We are approaching Labor Day in the United States and Canada. It functions as an unofficial end to summer. In 2020, the year of the pandemic, a common reaction is, “What summer?” Between quarantines, working at home and a million other restrictions, one would expect time to drag. Yet the passage of time has not slowed down; if anything it has accelerated. However, it does seem that those things we use to measure time — names of the days, weekends, holidays — have disappeared in a blur of featureless repetition.
Nevertheless, the pandemic has made us acutely aware of work. Millions of people are now unemployed. At least for the foreseeable future, the so-called work-a-day world is a thing of the past. We do not know how long this will last and there is a deep feeling that whatever the future will bring, it will be (very?) different from the pre-pandemic world we knew. To say it is unsettling is an understatement. As is often the case with us humans, adversity brings out generosity in some and baseness in others.
Labor Day is observed on the first Monday in September in the United States and Canada. Most of the world observes 1 May as International Workers’ Day. Chosen by the Second Internationale of the socialist and communist parties to commemorate the Haymarket Labor riots of 4 May 1886, the U.S. opted officially for the September date in 1894 as being the less inflammatory of the two dates.
For centuries in traditional, highly stratified societies, the nobility and wealthy — often the same group — were considered blessed by God. Royalty had its wealth by “divine right.” In the Roman Empire and much of the ancient world the economy was built on slave labor. It is sobering to think that slavery-based economies endured till the middle of the 19th century and disturbing remnants of slavery still remain. The laborer, the farmer and others were often serfs, basically belonging to the nobles. The difference between slaves and the working poor in the Middle Ages was often merely on paper. With the advent of money-based economies and urban industrialization, the lot of the working poor had changed but hardly improved. (We see this daily in the world CNEWA serves, and the working poor are ever before us — which makes honoring the worker especially important and meaningful for CNEWA’s mission and ministry.)
By the middle of the 19th century, workers began to become restive. Novelists like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen brought wider attention to the crushing poverty of the working class and the hubris of the wealthy. Workers began to organize.
In the United States at the end of the 19th century, the Catholic population was growing because of immigration from Ireland, Italy and other “catholic countries.” As is almost universally the case, the Catholic immigrants were poor, often unskilled workers. Power is never surrendered and rarely even shared willingly by those who have it. As wealthy and powerful companies grew with the newly emerging technologies, the resistance on the part of the powerful to the needs and rights of the poor also grew. Poor Catholic immigrants were often at the center.
One of the labor movements was the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869. It functioned as a quasi-labor union, promoted the rights of the worker and called for an eight-hour workday. The Catholic Church, wary of the Masons and other similar groups, was initially ambiguous to the Knights of Labor. James Cardinal Gibbons (1877-1921), the archbishop of Baltimore, was able to convince Pope Leo XIII of the value of the Knights of Labor, preventing a condemnation from the Holy See.
Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Rerum Novarum on 15 May 1891. In it, the pope outlined the rights of workers. It was a significant event in the Social Magisterium of the Church, which is often overlooked by even those preoccupied with the Magisterium. Rerum Novarum was the first of three papal encyclicals dealing with the rights and obligations of both workers and employers. Forty years after Rerum Novarum, Pope Pius XI published Quadradgesimo Anno (15 May 1931) and fifty years after that Pope John Paul II published Laborem Exercens (14 September 1981). Each of these encyclicals develops the official magisterium (teaching) of the Catholic Church about the rights of workers to a just wage, humane working conditions and hours, etc.
Pope Francis has not been silent on the rights and needs of workers, especially the working poor. He has spoken about societies that put company profits above human dignity or even human life. “What point have we come to?,” he asked about societies that put company profits above everything. In an article in the Jesuit publication America , the author notes that the pope stresses that “Jesus was a worker and lamented companies that put much more attention to profits than the dignity of labor. Expounding on the theme of the dignity of work, Francis said: ‘We do not get dignity from power or money or culture. We get dignity from work’…. ‘Work is fundamental to the dignity of the person. Work, to use an image, ‘anoints’ with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God who has worked and still works, who always acts.’ …He ended his homily with the admonition: “I address a strong appeal that the dignity and safety of the worker always be protected.”
As we prepare to observe Labor Day, in a time when the situation of workers around the world is perhaps more precarious than it has been since the Great Depression, it is important to reflect on the Church’s teaching on the value of labor and the value of the laborer. In a world threatened by diminishing resources, popes for over a century have reminded us of our obligations to each other, working together for a just, sustainable world.
How we respond is up to us, our consciences and ultimately our stand before God.