Celebrating Labor Day

Whatever the history of Labor Day parades from the late 1800’s into the post-World War II days and Labor Day Masses in parish churches and prominent cathedrals, the “end of summer holiday” took on new meanings by the 1980s. For some it meant only outdoor picnics or grills. For others, it meant mostly a bit of sadness about days gone-by. For still others, it meant “Labor Day in the Pulpit.” However, for all of us there is need to give serious thought about “labor” and “laborers,” “work” and “workers.”

In 1981 Pope John Paul II issued his, “On Human Labor” (“Laborem Exercens”), which like most encyclicals reviewed earlier teaching, but with significant differences. Namely, as a social justice encyclical, “On Human Labor” not only utilized more scriptural teaching, especially the challenges of the prophets, but also developed a rather full-blown theology of work, nurturing the seedlings of earlier authors. All human “work” or “labor,” be they academic, construction, commercial, health-care, manufacturing, media, service, trade, share in “co-creation.” All of us are “co-creators” with God, responsible for improving our world, whatever our interests, opportunities, skills, talents and training. In God’s eyes we all share in creation and in God’s heart we are all loved. Hence, we are all commissioned to perform work and to serve one another. What that mission and service entail specifically is as varied and unique as each one of us, but there can be no separation of the performance and service, the working and caring, the job and the neighbor. Otherwise, economies, families, and nations collapse!

Consequently, from the earliest encyclicals and their applications to each cultural, economic, and political scene, there are several non-negotiables. No one has more dignity than anyone else. If employers have the right to organize trade associations to discuss and negotiate freely over their interests and needs, so do employees have the right to organize labor unions to discuss and negotiate freely over their interests and needs. If employers have the right to respectable profits, so do employees have the right to respectable incomes. If employers have the right to lay-away funds for retirement and health care, so do employees.

The rub comes when questions are asked. What is the meaning of personal dignity? Who decides how dignity is respected? What are the lines for collective bargaining? What constitutes adequate retirement and healthcare benefits? Some answers are in encyclicals -- union organizing is indispensable in modern industrial life and all have a right to respectable standard of living. Some are in the Bishops’ World Synod Document -- work on behalf of structural social and economic change is as necessary a part of the Church’s mission as the sacraments and preaching. Some are in the US Bishops’1981 “Economic Pastoral” -- there must be equal economic justice for all. Yet many specific answers to such questions also depend upon civic legislation and agencies, especially upon continuing discussions and negotiations between employer and employee representatives. Thus, incumbent on all of us whether employers or employees or retirees, is the moral necessity to be intelligently and insightfully informed and to converse calmly and compassionately from a variety of sources and with a variety of people.

Very timely and crucially, on this “Labor Day” all of us must be conversant and constructive about the proper conduct of the market, employees’ free choice in organizing and collective bargaining, the changes necessary to provide adequate and equitable healthcare for all, and of local efforts on behalf of adequate living wages. All of us must be aware constantly and conscientiously of biases we have absorbed from our family and education, membership and affiliation, media and friends, etc. We will never be free of biases but being aware of them can clarify our thinking and conduct our speaking. At least, we shall be disinclined to hail epithets at one another, whether “unthinking liberals” or “unfeeling conservatives”-- or worse “commies” or “fascists.”

Father Patrick Sullivan, CSC is the newly appointed Chaplain and executive secretary of The Labor Guild.

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