Buffenbarger: Remarks to the 2005 Communications Conference

Tom, thanks for returning to Wichita. It took real courage to write that book. And it takes real integrity to criticize the powers that be.

Your book asks the question “what’s the matter with Kansas?”

My own answer is “NOT A DAMN THING.”

The problem, as you have correctly and convincingly pointed out in your book, lies not with the folks in Kansas. They’re good people. They are honest, God-fearing and hard working, red, white and blue blooded Americans.

And over 18,000 of them are really, really good people. They’re IAM members.  

But like millions of other Americans, the good people of Kansas have been dissed by the two major political parties and dismissed by virtually every GOP and Democratic office holder and candidate.

They’ve been spat upon, literally and figuratively, by the raving maniacs who dominate cable television and radio talk shows.

What’s worse is that the good people are sneered at by the armies of political consultants, ignored by the swarms of special interest fundraisers and forgotten by the slithering masses of lobbyists that now stand between them and their governments.

The good people – America’s working families – have paid an awful price for what can only be described as deviant behavior by a bunch of political hacks.

In the last five years, millions of good people were laid off. When they lost their jobs, they lost their health insurance … drew down on their savings … maxed out their credit cards … sold off the boat or ATV … held yard sales … stopped eating out.

Those laid off applied for unemployment insurance. Fewer than four in ten qualified. Some sought Trade Adjustment Assistance. Very, very few who applied got it … and only months if not years later.

When they lost their jobs, America’s working families hoped to find new ones quickly. Few did. After endless searches, success meant settling for a job that paid far less and had far fewer benefits than their old job offered.

Any cash flow helped. When zero is your take-home pay for month after month, a job paying seven bucks an hour seems like manna from heaven. And it is.

Yet their new job held hidden costs. It demeaned skills developed over decades. Repairing jet engines, operating high-tech lathes, applying stealth paint, juggling flight or reservations required talents few stores or shops needed. So, the recently re-employed workers’ pride, their sense of professionalism, their unique position in the community – all suffered.

 Instinctively these now under-utilized American’s knew they had stepped on an economic down escalator. They clipped coupons before shopping for food. Trips to the local supermarket became treks to Sam’s Club. They by-passed Sears and J.C. Penny and headed to Wal-Mart and the Dollar Store.

These laid-off Americans downsized their lives. They lowered their expectations. 

Around the kitchen table, vacation plans were cancelled. Sending the kids to college became almost impossible. Retirement plans – the dream of a lakeside cabin or a sunnier climate – were shelved. Even the traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas visits to the in-laws were postponed. Folks focused on getting by … getting past this “soft patch.”

Even though kitchen table talk of a rosier future ended, not all conversation ceased. On cell phones and telephones, in emails and letters, via grapevines and rumor mills, word got out: THIS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU. 

Suddenly, these once working families were not alone. Everyone knew. Everyone knew someone – a relative, a neighbor, a co-worker – who had been laid off. Everyone knew their tales of woe. Everyone knew what the re-employed were going through.

The unemployed, the under-employed and even the re-employed became object lessons for the rest of America’s working families.

And out came the old saws.

“Don’t  rock the boat … Keep your head down … Don’t make waves … Work harder, faster, smarter … Go along to get along … Keep your nose clean.”

Those old saws cut deep.

When everything you own, when everything you’ve worked for, when everything your family needs is tied to your weekly paycheck – and good jobs are scarce and growing scarcer – such advice is easy to follow.

Working families became economic conservatives. They sought to conserve what they had built up during their working lives.

But that did not help.

When paying all your bills – the home mortgage, the car payments, the monthly credit card balances, the health and auto insurance, the gasoline purchases, the cleaners and supermarket – means keeping your job at all cost, you hunker down.

Working families can’t take chances, can’t take risks and they sure as hell can’t challenge the powers that be. Instead, some became model employees: compliant, complacent, and uncomplaining.

And yet, even that did not help.

When real estate taxes and gasoline prices rise so fast that they add hundreds of dollars each month to a working family’s costs … when health and auto insurance premiums soar by double digits each year … and when wages stagnate, then working families start cutting back. Big time.

Even that didn’t help.

So, working families did what good people have always done in difficult times. They got down on their knees and prayed. They opened their Bibles and read.

It helped.

Prayer always does.

So does reading the Good Book.

Now this isn’t a Sunday sermon – although it’s almost as long as one. Nor am I trying to convert anyone. But it is imperative that we understand what’s happening across this land.

More working families are listening more carefully – and more frequently – to their ministers, priests, rabbis and imams than they have in generations.

And why is that?

Secular leaders, particularly civic, corporate and political leaders, have abandoned them. It doesn’t matter what party they hail from or what ideology they spout, the high and mighty have turned their backs on the good people.

Instead of focusing on the jobs crisis, they bleat about judicial appointments.

Instead of solving the health care crisis, they battle over Terry Schiavo.

Instead of dealing with massive deficits that raise interest rates, they push privatization of Social Security.

