Today, the U.S. and Canada celebrate Labor Day, a day honoring workers. What does it mean to honor workers at a time of high unemployment, job insecurity, and the threat of lay–offs? In the U.S., the unemployment rate remains over 9%, with no decrease of the rate in August and the recovery of jobs apparently stalled. As President Obama prepares to deliver his “jobs speech ” this week, he faces immense challenges. Other countries face even higher unemployment rates, with France, for example, at 9.9% and Ireland at 14.4 %.
In the U.S., the first celebration of Labor Day was held in 1882 in New York City, organized by the Central Labor Union. In Canada, Labor Day can be traced back even further, to when Toronto Typographers went on strike for a 58-hour work week in 1872. Religious leaders, both nationally and internationally, recognizing the sanctity of labor, joined labor leaders in calling for justice for workers. Pope Leo XIII, for example, issued Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor) in 1891, building a biblical foundation for the dignity of the worker.
In today’s tough economic times, it’s important to continue to listen not only to the voices of labor leaders and political leaders seeking to address the challenges before us, but also to the voices of spiritual leaders. We need to focus not only on the facts and figures of an economy struggling to recover, but also on the moral issues. Religious leaders today continue to recognize the sanctity of labor. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, issued a Labor Day statement this year emphasizing that unemployment and job insecurity “are not just economic problems, but also human tragedies, moral challenges, and tests of our faith.”
The USCCB statement goes on to draw a parallel between the time at which Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum and today:
One–hundred–twenty years ago at the time of the Industrial Revolution workers also faced great difficulties. Pope Leo XIII identified the situation of workers as the key moral challenge of that time . . . This timely encyclical lifted up the inherent dignity of the worker in the midst of massive economic changes. Pope Leo’s powerful letter rejected both unbridled capitalism that could strip workers of their God–given human dignity and dangerous socialism that could empower the state over all else in ways that destroy human initiative.
What does it mean to honor the dignity of the worker today in another time of massive economic change? How can we reject both “unbridled capitalism” and “dangerous socialism” today?
We are living in a time in which there are no easy answers for our economic challenges. In this uncharted territory, we will need to experiment. We will need to hear opposing perspectives, listening for the wisdom in other points of view. We will need to work together across party lines for the good of all, rejecting entrenched, knee–jerk responses. We will need to find a new way forward.
In the words of Pope Benedict:
The current crisis obliges us to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment, to build on positive experiences and to reject negatives ones. The crisis thus becomes an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future (Caritas in Veritate, no. 21).
May we rise to the occasion and view this opportunity to shape a new vision as a challenge worth our best efforts.