Labor Day used to be a big deal, and it ought to be again.
Sure, there were the usual parades in some cities this past Monday. Politicians made perfunctory speeches. But no one seems to be serious about the significance of the day and the blood and sweat and effort that went into creating the American labor force and, eventually, celebrating them with a day of their own.
The Catholic Church remembers, though, and that’s a very good thing. The church remembers that the labor force, the working people of the nation — specifically the labor unions — are responsible for many of the benefits of work that today we take for granted.
Enjoy your two-week vacation? Thank somebody who, in the ‘20s and ‘30s labor union movement, marched and, yes, sometimes fought, to make paid vacations a reality. Happy about Social Security? Thank the working people who supported the political efforts of Franklin Roosevelt to make it a reality.
You could go on and on — Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, the now-somewhat-gutted Voting Rights Act, the Clean Water Act. There’s quite a list.
There was a time, even in the relatively-recent past of Louisville, when allowing a work force to organize into a labor union was anathema to a company.
The federal law said, during the time of labor organization in the late 1940s, that a company had to provide a space for union organizers on company property. In one instance, that “space” was an abandoned railroad crossing guard’s shack. One night while a union organizer was in the shack — a tiny place, those of us old enough to remember them will recall — a company employee ran over the wooden structure with a bulldozer.
It crushed the foot of the union man inside the building.
The point is, the “benefits” we all take for granted now were hard earned, and it’s refreshing to read this year’s Labor Day statement by the U.S. bishops acknowledge that fact.
“Catholic teaching has consistently affirmed the right of workers to choose to form a union,” the statement said. It was delivered by Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Cal., who heads the U.S. bishops’ committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
“Since the end of the Civil War, unions have been an important part of our economy because they provide protections for workers and more importantly a way for workers to participate in company decisions that affect them,” the statement said.
The statement didn’t ignore the warts on union history, either. “Unions, like all human institutions, are imperfect,” Bishop Blaire said, “and they must continue to reform themselves so they stay focused on the important issues of living wages and appropriate benefits.”
Those issues include raising the minimum wage, stopping wage theft, standing up for safe and healthy working conditions “and other issues that promote the common good,” the statement added.
Bishop Blaire’s Labor Day statement also alluded to earlier comments on the value of labor made by Pope Francis.
“Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person. … It gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one’s family, to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation,” the pope said.
Bishop Blaire added that these days, however, there are efforts all across the nation and the globe to reduce the number of unions or the ability of people to join them.
“Unfortunately today, millions of workers are denied the honor (of work) and the respect as a result of unemployment, underemployment, unjust wages, abuse and exploitation,” he said.
The Labor Day statement also noted that the United States economy is “not creating an adequate number of jobs that allow workers to provide for themselves and their families.”
“More than four million people have been jobless for more than six months,” the bishop’s statement said, “and that figure does not include the millions more who have simply lost hope. For every available job, there are often five unemployed and underemployed people actively vying for it. This ‘jobs gap’ pushes wages down. Half of the jobs in this country pay less than $27,000 per year. More than 46 million people live in poverty, including 16 million children.”
Consider what happened just last week in Louisville. The Ford Motor Company — which gets tons of tax breaks from the state, by the way — originally said they were looking to fill 150 to 200 positions at its Kentucky Truck Plant. More than 5,500 people applied for those jobs, but the company said the “hiring target” was now just 50 positions.
The situation is dire; the bishops recognize it and so does Pope Francis.
The annual bishops’ Labor Day statement said as much: “The pain of the poor and those becoming poor in the rising economic inequality of our society is mounting.”
Let’s all pray — and work — to reverse this awful trend.