Finding Common Ground (text & audio)

Debbie and I arrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1984. I had taken a reporting job at The Milwaukee Journal, an afternoon paper, which, in that blue collar town, made it the leading paper in town. It was an unrepentant liberal daily that Time magazine only a year or two before had identified as one of the 10 best papers in the country.

At the time, Milwaukee was still known as the machine shop to the world, a place where vast acres of the city were covered with big-bay manufacturers that heated, pressed, bent and shaped metal into countless shapes for industries of all sorts. It was a place of many tidy neighborhoods of cheerful bungalows or well-built duplexes packed into tight blocks with barely enough room for a driveway to separate them.

Milwaukee at the time had a reputation as a comfortable, middle-class city. For many years, factory jobs were plentiful and pretty much handed down from father to son. There wasn’t a lot of wealth, but most people – as long as you were of European, white heritage – could be assured of getting work, and, at least for a time, minorities did well, too.

Milwaukee, after all, had once been the site of what was called the Bay View massacre. This was an incident where in 1886 seven people died when National Guard troops fired on some 14,000 workers at a steel rolling mill who were marching for an eight-hour day. It took another 50 years until New Deal legislation actually gave workers the right to an 8-hour day, but the shooting sparked a movement in Milwaukee of what became known as the “sewer socialists.”

This Socialist Party was made up not of fire-breathing revolutionaries but of labor-friendly progressives who emphasized honesty in government, public works, and coalitions with others working to build the middle-class. These Socialists held the mayor’s office from 1910 to 1960.

Even the paper where I worked exemplified this spirit. It was employee-owned, and for a couple of generations its privately-held stock enriched not just top management, but all employees. While I was there, many a pressmen retired with a million bucks and bought a retirement cottage on some northern lake.

By 1984, though, the bloom was coming off the rose. Many of Milwaukee’s high-income jobs were being shipped overseas, and the big-bay manufacturers were shutting down, emptying many inner city neighborhoods of those reliable wage earners. The lay-offs hit minorities first, who moved into lower-cost homes abandoned in the inner city, setting off a blizzard of white flight and establishing a pattern of hyper-segregation that continues to this day.

My reporting, first at City Hall, then at the courts, kept this story in front of me. Politicians were sure the city could come back. They recruited developers to turn empty factory buildings into malls and kept streets even in some of the most desperate inner city neighborhoods well paved. But real estate sharks were moving in, buying dozens of once well-tended homes, squeezing out what they could and putting nothing back in.

Like a bicycle tire with a leak, energy slowly drained from the city. The business district and stunning lakefront – one of the chief gifts of the sewer socialists – received attention, but its center was hollowing out. The newspaper, too, suffered with declining circulation and loss of advertising. Eventually, it went public, but the disappointing performance of its stock left most employees with little to show.

Debbie and I left in 2004 to come here, wondering what would become of it all. I got a chance to see recently in a PBS special by Bill Moyers. He followed two Milwaukee families – one white, and one black – over the last 20 years. The picture was familiar: In 1991, when the story began, the husband in the white family and both husband and wife in the black family had recently lost their jobs at Milwaukee manufacturers. Both families were homeowners with several small children.

Each hoped to find other work and managed to secure what they were sure would be “temporary” employment at a fraction of their former wages. But, of course, “temporary” turned into the way it would be, and in the end wasn’t enough to sustain the lives they had created for themselves. They endured visits to a food pantry and days without electricity when they couldn’t pay utility bills. Bouts of illness became big financial setbacks, and worries over money tore at the fabric of relations between husband and wife, parent and child. But eventually both managed to accommodate themselves to a new reality, even if their incomes never approached what they were making 20 years before.

Remembering much of what I saw as a reporter over the years covered by the Moyers program I have to say that in many respects these two families were lucky. As the show ended, both were still intact and the kids were mostly OK, though struggling. For many others during that time, the story was much grimmer.

Whatever your vantage, this one-time prosperous city slowly but surely was being depleted and hollowed out. And Milwaukee was not alone. Other great old manufacturing centers also suffered, and in the days since, their grief has been shared by many in the suburbs, the South, Silicon Valley: all of the supposed hot new centers of economic activity. Wealth was being created, money was being made, but fewer and fewer people benefited from it. Stocks have soared in recent years, but employment has barely moved all.

The result has been a historic shift in this country that has seen the wealth created in our economy, once spread widely, accrue to a tiny fraction of the richest people. Here are a few numbers: From 1947 to 1979 wages of all workers at all salary levels grew roughly the same percentage, but between 1979 and 2007 63% of total income growth went to the top 10% of households.  Wealth became even more concentrated, to the point where today the top 1% owns 40% of the nation’s wealth and the bottom 80% owns just 7%.

