Labors Loves Lost

Today isn't Labor Day. Neither was Labor Day, for all practical purposes. Ever since red letter days were simply reduced to weekend attachments, creating the "holiday weekend," we've skipped paying much attention at all to the original purpose of any of the formally designated occasions as we go about our leisure and conjure the slashed prices at the malls and the dealerships. Labor Day retains its tag as the "traditional end of summer" but even that's not so true as millions of seniors linger far longer. The day set aside to recognize the accomplishments of organized labor is widely disdained as a lamentable "perp walk," spotlighting foes of free enterprise who hinder its full exercise.

The tendency to disremember the suffering brought on by the 19th and early 20th century factory system -- child labor, slave wages and polluted work places -- is speedier now thanks to millions more distractions. The tragedy is that so many workers face comparable conditions these days in reputed tasteful businesses like Starbucks where upscale people feel comfortable. Until the famous coffee emporium's policy of keeping part time workers on mandatory call to report immediately whenever, at risk of losing what little money they made, everything looked fine to the toney crowd. If the workers had had a union it might have been better.

Catholic Social Teaching places worker rights to unionize at the center of its imperatives. While Catholics were the beleaguered immigrant factory force, that mattered. As Catholics gained managerial and ownership status, much less so to the point of opposition. Many Catholic colleges have highlighted business schools where recent generations of students learn that unions are their enemy, robbing them of the "freedom" to do with their capital what they will, unhindered. I don't know how many Catholic universities and colleges shun Labor Day and carry on business as usual but many do, further ignoring the lesson about the dignity and God-given rights of every human being which Pope Leo XIII extolled in initiating Catholic Social Teaching. The Catholic Church still pays formal tribute to that principle but does little else, while the Catholic rank and file seem indifferent at best.

There is much wailing now about the frightfully widening gap between those with plenty of money and those with practically none. Whatever can we do or should we do? The best step would be to do something to raise wage scales. That would mean putting a shoulder behind unionizing. Does it mean replicating the past? No, there is room for updating and reform of the labor movement itself. But without the wholehearted, sacrificial support of American religion it's not likely to happen at all. If we seriously believe that the widening chasm between "haves" (and we're not just talking about the one percent -- which many are shocked to discover begins around $400,000 a year, the income of many two professor families) and the "have nots," if we actually put stock in the "we are all in this together" theology of social teaching, if we adopt the piece of the US Bishops teaching on the economy which says that the test of any public policy is its effect on the poor -- then a revival of unions is a ticket to a more equitable way of life. But there is so little will. Most Protestants, looking out for their privileges in the past, have sided with capitalists, with notable exceptions. Many Jews with a deep grasp of oppression, have fought for working people. Catholics offer the greatest potential. They have it all down in writing from the pinnacle of authority from Leo to Francis. It's there to be utilized.

Overall, the level of union membership has dropped to 11%. For workers in government, the rate is 35%. All those cops, fire fighters and hospital workers to whom we pay respects have attained stability and liveability through unions. The military has its own -- the Pentagon. They have done so to protect common interests, as Catholic teaching legitimates. All around them, meanwhile, the hardest workers in the land go unprotected and threatened at every turn when they attempt to organize. America has always contained powerful animosity toward the heart and soul of the labor movement that will most certainly keep attacking its efforts to curb the excesses of owners. I'm sure many of you would join me in celebrating a Labor Day worthy of its name.


Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here