“If Labor Day is observed as it ought to be, the gospel of humanity will be understood by all men and women.”
Terence Vincent Powderly, leader of the Knights of Labor outreach
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 1: Amid parades, festivities and traveling this Labor Day weekend, consider giving this holiday the merit it really deserves: a look at the history and relevance of labor in the lives of American workers.
Labor Day honors a value that has been a part of religious reflection for thousands of years—the value of human labor. Psalm 90 in the Bible ends with a prayer that God will “prosper the work of our hands.” In Islam, the Quran talks at length about the nature of our work and the morality of conducting ourselves in the public square. For two centuries, popes have written extensively about the sacred nature of labor.
At ReadTheSpirit, we were pleased to see that our colleague religion writer David Briggs published an entire Labor Day quiz, based on recent research into the connections between faith and labor. As David reports, “Faith matters in the lives of working Americans. It matters in their choice of a vocation: Other than marriage, the choice of a job or career is the next major life decision most likely to be influenced by faith, a study by Brandeis University researchers found.”
TRY DAVID BRIGGS’ QUIZ … Click on the image with this column—or just click here—and you’ll jump to his interactive quiz.
AMERICAN LABOR DAY:
A HISTORY ROOTED IN RELIGION
Why do we refer to “American Labor Day” in this column? Because American leaders in the late 1800s feared that a May holiday, which was favored by labor activists, would encourage memories of the tragic Haymarket conflict in Chicago. What began as a peaceful labor demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square wound up in headlines around the world after a bomb went off, police opened fire and many were killed or wounded. The tragedy continued through subsequent court cases. That May event in Haymarket Square well over a century ago is remembered, to this day, in May 1 labor holidays around the world.
Instead of a May holiday, then, American leaders preferred to remove “our” holiday from that tragedy by four months in our civic calendar. Instead, American holiday planners encouraged street parades and public displays of the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations in each community community—including cheerful festivities and recreation for workers and their families. (Wikipedia has details.)
In addition, the Sunday preceding Labor Day is known as “Labor Sunday”—dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.
In the late 1800s, leaders in the Knights of Labor worked diligently to spread awareness of this holiday. Terence Vincent Powderly, leader of the Knights’ outreach, wrote on the influence of religion, “Trade-unionists, members of guilds, leagues and other organizations of workingmen embraced Christianity and proclaimed its doctrines as being especially advantageous to the welfare of the toiling poor.” Powderly’s preamble to the union’s Declaration of Principles quoted Scripture, and the leader himself was a devout Catholic. (The Huffington Post published an article on this subject.)
2014 NEWS: JOB CORPS
MARKS 50 YEARS OF OPPORTUNITY
President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” launched a series of programs intended to restore the nation’s promise of equality and opportunity—and, on Aug. 20, 1964, President Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act. Part of this Act established the Job Corps, a residential education and training program for disadvantaged young people, and centers across the country are marking 50 years with open houses, demonstrations and more. Though the official anniversary was Aug. 20, take some time today to learn more about this fundamental part of labor history in America. (Learn more from the U.S. Department of Labor.)
Here’s an irony: Labor Day has become an important sale weekend for many retailers. More Americans work in the retail industry than any other, resulting in longer hours for the day that was intended to provide leisure for the country’s workers.