Let us remember what Labor Day is about

| Pete Sheehan | August 27, 2014 | 0 Comments

Once, as a kid, I asked my dad: “Why do they call it ‘Labor Day’ when everyone is off work?”

Dad, who had a strong union background, looked at me with one of these serious but paternal expressions. “Labor Day is the day to honor labor, the American worker,” he said.

That answered my question, but decades later, I fear that many — perhaps most — have missed the meaning of Labor Day, regarding it as a day off, the unofficial close of summer and, in some places, the beginning of school.

The tradition of Labor Day goes back to the 1880s as a “workingman’s holiday,” as it was called, to honor the achievements of U.S. workers. Through the urging of organized labor, Labor Day began in cities, then in more than 20 states. In 1894, Congress declared Labor Day a national holiday.

We need only look around to see why. The roads we travel, the buildings we live in, work in, shop in, and pass along the way remind us of all that U.S workers have achieved. Add to that the multitudes working in those buildings — blue collar and white collar — providing much that we don’t often think about.

The work of so many women, and now more and more men, who take care of their children at home, should also be recognized as a noble, vital, profession that anyone engaged in should be proud of.

Nor can we forget the farmers, farm workers, and others who labor to bring food to our tables.

St. John Paul II, in his 1981 encyclical, “Laborem Exercens,” or “On Human Work,” wrote that human work, far from being punishment for original sin — as some have interpreted the Genesis story — is actually the carrying out of God’s commandment to humanity to cultivate and exercise dominion or stewardship of the earth.

Thus, God made human beings sharers in creation. Moreover, by engaging in work, a human being “in a way collaborates with the Son of God,” who himself was a laborer, “for the redemption of humanity.”

Pope Francis affirmed his predecessor’s insight, noting that work is “fundamental to the dignity of the person,” and “makes us similar to God.”

If toil was not part of God’s plan it is certainly an integral facet of labor today. Almost everything we rely on and enjoy came to us through much toil and frequently, risk and danger.

According to AFL-CIO figures, 4,400 people were killed in the United States in 2012 on the job, and 50,000 workers die annually from occupational disease caused by exposure to toxic chemicals and other health hazards.

The AFL-CIO has established “National Workers’ Memorial Day” commemorating the women and men who die and suffer on the job.

Some communities have monuments to workers, such as Port Washington, Long Island, New York, near where I once lived. There stands a monument to sand miners, men and women who from 1865 to 1989 unearthed, moved, and hauled 140 million cubic yards of sand to barges for the trip to Manhattan for the construction of the skyscrapers and subways, roads and bridges of New York City.

I once interviewed Jesuit Father Phil Carey, a noted New York labor priest, who showed me a photo of his offering Mass for the “sandhogs,” workers who dug and built one of the tunnels going into Manhattan.

“You know what that Mass was for?” Father Carey asked me. “It was a Mass of Thanksgiving” that no one died in digging and building the tunnel.

Those of us who grew up in the Youngstown Diocese have heard of the hazards of steel mills and factories. In Youngstown, there is a sculpture outside the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor, across the street from St. Columba Cathedral, honoring the steel workers who helped make this area.

Through the years, casualty rates have improved through safety regulations and unions pushing for better working conditions, but the battle goes on.

Workers have other struggles as well. The U.S. bishops have not forgotten the meaning of Labor Day. Each year they issue a Labor Day message, reminding us of the dignity of labor and the needs of workers, such as decent jobs and wages.

So, this Labor Day, enjoy your rest, your picnics, your fairs, and other recreation, but remember to be grateful for the workers who produced and delivered that food that you eat, the car that you ride in, the roads that you travel, the destinations that you visit, and the home that you return to.


USCCB Labor Day Statement 2014

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