quite right.

  10. As a seminarian it was impressed upon us that the US is a class-riddled society despite its claims of equality. About 4 years ago, I went on a brief trip to see relatives in Scotland whose lifestyle was very much like what we in the States called middle class and I mentioned it to them. They shocked me by saying that they'd never considered themselves anything other than working class. It was at that point that I realized that, despite my education, I was little more than educated working class. This was drummed into me that same year when I was "down-sized" out of a good paying job, working for lawyers.

    We may thank the neo-con movement for pushing middle-class into the six figure stratosphere and for destroying the labor movement. Personally, I have little hope for the future of the US; it is a sinking empire.

  11. Well, I would qualify as an elitist Democrat in many circles. I'm gay, I'm an artist, and I live in New York. All those things by themselves make me one step away from being a Martian in most political circles. A political endorsement from me might as well be the kiss of death (so vote McCain!).
    But let's look at this a little closer. I make a very precarious living teaching art to community college students in the Bronx and out in the Long Island suburbs. Just about all of my students in both institutions would consider themselves to be middle class, even though most other middle class folk would consider them to be poor (especially my students in the Bronx). I consider myself to be middle class for a variety of reasons, though it's been 20 years since my annual income cleared $20k. All I expect to leave behind at my demise at this point is a huge pile of debt with a lot of paintings of uncertain market value.
    More than any one candidate or party, I think what this country needs is a revived and reformed labor movement. Wage earners (and that's about 95% of us) should take matters into our own hands and not wait for the attention and benevolence of two political party establishments that are both bought and paid for by corporate interests.
    We forget that all those things we take for granted in our workplaces -- workman's compensation, health and safety regulations, the right to bargain collectively for a contract, the 40 hour week, a minimum wage, prohibitions on child labor, the weekend -- were all creations of the American labor movement. We forget that our grandparents and great grandparents had to fight for each and every one of those things (my grandfather tried to organize Western Union employees and ended up black-balled by the company). They were not given to us out of the kindness of plutocratic hearts. I fear that we will only appreciate those things as we lose them (the 40 hour week is already a thing of the past for most people).

    I too hold out great hopes for an Obama presidency, if for nothing else than to get us at least pointed back in the right direction; away from fond dreams of empire and supremacy and back toward our Republic and democracy. A McCain victory will be just 4 more years of the decline of the American Empire.

  12. I am finding this a really difficult election at one level and a really easy one on another. Easy because I live in a one party State. Alan Keyes completely destroyed any semblance of a working Republican party in Illinois. His loss to Sen. Obama was not just a defeat it was a disaster. There is not one State-wide office not held by a Democrat. So, it really does not matter how I vote.

    On the other hand, neither candidate has offered much for the really poor Americans. If I thought my vote mattered, would I pick someone who wants to kill of what little manufacturing base we still have by raising taxes? Of someone who thinks forced pregnancies are a good idea? These two guys are neither what we need I think.

    So, in the end, I shall vote for a third party. Yes I know that they cannot "win." But I keep hoping we can disestablish the idea that these two collections of elites are the only way to go.

    The Republicans came into existence because the Whigs died out. Parties do not have a right to life and killing off both of these would be the best first step.

    I do not know what would improve the lot of our working poor and be feasible for the country. I can think of things we should try, but I cannot see a candidate or faction with the courage to try anything in either party.



  13. I'm just praying that the American Left won't stick to historical precedent and snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory once again.
    On the one hand, being permanently marginalized means that you never have to be responsible for making policy; you can never fail because you can never try. On the other hand, being permanently marginalized means you can't make policy, your dreams will always stay dreams. I'm afraid nasty old Machiavelli was right, politics is about the possible, not about ideology. It's about getting real things done for real people. Sadly, Democracy is a very homely date. It's not about saddling up your white horse and riding to the rescue. It's about committees hammering out compromises between competing interests. No one is completely happy, but everyone can live with the results.

    I'm not expecting a Progressive Messiah, nor do I want one. I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and I've regretted it ever since. If boring old establishment Al Gore had managed to keep his election victory in 2000, the Iraq Invasion would never have happened and thousands of people who are now dead might still be alive. Who knows? He might even have noticed that August 2001 memo that said "Osama Bin Laden is right behind you!" and 9/11 might have been nipped in the bud.
    Sure, I think the Democrats take Progressives (and lots of other people) for granted. Yes, I think both parties are bought and paid for, but they are clearly NOT the same thing.