With wages essentially frozen the only way to make headway economically today is by owning non-cash assets – stocks and bonds, and so on. But, of course, most people own few such assets and have little prospect of acquiring them, and even for those who do, the real money is made in executive suites and corporate board rooms.

The author George Packer describes this period we’re going through as an “unwinding,” a time when cultural moorings are being loosed and long-standing assumptions are turned on their heads. In the past, he says, these periods have brought great disruption but also an uneasy kind of freedom. “Each decline,” he observes, “brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.”

If it is an unwinding we are experiencing, one notion that seems to be in play is that there is some fundamental value to human beings and their labor. Human labor is diminished when it is accorded so little value in the marketplace. A good example is Asheville where most new jobs these days are paid at less than a living wage. And human beings themselves are devalued as we watch measures once created to support a decent life – support for housing, medical care, education – stripped away.

We can ask for no better indicator of our low estimation than to see abstract corporate entities given the status of persons. In such a world, human persons are finding themselves at a disadvantage to compete.

And yet, amid all this it’s not unreasonable to seek out the possible seeds for what George Packard calls a “new cohesion,” and to identify a role for ourselves, as Unitarian Universalists, in its creation. History, after all, teaches that the road we are on – one that blocks avenues of social mobility and impoverishes a vast share of the populace – is a recipe for self-destruction and decline. So, what might that “new cohesion” look like?

Walt Whitman wrote the poem you heard Bob read from earlier at a time of tremendous economic expansion, when America’s industrial might was coming into its own. So, it is no surprise to read him celebrating, in his words, house builder, ship joiner, pile driver, coal miner, iron worker, coach maker, leather-dresser, sail-maker, fire stoker – digger.

And in all of these lines of work, he declared, we find “realities for you and me, in them poems for you and me,” in all of it “the eternal meanings” of our lives. This spirit also infused the organized labor movement at the time in places like Milwaukee, a spirit that saw work as a source of meaning in our lives, not a form of servitude, where labor brought us the bread to sustain our lives, and the roses that make life worthwhile.

Whitman captured the heart of this ethos in his words:  “We thought our Union grand, and our Constitution grand . . . We consider bibles and religions divine – I do not say they are not (grand or) divine, I say that they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still. It is not they who give the life, it is you who give the life.”

And it is here that I think we enter as Unitarian Universalists. We tend to catch grief in the larger world for the pluralism of our movement. We draw from the Jewish and Christian roots that are our heritage, but also dip deeply into Buddhism, the 20th century humanist movement, and various pagan and mystic traditions, not to speak of science, psychology, and so on.

But in this big tent we are quite clear about a few things, and chief among them is the conviction that each person is inherently worthy and deserving of dignity, respect and love. From a history dating back some five centuries informed by thinkers and scholars, activists and visionaries, wise women and men we have distilled this fundamental truth that we are precious from the moment we enter this world and that we realize our own hopes and best natures when we attend to and act on that underlying unity in a way that connects us with each other and all things.

All that is good and holy is not visited on us from some external source; it rises from within us and the world around us. The wisdom we need to guide us, in Whitman’s words, “has grown out of us, and may grow out of us still.”

This year in worship I am inviting us to reflect in different ways on the wonder and beauty and the many sources of hope that lie before us that we struggle to see. Our themes for worship will offer different tools to help us focus on those things and invite us to wrestle with integrating them into our lives.

We begin this month of September with the discipline of awareness, and our topic today is only too good a place to start. There is hardly a one of us who is not aware of, if not themselves damaged or weighed down by this “unwinding” that we appear to be in the midst of. And the squeeze we feel can shut us down, making us wary, depressed or dismissive. And so we isolate ourselves and retreat into numbness.

Part of why we gather as a community here is to invite each other out of isolation, to cultivate the awareness that we are not alone but deeply connected, and to provide the space for learning, insight, and action that will set us on the road to renewal and wholeness.

If we are to be part of a “new cohesion,” it will be as agents of renewal and advocates of wholeness working in common cause with others to affirm human dignity.

It may be that I am still caught up in the moment, but when I stood with many of you at the Mountain Moral Monday rally at Pack Square just a month ago, I felt something knitting together, some rough skein of hope that I hadn’t sensed before.

I have no millennial predictions to offer around this. It feels as if we’re still in for some rough patches. But it was an opening, and it fed my faith that our generous and hopeful natures will win out. As Dr. William Barber, the NAACP state president, told us that day, “You don’t judge your progress or success by immediacy. You know that if you stand long enough, love and justice eventually win.” And so must we stand. And so must we love, and hold the demands of justice in our field of view.

We need not seek afar off, for the solution to this state of affairs lies with us: In things we know best, where we find the best; in folks nearest to us, where we find the sweetest, strongest, lovingest; happiness, knowledge, not in another place but this place, not for another hour, but this hour; we workwomen and workmen with our own divine and strong life.

Photo credit: Beverly & Pack / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND