The laborer deserves his pay. Luke 10:7
The first Monday of September, Labor Day, means that white clothes are out, sales are in, summer holidays are over and classes begin.
This holiday has a storied past, one of violence and celebration, that is embedded deep in the history of the American labor movement. And while it has spread around the world in different forms, Labor Day has distinctly American roots.
The modern holiday is widely traced to an organized parade in New York City in 1882. Union leaders had called for what they labelled a “monster labor festival” on Tuesday, Sept. 5.
Initially that morning, few people showed up, but soon the crowds began flowing in, and by the end of the day some 10,000 people had marched in the parade and joined festivities.
Even though the practice of holding annual festivities to celebrate workers probably originated in Canada and spread across the country after that New York City festival, Labor Day didn’t become a national holiday for more than a decade.
Oregon became the first state to declare it a holiday in 1887, followed by New York, Massachusetts and Colorado. Under President Grover Cleveland, the first Monday in September became a national holiday in 1896.
The Catholic Church has a proud history of supporting workers. The world of the medieval artisan was organized around a careful attention to the rights and responsibilities of apprentices, journeymen and master craftsmen.
Just wages and fair prices — not profits — were paramount. Sloppy work and avarice violated communal and religious norms. The craft guilds were also mutual and benevolent societies; they helped the impoverished and sick members; they took care of the widows and orphans; they remembered the needs of the poor.
The vast social and economic changes of the Industrial Revolution disrupted this way of life. The first papal encyclical to address the new world of the wage earner, management, corporations and the modern state was Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” (“On the Condition of Labor”) which he published in 1891. The pope sought to restore the human values of the medieval guilds.
This encyclical was followed by Pope Pius XI’s “Quadragesimo Anno” in 1931, St. John XXIII’s “Pacem in Terris” in 1963, St. John Paul II’s “Laborem Exercens” in 1981, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document “Economic Justice For All” in 1986 and Pope Benedict XVI’s “Caritas in Veritate” in 2009. (They are all online and they are worth reading, even today.) Pope Francis has continued to call Catholics to seek justice for workers.
The Catholic bishops summed up the teaching of the church on labor in their 2007 “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” document.
“Catholic social teaching supports the right of workers to choose whether to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively, and to exercise these rights without reprisal. … Workers, owners, employers, and unions should work together to create decent jobs, build a more just economy, and advance the common good.”
Father J. Ronald Knott