Labor’s Story’s Told and Told . . .

We celebrated “Labor in the Pulpit/Labor on the Bimah/Labor at the Minbar” this weekend with hundreds of congregations around the country, many affiliated with Interfaith Worker Justice. Our special guest was Patricia Lippold, Vice-President of 1199SEIU. What follows are the words of our Minister, along with music from Little Flags (Labor) Theatre and a prayer by Cesar Chavez.

Labor’s Story’s Told and Told


Labor’s story’s told and told,
Just not so’s you can hear,
Labor’s story’s told and told,
You believe me, don’t you dear?


We all tell stories. All of us! We tell stories, in part, to know who we are. To know who our people are, and where we fit in to the larger story of this world. For nearly two hundred years, people on this corner have told a story, of our religion based on deeds, not creeds; built on covenants, not tests of belief, agreements with one another about a higher, more ethical way of being with each other and in the world.
“We need not think alike to love alike,” is a story we tell ourselves, mis-ascribing those words to the sixteenth century Transylvanian Francis Dávid. It rings true for us, places us on the long journey of liberal religion. (You see the big heart on the cover of our order of service. We want to be “the Love people.”) It is a story we tell that helps us understand who we are. It helps us determine where we next will be going.


You don’t know their names now,
Most didn’t know them then,
Those hundreds of thousands of laboring men,
Who worked dawn till the dusk and on to the night,
Who died far too young, and that’s never been right.


My dad worked dawn to dusk in factories. I remember him working at Thompson Chemical in Hebronville, Massachusetts, when I was young. He showed me his complicated shift schedule. One week he’d work first shift, and then after a day off he’d move to second shift (that is, from about 3 in the afternoon to 11). We need to be careful about being too loud in the morning, because that was when dad got in his sleep. Then after another day off, he’d have a number of days working third shift, “graveyard,” they called it; going to work when everyone else was headed to bed and being up until the first shift arrived at 7:30 a.m. Then he’d go back to working first shift for another week. It was kind of crazy, hard to plan a family life around, or a church life, or even his reserve life when he had his weekends with the National Guard. He didn’t think that he had died far too young, though. He lived until week shy of his 75th birthday, and as he put it, since his dad had died at age 67, just a few months after retiring from his factory job, my dad thought that he would have a good deal if he lived longer than his dad. (I insisted with my dad I was not going to anticipate my own longevity on the length of his life!)


Strong women beside them, who wed them, and tried
To work double shifts in factories,
      where too many of them died,
It was courage they had then that made them struggle on,
Those legions of warriors, nameless shadows in the dawn.


My father was offended when his pay was unable to meet all the needs of our family. He felt insulted, his ego was injured, when “his woman” worked outside the home. (Sigh. That’s part of my story, too, that fragile male ego, that male supremacy, that sense of personal insufficiency.) And yet my mom would talk about the jobs she had. In high school, working the ice cream counter at the creamery. After high school, assembling jewelry boxes at one of the jewelry shops in town, or going downtown to do clerical work at Automobile Mutual Insurance Company of America (AMICA). Once she married, she was home raising kids; but when my youngest brother began first grade, my mother flipped burgers at the Burger Chef, and later was a church secretary where she used some of her clerical skills and her “mothering” skills to turn out orders of service and prepare a cup of tea for a person who was having a hard time and wanted to talk to the minister.


These are the stories I tell myself to remind myself of who I am—who I really am. I’ve told you the story, I think, that my dad sat me down before I went to college, an New England university, and he reminded me of my own story. “Remember,” he said, “your grandfather was a working stiff, and your father is a working stiff, and no matter how high you might go, you will always be the son of a working stiff.” And then he gave me my marching orders: “The son of a working stiff knows that when you go to work, you join the union; and if there isn’t a union, you build one. And you never cross a picket line. And when it comes time to vote, the Democratic Party is the party of the working stiff.” (We never quite saw eye-to-eye on that one, but I will admit that I’ve worked for independent candidates and independent-minded Democratic candidates in most of my electoral life.)