    Lives are at stake. No, I'm not going to be perfectly satisfied by an Obama victory or a Democratic sweep, but this isn't about me. This is about The United States and the people who live in it and make it work.

  14. Mark,

    In the 1990's India and China lifted 200 million people out of dire poverty. These were people so poor they would dream of being homeless in America.

    How did they do this? They embraced free market capitalism and globalization.

    Your quaint dream of increasing the strength of labor unions is the stuff of a bygone era. It is time to be realistic and understand that a strengthened labor movement will hurt the poorest of the poor.

    Now, it is easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than to get an Episcopal priest to embrace free market capitalism and globalization, but history has proved time and again this is the best way to help the desperately poor.

    The candidate who talks about opening markets, decreasing regulation, lowering corporate taxes, is the one who is talking about helping the poorest of the poor. The other key is education, which helps the middle class mostly.

    Blessings to you!

    PS: READ the "Elephant and the Dragon" by Robyn Meredith, and any book by Milt Friedman.

  15. Well, I like Obama, and I make no apologies for it. I really get tired, (already), of the claims from the other side that Obama is "the celebrity", or that we are seeing a "personality cult." Is he supposed to apologize because people are liking what they see and hear?

    For the first time in a long time, we are hearing intelligent comments made about national security issues, war issues, race issues, etc. We are also hearing someone who is appealing to America's ideals and America's integrity. He has a few month to prove himself further, to live up to what he stands for in the face of an onslought of criticism that will be coming from many sides. I hope he's up to it.

    But right now he offers a lot more than any candidate we have seen in a long time. And if he can inspire people to follow him, including members of congress that need to need to be working with him when he wants to get things done, then more power to him.

  16. You'll pardon me for interupting the political discussions, but ...

    "Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another
    that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide
    us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but
    for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for
    our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of
    other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out
    of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
    with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
    Amen." - BCP, p.261

  17. Mark, Your post reminded me of a passage from "Howards End". The book deals with (among other things) the conflict between the middle-class Schlegels and the lower class Basts. In describing Leonard Bast, Forster writes:
    "We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk.
    The boy, Leonard Bast, stood at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more. He knew that he was poor, and would admit it; he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich. This may be splendid of him. But he was inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it. He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable. His mind and his body had been alike underfed, because he was poor, and because he was modern they were always craving better food. Had he lived some centuries ago, in the brightly coloured civilisations of the past, he would have had a definite status, his rank and his income would have corresponded. But in his day the angel of Democracy had arisen, enshadowing the classes with leathern wings, and proclaiming, 'All men are equal--all men, that is to say, who possess umbrellas,' and so he was obliged to assert gentility, lest he slip into the abyss where nothing counts, and the statements of Democracy are inaudible."

    Forster's novel, written just before the first World War, reminds us that some things don't change very much (or change very slowly); I cannot recommend it highly enough.
    - Denbeau

  18. Counterlight, yes, you would count as an elite; any one of your self-identifying markers makes you grossly over-represented in the ranks of the episcopal church.
    Same with bill b.
    Same with myself, but I'm not a believer and I don't pretend to hold out ideals and then wring my hands at not reaching them.
    Feel guilty about having too much?
    Give it up.
    Uneasy about living only in picturesque places/only with educated white people? Move/get new friends.
    And you didn't even need to burn incense or go to seminary to find out how to do it.
    The mainline churches and the fundies are mirror images of each other. Both sides have all the ideological unpredictablity of the 1970s Politburo.
    And you wonder why you're marginalized...why?

  19. fred preuss... I wonder why you are making so many comments here and elswhere on my blog. You say you are not a believer and I presume that means you have no investment in the Church. Perhaps I am wrong.

    But it does lead me to ask just why you are here. Recruiting for unbelief, dumping on the church, any church, but the Episcopal Church because that is where this blog is focused?

    I am amazed at the take you have on the Episcopal Church and the willingness you have to dump on us all.

    Unless you can make some sense of your rants, I am going to ask you to get your own blog (you may have one) and get off this one.

    I am increasingly tired of your arrogance.

  20. Dear Preuss,

    If you're the "Mainstream," then I'm quite happy to be here out in the margins. I wouldn't want to be within a thousand miles of that alkali flat where you live.
    By the way, you're a lot whiter than all of my students, fellow glacier monkey.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with comment moderation but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.