Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is considered the unofficial end of summer. While the real summer season continues for at least another three weeks, culturally Labor Day seems to turn the page. A generation ago schools generally opened just after Labor Day. But now schools open in early August. Still that first “long weekend” of the school year seems to have become a ritual in itself with maybe the last swimming and last family picnics.
It seems all but forgotten that Labor Day was created to honor the American labor movement. The origins of Labor Day in the United States date back to the late 19th century. By 1894 it was observed as a national holiday intended to honor the American worker who was contributing mightily to our still-growing nation. Over the next several decades and through the tumultuous 20th century the America laborer built a nation of the greatest material wealth and production in the world.
The teaching of the Catholic Church has paralleled the labor movement and been an integral part of its identity. We are reminded that economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power. An authentic economy is ordered first of all to the service of persons and the entire human community.
Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God. In the creation story of the Book of Genesis, creation is entrusted to human beings with the charge that they continue the work of creation. The Church teaches that human work is a duty: If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10). Work honors the creator’s gifts and it can be redemptive. An enduring portrait of Jesus is that he was the “carpenter’s son” and his early life is envisioned as one of manual labor.
From the earliest days of humanity, documented in Sacred Scripture and other ancient sources, one of the great sins and injustices is the exploitation of human labor. Our nation’s history, like all nations, is one of progression and recession. For all of the progress we enjoy in our nation, there is always a tendency for the powerful to exploit the weak.
A just society should assure that those who provide the labor that keeps the wheels of our economy rolling should be compensated with a proportionate share of the profit. The complexity of a worldwide economy makes it all the more difficult for us to know and recognize times when we enjoy the fruits of others’ labors, yet, cannot always see the subhuman economic conditions in which they must survive.
Let us rediscover the meaning of Labor Day and raise voices of advocacy for those who produce our food, our homes, and our electronics. And let us celebrate our own work and contributions.
Most Reverend William F. Medley
Diocese of Owensboro
Originally printed in the September 2019 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2019 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic