Today we honor workers everywhere but especially those workers who fought a long battle, in this country and elsewhere, for safe working conditions, better wages, and the right to organize in order to represent themselves and protect the interests of workers and their families. As so often has been the case, the people with power and money rarely took the initiative to make the workplace safe or enforce decent working hours or pay people fairly. Of course there have been exceptions, but for the most part, the workers themselves have had to take on these challenges. We have weekends, thanks to the labor movement. It’s illegal in this country to put children to work in factories. And companies can be sued and prosecuted for unfair or abusive treatment of employees. In fact, there are now long and detailed law codes about how employers and employees must behave. These basic protections did not always exist. News headlines remind us from time to time that the labor battles are far from over. It’s good to remember that Labor Day is not just another long weekend. Here’s a description of early celebrations:
The form that the observance and celebration of Labor Day should take was outlined in the first proposal of the holiday—a street parade to exhibit to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. This became the pattern for the celebrations of Labor Day. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday. Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.
Until I read this article, I didn’t realize that there was a Labor Sunday, but that is quite appropriate. I can’t speak for other traditions, but I know that Christians have a long history of joining together labor and prayer. In Latin it’s called ora et labora—“pray and labor”—and for centuries this has been a foundational principle for religious communities. Today you can visit any number of monasteries and convents and see people working and praying. They pray at intervals throughout the day, and when they’re not praying, they are working: running a retreat center, operating a farm or vineyard, or doing hands-on work, whether crafting cheese or caskets. The Jesuits have always prayed while on the move, doing every sort of work imaginable, from running prestigious universities to working with refugees in war-torn regions.
Work is honorable; it is a gift that comes with being human. Prayer is also a gift, and when we pray, we can be better guided in our work. More on that Wednesday!
Enjoy your Labor Day. Take a few moments to pray for those who still fight hard battles for workers’ rights and protections.