Today is Labor Day in the United States, and up down my street there are American flags flying high and proud. This happens every time there is a national holiday of some patriotic significance, so I am glad to see it today, because if the last six months has taught us anything it is that our good fortune as a nation is borne on the backs of workers. Yet right next to those flags are overturned trash cans because our local garbage collectors do not get the day off today, just as they do not get off on Christmas, Easter, or any other federal holidays. It is a stark reminder that we have a long way to go in this country to get our reality to match our rhetoric.
Labor Day may be a holiday specific to the United States, but it is built on principles that are deeply ingrained in Catholic social teaching. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Rerum Novarum which addressed the growing inequality in industrialized societies. “Workers are not to be treated as slaves; justice demands that the dignity of human personality be respected in them” (31). The pope insisted that meaningful work is part of what drives each person towards meeting their potential as a child of God. Therefore, governments ought to protect the rights of workers, and employers ought not only to treat their employees fairly, with a mind towards their quality of life, but also to make sure that they have an equitable share in the benefits of their work. “When men know they are working on what belongs to them, they work with far greater eagerness and diligence. Nay, in a word, they learn to love the land cultivated by their own hands, whence they look not only for food but for some measure of abundance for themselves and their dependents” (66).
These sentiments did not come out of nowhere. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as more and more laborers transitioned to work in factories under the control of a shrinking number of wealthy individuals and burgeoning corporations, they faced increasingly harsh conditions. Workers often found themselves working around the clock, seven days a week, in poor ventilation and unsanitary work spaces, facing extreme cold and heat. In many places, children were employed under similar circumstances. Wages were meager and stagnant. Getting sick meant losing your job. Many people fell ill and died in the factories, never even leaving the assembly lines. Rerum Novarum insisted that laborers must be treated as human beings, not simply as cogs in a system.
The pope’s call did not go unheeded. As the labor movement in America and around the world began to grow, many Catholics participated. A group of American bishops issued a “Program for Social Reconstruction” in 1919 that made an early call for the establishment of a minimum wage, unemployment protections, and the participation of workers in management decisions that affected them.
In 1933, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin established the Catholic Worker Movement. The movement not only fought for the rights of workers but established communities in which people could live out a commitment both to Catholic social teaching and Catholic devotion. “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving poor,” said Day.
Over the course of the one hundred and twenty-nine years since Rerum Novarum, the Church’s magisterial teaching on these issues has repeatedly been strengthened. “Whatever insults human dignity,” said the Second Vatican Council, “such as subhuman living conditions… as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury” (Gaudium et Spes, 27). While the abuse of workers may harm them in this life, the spiritual self-harm suffered by employers who inflict such abuse has eternal consequences.
The means for combatting such inequities, such as those provided by labor unions, are praised by the Church. “The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II in Laborem Exercens. While the pope insists that unions avoid politicization or anything that will take them away from their fundamental task of ensuring the rights of workers, he is adamant that the tools they have for carrying out their primary task must be protected. “Workers should be assured the right to strike, without being subjected to personal penal sanctions for taking part in a strike” (20).
Celebrating and protecting the rights of workers is not only a patriotic duty but a Christian moral responsibility. Labor Day was established in the United States in 1894, just a few years after Rerum Novarum, long before most of the goals of the labor movement would be accomplished. It was meant to be a sign of hope for a future in which protecting the dignity of work and workers would be seen as a bedrock principle of a free society. There have been great strides since then, but our own era shows us that there is a long way still to go. Workers for major corporations around the world today face some of the same harsh conditions that the labor movement fought to eradicate more than a century ago, while workers here in our own country face a situation in which long-held benefits, like sick leave and the forty hour work week, have begun to erode.
Over the past six months of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have discovered time and time again just how essential many of our “essential workers” are, including medical professionals, but also the people who risk their lives to cut our lawns, sanitize our buildings, deliver our groceries, and teach our children. At a moment of extreme economic stress around the world, it is more important than ever that we celebrate and protect the dignity of workers.