Monday, September 5, 2011


I’ve never paid much attention to Labor Day. It’s always seemed an oddly placed holiday; why have a day off so soon after school starts? If I’ve thought of it at all, it’s as a bittersweet epilogue to the joys of summer, a deadline for getting fall plans in order.

I don’t remember learning about Labor Day in school. I can’t remember hearing a sermon about it, and I don’t remember ever teaching anything remotely apropos.

Looking back, that troubles me. It seems as a culture we’ve fallen into an aversion to the very idea of labor, in all of its meanings. We’d rather not work, although we do want to be paid. We’d rather not know whose work we’re enjoying, although we prefer to pay as little as possible.

I know kids with strong opinions about “the poor are poor because they’re lazy” who have never, themselves, worked in any physical way. I remember asking a sixteen-year-old to sweep some broken glass in an area where small children would be playing. She told me she’d never held a broom in her life. When I offered to teach her, she said “And I never will.” How does she plan to keep her floors clean? “I’ll pay someone to do it.”

A boy heading into his senior year of high school, maybe on the same mission trip, refused to clean a toilet when his group had bathroom duty. His leader, a guy a few years older, asked if he’d used the toilet, or planned to in the future. “Of course.” “Then clean it.”

Even adults sometimes have trouble. One team member complained of an assignment: “If I wanted to do dishes, I could have done that at home.”

Didn’t Jesus himself say, “I came not to be served but to serve”? And “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all”? And “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all”?

Then he demonstrated what he meant by interrupting his dinner party to wash his guests’ feet, the dirty, demeaning work of a servant.

Paul said “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men  . . . . It is the Lord Christ whom you serve”; yes, even sweeping sidewalks, cleaning toilets, washing dishes.

There’s an intrinsic value in work – even the simple tasks express our care for our environment, our homes, our families, our world. Sir Wilfred Grenfell, a turn-of-the century medical missionary to Newfoundland, put it this way: “The service we render to others is really the rent we pay for our room on this earth.”

But work goes beyond mere “rent”.  It connects us with the world in a way that builds confidence, community, a sense of having something to contribute. I worry about those who have only money to contribute, who see everything in terms of points, dollars, some future reward that has little to do with the give-and-take of daily interaction.

Some of our family’s happiest times have been in preparation for an extended family gathering: everyone helps clean, everyone helps set up, everyone jumps in to prepare stuffed mushrooms, pies, homemade breads, gourmet salads, whatever else is needed. From the time our kids were small they had jobs to do and were happy to do them, happy to grow into harder jobs, happy to teach the simple jobs to whoever was next in line. Washing dishes afterward, returning tables and chairs to their normal places, we review our time together, giving thanks for a family that can work and celebrate together.

Through work we discover our gifts, express our creativity, share our values, engage with the world. And through work, sometimes the most simple, physical, commonplace work, we make God’s love visible. Mother Theresa described caring for the poor in the streets of Calcutta, and said “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work. “ 

I like that line: “let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.”

There’s something twisted that happens when we think some work is beneath us. It changes our interaction with the world around us, but it also allows us to look down on those who do the work we refuse to do, as if they’re somehow less than us, worth less than us.

Which brings me to the other reason I’m troubled at my long years of disinterest in Labor Day.

While most of us have been thinking about other things, workers in the US and throughout the world have seen their work devalued, their wages shrink, their rights diminish. I’m not an economist, but it looks like workers have been losing ground for the last forty years. Real income is down, minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation, benefits have been cut. Workers are expected to be more productive, work faster and longer with less compensation and less say in how their work is done. There is more unemployment, more underemployment, less job-security. The global economy and the race to the lowest price have not only hurt workers in the US but have threatened workers around the globe, and have led to the highest level of human trafficking in centuries.  

I can find statistics for all of this, but I can also see it in the day-to-day lives of people around me. When I was first married in the late seventies, it was the norm for young couples to survive easily on one salary, while the other studied, or stayed home with small kids. That seems almost impossible now.

It was also the norm for full-time jobs to carry full health benefits, for the employee and his or her family. When did that end? I’ve been hearing from many young people I know that they have to pay a significant share for their own benefits, and spouses often aren’t covered.

And since when is a job at Target a welcome option for a college graduate? More and more young adults are landing at home with no jobs in sight, or moving home because it’s impossible to pay even part of an apartment with wages from the jobs they’ve found.

Yes, there’s a recession. But look at these two simple graphs. They tell a story I’m still struggling to understand.

While a congressman in the 1840s, Abraham Lincoln jotted some notes about trade that would be helpful reading for our congressmen today. He had some strong things to say about the importance of buying and selling locally, and about the need for protectionist policies to encourage local commerce. Then this:  

No good thing has been or can be enjoyed by us without having first cost labor. And inasmuch as most good things are produced by labor, it follows that all such things of right belong to those whose labor has produced them. But it has so happened, in all ages of the world, that some have labored, and others have without labor enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong, and should not continue. To secure to each laborer the whole product of his labor, or as nearly as possible, is a worthy object of any good government. 

Of all people, Christ’s followers should be first to advocate for fair pay, fair conditions, equal benefits for workers. Historically, churches, and people of faith, have stood with unions on behalf of workers. Whatever their failings, for the past century and a half unions have been the strongest advocates for fair pay, safe workplaces, reasonable hours. Without unions, workers in mills, mines, factories would still be pushed to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Unions helped win workmen’s compensation, workplace safety standards, child labor laws. I’ve been stunned at the attacks this summer on public workers, surprised to learn how far unions have been pushed back in both the private and public sectors. No unions have been perfect, and power and money always leave the door open to abuse, but all of us, union workers or not, owe a great debt to the work of unions.

And I've been surprised and saddened to see so many Christians apparently siding with large corporate interests and financial institutions in political positions that undermine labor, cut needed jobs, and make it increasingly difficult for workers to live on a full-time wage. 

The world is so complicated it’s hard to see how to stand on the side of justice for workers. The first step in that direction might be a deeper respect for the value of work, and a more focused attention on who profits from the dollars we spend. I’ve moved toward buying fair trade products whenever I can. I buy as much as possible from local farmers, or local businesses that treat their employees fairly, and I’m doing my best to find worker-owned companies and cooperatives: Cabot Creamery, Land O’Lakes, Equal Exchange, REI, Ocean Spray.

I’m also doing what I can to avoid companies that have a record of poor treatment of their own workers, or of disinterest in the working conditions of their suppliers. And in the current stand-off between Verizon and its workers, I’ve written in support of the union and their right to collective bargaining.

In 1963 Martin Luther King said “all life is interrelated . . . somehow we're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

Hard to believe that my actions, here, can impact workers around the globe. Yet, as history has shown, individuals choosing wisely, speaking justly, hold the key to that “garment of destiny” that affects us all.  

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