Monday, December 8, 2008
The Body in the Record Room is dedicated to forgotten people. They were patients in Nevada, Missouri, State Hospital # 3, a mental institution.
I listed the first names of just a few of those people in the dedication, but there were thousands more I didn't know. They were there before or after I lived there, or they were among the huge number of patients and employees I didn't ever meet or know when I lived there.
Today, I thought about all of them and about other justice issues as I read about worker protests in Chicago. Workers have taken over a plant where they were laid off. They had been denied fair notice and the benefits promised in case of layoffs. So they protested. They demanded to be heard. They refused to leave their work place.
It is time for laid off or unfairly-treated workers to be noticed. For too long we have assumed we have the right to make companies stronger by laying off people, by "increasing productivity." In other words, we've taken the easy way out. Instead of using technology to create more jobs and a better way of life, we've made our companies more profitable by making them smaller and asking the remaining workers to do more.
People like me have watched without protest as others lost their health care or pensions while rich CEO's got massive bonuses.
Sometimes you remember the silliest things. I was just a student minister. I was in the home of one of my rich parishioners a day or two after Ronald Reagan fired air traffic controllers. I remember my parishioner saying something like, "Well, maybe this will teach those folks a lesson."
To me, that was the beginning of a philosophy which has led us to where we are today. I saw within the last six months that the air controllers, some of whom may have been among those hired to take over jobs lost in the Reagan firings, are now protesting unfair treatment themselves. What goes around comes around.
Yesterday, Barack Obama spoke up for the workers sitting in. He said their case is just. Good for him. My prayer is that he can restore equity for working people. Most aren't asking for a special deal. They are just asking for more fairness in the workplace. They're just asking for a chance to make a living, build a retirement, have fair health care (the kind of health care congress members and the administrative elite have always had).
I think there's something to be said for having people who have come from humble backgrounds in high office. Obviously President-elect Obama, whose mother was on food stamps, has a stronger understanding of the problems of working people than President George W. Bush who grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth. Obama knows what it is to be among a hurting minority.
So I hope things are changing, but I'm not optimistic. And that takes me back to those mental patients I talked about before. Their counterparts today are often just as forgotten as my friends were fifty years ago. In our own town, a town with the state's major university, one of the local general hospitals recently closed its mental ward. Now there is only one overcrowded facility in this community.
Saturday, I talked with a friend who works in that facility. I asked what would happen if you had a loved one "go off" and need immediate emergency mental care. "We're overcrowded and over budget," she said. "They'd probably have to go to St. Louis or Kansas City." That's hundreds of miles. How can you care for a loved one when that loved one is receiving care hundreds of miles away from where you are? And that's especially true if you are poor or struggling yourself. We still don't care about the poor and mentally ill.
So it is time for workers to protest, for government officials to begin to think about the left out and hurting, about the people who just want a fair chance. And it is time for people like me who have always had a job and health care to take the side of those who protest, those who have a fair case for better treatment, those who can't take their own side because they are disabled or mentally ill.
I thank God for Barack Obama. Maybe he will do what he has said he will do. Maybe he will lead us in a new direction. I hope so.
PS (added later in the day)--I note that according to the Huffington Post, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has asked state agencies to stop doing business with Bank of America, the bank which would have to approve the credit needed to provide severance benefits for the employees who are sitting in (or perhaps provide the credit needed to reopen the company and restore their jobs). Bank of America was among the banks receiving a portion of the $700 billion dollar federal bailout.
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