It all started Sunday evening at a BBQ at my home with Loretto friends and neighbors. It was the day before Labor Day, and we closed the evening by singing some old songs from the labor movement like "Bread and Roses" and "Solidarity Forever."
As I sang the words, I knew they were from another era, and yet eerily contemporary at the same time. From "Bread and Roses:"
tHearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.
I thought of women in sweatshops at the turn of the century (and the suffragists who used this song too), but I also thought about the women who toil at two or three jobs today just to support themselves and their children. Where are the "roses" in their lives?
From "Solidarity Forever:"
tBut without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
tWe can break their haughty power, gain our freedom, when we learn
tThat the Union makes us strong.
That 1915 song recalls early greedy industrialists, the robber barons of another age. But it could apply as well to the Wall Street moguls of today who made money by moving money around through phony mortgages and other financial devices. It also raised memories of the recent labor struggles in Wisconsin to regain collective bargaining rights for state employees.
Then, in yesterday's The Washington Post, E.J. Dionne offered a column on the "invisible worker" today. He discussed the decline in union membership, the lack of labor reporters in the media, and even the relative disappearance of working class figures like Archie Bunker in TV entertainment. He even quoted that Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who said "Labor is prior to and independent of capital…Labor is superior to capital and deserves the higher consideration." (Can you imagine any of the current crop of Republican candidates even coming close to such a sentiment?)
E.J. is a devout Catholic who also quoted from Laborem Exercens by Pope John Paul II in which he also asserted "the priority of labor over capital." One of the strongest social teachings of our church emphasizes the rights of working people, the very people who currently need jobs, and need them badly.
Thursday evening, President Obama will give a speech on jobs to a joint session of Congress. While I doubt that Obama will turn philosophical or theological, I am looking for a strong, bold message -- one that holds out hope for "bread and roses."
Labor Day? No, this has to be Labor Week.