This is the story that I know forms my identity; and when there has been an opportunity to walk on the picket lines with janitors and nurses, I’ve done it; when there’s been a chance to perform a benefit concert for paper workers and coal miners, I’ve done it; when there has been a chance to argue for jobs in East and West Baltimore in the construction of the Red Line, I have argued it; and when I’ve had a chance to bring people of faith together to raise the minimum wage, that’s where I placed myself, that’s where I invested my energy, that’s where I’ve found the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. That’s my story, and that’s my journey.


Companions on that journey have been the good people of 1199SEIU, a people who are in mourning this week. With them, we mourn the loss of Mr. John Robert Reid, Jr., who passed away on August 31, 2015 surrounded by many of his closest family and friends. A strong and deeply respected leader in the labor movement, we will remember John as a champion for working people and social justice, whose legacy will live on through the countless lives he touched.


John’s vast and substantive career began when he was drafted into the United States Army at age 18. He served in the Vietnam War, and due to an injury was honorably discharged and awarded a Purple Heart. In 1975, John began work as a Psychiatric Technician at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University. His talent for healthcare and passion for civil rights led him to become a union organizer for Philadelphia-area hospitals in 1979.  For the next 26 years, he served as a Vice President and then Executive Vice President in various areas throughout 1199. In 2005, John Reid relocated from New York City to Baltimore, Maryland, to take on the challenge of uniting the city’s healthcare workers together in a union. 


Let us pause and hold Brother Reid, all that he loved, and all the lives he touched, in our hearts. (pause) Blessed Be.


Our guest speaker Pat Lippold serves on the Executive Council of 1199SEIU, is a Vice President At Large representing the Maryland/District of Columbia region, and is one of my “go to” persons for thinking ethically, morally and politically about Maryland. I have had the great privilege of working with Sister Lippold both as a part of Good Jobs Better Baltimore, as a guest invited to the SEIU National Convention in 2012, in the successful struggle to raise the minimum wage in Maryland, and in solidarity with low wage workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital—where I am a patient—in getting an acceptable contract in 2014—again, another victory! As our part of the national movement of “Labor in the Pulpit/Labor on the Bimah/Labor at the Minbar,” may we welcome into this pulpit our sister in the struggle, Pat Lippold. (Note: We hope to post these remarks as a podcast on the church’s website.)


(A response sung after Sister Lippold’s speech) 


A miner’s life’s full of work and pain,
Lying on his back in a dark coal vein,
Livin’ on slag piles that break away,
Workin’ so his kids gonna see a better day.

He works a buddy system with death.
He works a buddy system with death.


Methane gas, sudden rock fall,
Black dust so thick he hardly breathes at all,
Sets his fuses, shoots the coal,
Sucks the dust and powder into his soul.

He works a buddy system with greed.
He works a buddy system with greed.


Company owns the town, the sheriffs, too,
They’ll buy of everything before they’re through,
Judges, senators help them rule,
the people are used as a fast-buck tool.

They work a buddy system with greed.
They work a buddy system with greed.


A miner’s life’s full of work and pain,
Lying on his back in an anthracite vein,
Livin’ on slag piles that break away,
Workin’ so his kids gonna see a better day.

He works a buddy system with death.
He works a buddy system with death.


You can’t kill the spirit of working, folk:
We’re survivors!
We built this country brick by brick,

And fed it potato by potato,
And after all the dust is settled,
This land we worked, and built and fed
Will be ours. Oh, yes!
It will be ours! I know!


[Musical selections from The Furies of Mother Jones,
book and lyrics by Maxine Klein, music by James Oestereich]




César E. Chávez, Founder
United Farm Workers


Show me the suffering of the most miserable,
so I may know my people’s plight.

Free me to pray for others,
for you are present in every person.

Help me to take responsibility for my own life,
so that I can be free at last.

Grant me courage to serve others,
for in service there is true life.

Give me honesty and patience,
so that I can work with other workers.

Bring forth song and celebration,
so that the Spirit will be alive among us.

Let the Spirit flourish and grow,
so that we will never tire of the struggle.

Let us remember those who have died for justice,
for they have given us life.

Help us love even those who hate us,
so we can change the world. Amen.

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