Last Monday was a national holiday known as Labor Day.
This national holiday is always the first Monday in September. My memories of this holiday, growing up in Midland, Michigan, are memories of parades in the downtown district; softball games at Emerson Park; picnics at Emerson Park; last-minute weekend or day trips as the summer was unofficially ending and school started the day after Labor Day.
It was also a day to reflect on the impact of blue-collar workers and the labor unions. My father was a union member, as my father-in-law was. I was a union member when working an hourly position in the retail business. Then as I went to work at the U.S. Post Office, I joined the National Rural Letter Carriers Association union. They are essential.
This holiday was created of and for the labor movement and is a testimonial to the hard-working, and economic and social accomplishments of the American worker. It is acknowledgement to the input of workers who have made our country strong, prosperous, healthy, happy and comfortable.
Researchers give Matthew Maguire, a machinist, credit for establishing this holiday. Maguire was the secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York and proposed this holiday in 1882. This union adopted a Labor Day proposal and assigned a group of men to plan a demonstration (march) and a picnic. This was the beginning of street parades to show the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community. A festival for the recreation and good times of the workers and their families followed these parades.
On June 28, 1894, Congress passed an act that made the first Monday in September of every year a legal holiday, and President Grover Cleveland signed this law to make Labor Day a national holiday. This holiday represents the achievements of the worker and labor, as together, they have set the highest standard of living, and they have raised the bar for the best production in the world and have given us the realization of our country’s traditional ideals of economic and political democracy.
Even though Labor Day has passed, we still need to think about and reflect on the continuation of low wages and inequality in the workplace.
In the Gospel on the Sunday before Labor Day, Jesus reminded us that it is in our service to those among us who are poor and vulnerable that we will be made righteous (Lk 14:12-14). In several of our communities, low-paying occupations add to a high poverty rate. This Labor Day, we needed to think about our call to act and live in solidarity with many in our workforce who struggle to make ends meet weekly if not daily.
Catholic teaching indicates to us that workers are due a “just wage” so that they can provide for their family’s needs weekly. Workers need opportunities for off days to rest and health benefits for their families. They must be appropriately compensated so that they can actively participate in the economy and society in general.
Catholic teaching tells us that workers should be building solidarity with and among fellow workers, along with promoting the rights and dignity of workers. The church supports the important role that labor unions provide workers in the effort to protect the needs and rights of workers, especially in situations of injustice and inequality.
Even after this Labor Day, we need to pray and act to do something to address injustice and inequality in our workplaces. Perhaps we can help to ensure that workplaces are providing family wages and appropriate benefits that Catholic tradition attests should be available for all workers and their families.
In the Catholic tradition, we believe that work is more than a way to earn a livelihood; it is a form of continuing engagement in God’s creation. Labor Day should have made us think about the dignity of work and rights of workers. And we can do this by our prayers. Let us pray:
“Lord God, Master of the Vineyard, how wonderful that you have invited us who labor by the sweat of our brow to be workers in the vineyard and assist your work to shape the world around us. As we seek to respond to this call, make us attentive to those who seek work but cannot find it. Help us listen to the struggles of those who work hard to provide for their families but still have trouble making ends meet. Open our eyes to the struggles of those exploited and help us speak for just wages and safe conditions, the freedom to organize, and time for renewal. For work was made for humankind and not humankind for work. Let it not be a vehicle for exploitation but a radiant expression of our human dignity. Fill us with your Holy Spirit that you might work through us to let your just reign. Amen.” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)