Instead of tackling the trade deficit, they pass a new NAFTA, one covering all of Central and South America.

And, increasingly, politicians are turning to the Almighty to justify what they do. They use faith-based appeals. They claim “God is on our side.” They paint their opponent as the anti-Christ, the devil incarnate and an infidel.

Those politicians are acting too damn self-righteous.

They believe they can do no wrong. They believe that their election is a re-affirmation of their righteousness … that their prayers should be answered first … that they can force everyone to adopt their faith because their particular kind of faith can move mountains.

Now, what they are doing is not new. It’s been done before.

For century after century, high and mighty have wrapped themselves in the cloak of self-righteousness. They have used God’s name to justify two very human vices: power and greed.

The vanity of the self-righteous knows no boundaries. It acts as a perpetual motion machine generating reason … after reason … after reason for every action they take no matter how obnoxious those actions might be to the Almighty.

The vices of the self-righteous, however, are not reflected in the mirror. They cannot see their own imperfections. All they can see is their own perfection – well-manicured, well-groomed, well-spoken, well-respected, well-intentioned, well …

You get the picture.

And so, I believe, does the Almighty.

Such self-righteousness is the basis for the Biblical story about Job.

You remember Job – a righteous man driven to the point of repudiating his Lord by a series of catastrophic events. Tested by God, he was left with little but his own pride. He debated visiting wise men about why God would punish the just man when evil men went unpunished.

Job took on the mantle of the righteous or, more precisely, the self-righteous. And it took the Almighty himself to explain to Job the facts of life.

God’s point was pretty direct: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let the person who accuses God give him an answer.” (Job 40; Verse 2)

Job had no answer to give.

God then asks, “Would you indeed annul my justice? Would you declare me guilty so that you might be right?” (Job 40: Verse 8)

At that point, it dawns on Job what is so WRONG with being so self-RIGHT-eous.

If that miraculous conversion were repeated in Washington today, what a change that would produce. The prayers of millions of working families might be answered. Finally.

But don’t hold your breath.

It ain’t gonna happen.

Not today.

Not tomorrow.

Not next month.

And maybe not even next year.

This Congress and this President act as if they were holier than thou. They are the new political Puritans – intolerant, narrow-minded, mean spirited, avaricious, insecure and angry at the world.

Their speeches are filled with fire and brimstone. They warn of Armageddon. They rail against infidels, doubters and non-believers. They rant and rave as if the Gates of Hell had closed behind them.

They accuse their opponents of hating American when, in fact, it is they who hate what America has come to stand for – racial and religious tolerance, open-mindedness, a soaring spirit of hopefulness, a sense of community and opportunity, a feeling of confidence and security and a heartfelt wish for peace across this globe.

This Congress and this President think they’re demigods. They think they are better than us. They act as if we were their servants and not the other way around.

They are no better than the rest of us. In fact, in this Republic of ours, they are our hirelings. They work for us.

And what we want them to work on is this: getting America back to work, lifting the economic burdens carried by working families and expanding opportunities for them and their children.

We want big, bold and brazen ideas that will create new jobs and new industries.

We want an end to trade deals that benefit everyone else but us.

We want a way for our kids and grandkids to learn the skills needed to compete in the 21st Century.

And what we want from Capitol Hill more than anything else is what Adlai Stevenson once called “cold-eyed humility.”

Stop preaching; start legislating.

Come down off your pedestals; come talk to working people; come visit our shops and factories.

Come on down … come on down here so we can show you what we truly value – the chance to work.

You see, for working families, we VALUE work. We respect work. We get up every morning wanting to go to work.


Work is the keystone of our value system.

Work supports our families – another of our values.

Work strengthens our communities – another of our values.

Work defines us as Americans – another of our values.

So, if you want to talk to us about values, talk to us about our values – work, family, community and America!

But the politicians have to do more than talk.

Our elected representatives have an obligation to improve the quality of our workaday life – inside the businesses, shops and factories where we labor, outside on the streets and highways clogged with cars, at the schools and high-tech institutes where we learn new skills.

To improve the quality of our workaday life, leaders across the land must work to expand the economy – lift the lid off the pressure cooker we work in … protect our jobs from unfair competition … give us a chance to compete for new jobs in new industries … give us a break from the unrelenting price increases in health insurance premiums … let our kids learn new skills needed for the new world they will inherit … give us the freedom to assemble as working men and women who have earned the right to form a union.

If our elected leaders won’t do the work we need done, then they should know this: One day, in the not too distant future, the good people will get up off our knees.

GOOD PEOPLE will stop praying for deliverance, and start demanding justice in the workplace.

GOOD PEOPLE will put down the Good Book, and pick up the phone book … to call their friends, relatives and fellow workers urging them to join our fight.

GOOD PEOPLE will start a prairie fire that will cleanse these United States of those smug, comfortable, corrupt and domineering hacks who pretend to represent us.

And then, the GOOD PEOPLE will elect men and women who value work, who value the work we do, who value work done here in America …

Because, in the end, we’re GOOD PEOPLE and we always prevail.