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"Labor Unrest in the Vineyard"

A sermon based on Matthew 20: 1 –16

The story that we heard this morning is usually called: the Parable of the Vineyard Workers. I believe a better title would be something like "the Unusual Hiring Policies of one odd Vineyard Owner" since most of the action revolves around his character... His decisions about whom to hire, when to hire, and how to pay them.

I think this is a good text to consider on Labor Day weekend… realizing, of course, that (in olden days) there were no labor unions; no contracts, binding arbitration, nor employee strikes. Michigan became a “right-to-work” state about the time that Patty & I moved here, and it seems to me that employ“part-time” employment without benefits has become the preferred business model for big corporations. (It probably began during the economic melt-down back in 2008, but it’s become the new norm.)

American workers lost a lot of their income in the bank-fraud and mortgage-bundling shenanigans a decade ago, and wages have been creeping back slowly since then. On the other hand, the Dow Industrial Average economy on Wall Street has rebounded nicely – it’s now over 26,000 points! In other words, “the Dow” has doubled in “market value” since the Recession. That’s good news for the top 10% wealthiest investors, who own 80% of all stocks and bonds. (!) The other 90% of us investors, who own the remaining 20% of Wall Street assets, are at least keeping ahead of inflation (which is 3%). Good luck to you day traders!

But let’s not forget that the “Wall Street” market is not a picture of America’s true economy which is made up of workers and consumers, farmers and retailers, school teachers and government employees… and ordinary day laborers like the vineyard workers in Jesus’ story.

Tom Brindley’s column this week in The Alpena News (Thurs., Aug. 30, 2018 page 7-A) reminded us that “Labor Day [is] a time to honor those who work.” The national holiday began in 1884, when our church here in Alpena was just 22 years old. Labor Day wasn’t so much of a big deal among farmers and logging communities like ours, as it was where there were factories and organized labor unions. The holiday “honors the contributions workers have made to the strength and well-being of our country” (wrote Tom Brindley). But he also pointed out the tension between Wall Street owners (the capital market) and labor (the job market):

“Labor’s position is that their contribution to the value of goods and services should earn them a reasonable wage and job security. To the capitalist [investor], labor is a component in the cost of production that should be minimized.

On Friday in The Alpena News (8-31-2018, 5-B) we read that the current Administration has cancelled the 2% across-the-board raise for civilian federal workers which was planned to begin January 1st. There are two million civilian jobs in the federal government work-force, and the President said the federal budget could not sustain such an increase. A spokesperson for the American Federation of Government Employees said that this “plan to freeze wages … ignores the fact that they are worse off today financially than they were at the start of the decade.” He said that “federal worker pay and benefits have been cut by more than $200 billion since 2011, and workers are currently earning 5% less than they did eight years ago.” To me, that’s a perfect example of looking at labor as “a component in the cost of production that should be minimized.” Cut their pay!

Over the past decade, many workers have lost company-provided health insurance (partly due to the federal government’s “Obamacare” revising of the health insurance market). As cost-saving measures, many employers have reduced their employees’ pension payments & offer very little job security. Wall Street sees a boost in profit-making when a company downsizes its labor force, or merges with a competitor and then lays off its management staff. The “real” economy (of working families in local communities where jobs are lost) is devastated, but the stock portfolio shows a profit.

That’s what Tom Brindley meant when he wrote about the “schism between capital and labor”. But he also recognized that labor unions reduced the work-week from 70-hours down to 40-hours, with extra pay for working overtime or on a national holiday. Child labor laws set age-limits on who was allowed to work, and other workplace safety measures and fringe benefits were added over the decades.

There seems to be some good news in the labor market – the unemployment rate is down to 4.3% nation-wide -- 5-&-a-half % in Alpena County, 6% in Montmorency… But that statistic plays well in the media. I remember back 30 years ago, when Patty & I helped start the Salvation Army assistance in Dowagiac, our unemployment rate was over 12% in Southwest Michigan. So the much improved labor market report should work well for the average worker, right? We should be seeing higher wages, better working conditions, better jobs… right?

But let’s be clear about what those government statistics measure. First, if you are unemployed and looking for work, you are counted. If you are out-of-work and receiving unemployment benefits, you are counted. But once those mandated benefits run out, you are dropped from the statistics of the “unemployed”... not because you got a job, but because you have been out-of-work longer than the program will pay for!

And, second, if you cease looking for employment, you are also dropped from the statistics – such as those who retire, or who simply give up looking for work. They are no longer counted – these unemployed people no longer factor in calculating the unemployment rate!

A more accurate statistic is to ask: how many people are actually working now, as compared to 10 years ago? Well, according to the Bureau of Labor Market Information, Michigan’s total workforce employment right now has 250,000 fewer jobs than in year 2000.

How is it possible that the jobless rate is the lowest it’s been in 20 years… even though there are 250,000 fewer jobs in Michigan? It’s because those people who used to have jobs but are now on disability -- those who are retired, and those who simply cannot find work and have stopped looking -- are not counted in the labor statistics. So the unemployment rate looks good, but the jobs are gone!

Furthermore, many people today are working two part-time jobs just to make ends meet! That’s twice as many jobs being filled, but by a smaller number of actual people. As a result of all that that’s been in the news, on this Labor Day Sunday, I am tempted to focus on the plight of the vineyard workers, but the Parable (as Jesus tells it) has us look instead at the Owner.

It is the owner (the householder, the capitalist) who is seen going into town early one morning to hire a team to pick his grapes.

It’s a fact of life that poor people don’t provide many jobs… employers do. In fact, that was a “big deal” in the last Presidential election (if you recall)! One candidate was perceived as a big, bold, wealthy, business person who knew how to make a profitable deal for the stockholders; the other was seen as a rich politician who wanted to ensure that people got what they needed without them necessarily having to work for it: welfare entitlements, free college education, free health care, and so forth. More than once I heard it said: poor people don’t provide jobs… employers do. Owners do! So, let’s give a tax break to big business!

And this Vineyard Owner (in Jesus’ parable), who hires his best field-workers early in the day, goes back and forth all through the day hiring more workers… in the 3rd hour, in the 6th hour, in the 9th hour… He keeps hiring more and more unemployed people, and putting them to work in his vineyard, even up to the last hour of the day!

The “unemployment rate” in his farm village went down very quickly, not because the elders dropped names off the list... They quit being “unemployed” because they got a job! (!)

It is this same odd Owner who commands the steward to pay the workers in a certain order -- a reverse order (that is, the last ones hired were paid first and the first ones were paid last). And it is the Owner who is given the last word in the story, justifying his behavior when questioned.

Obviously, the Vineyard Owner holds the central role in the plot, in Jesus’ parable. But the tension, the conflict (which is how "the plot thickens") involves the workers and the rewards they receive for having labored for this Master.