Today’s readings: Genesis 1:26-2:3; Psalm 90; Matthew 6:31-34
It seems like Labor Day is a little bit painful these past few years. This year is no exception. I caught a part of the news the other day when I was getting ready for Mass and they pointed out that it’s ironic we celebrate Labor Day when so many are out of work. In July, our nation lost 131,000 jobs, bringing the unemployment rate to 9.5 percent, and we found out this past week that that figure dipped to 9.6 percent in August. Our bishops point out that the most difficult part of this Labor Day is the fact that so many workers have died in tragic circumstances. They write: “The nation still mourns the twenty-nine West Virginia miners who died when the earth around them collapsed. We still grieve for the eleven riggers who died in the Gulf of Mexico when their oil derrick exploded. We are still saddened as the work life of the entire Gulf Coast is damaged or destroyed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. These are just the most visible examples of workers whose lives have been lost.”
This is frustrating because it’s not supposed to be that way. Back in the Blessed Garden, God gave humanity a hand in the ongoing work of creation: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.” Our readings today give foundation to the Church’s social teaching that meaningful work which provides the worker with human dignity and the ability to care for self and family is a basic human right.
Since Pope Leo XIII’s ground-breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum, the Church and her popes have consistently taught that:
- The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.
- A fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the poor and vulnerable are faring.
- All people have a right to life and to secure the basic necessities of life (e.g. food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, safe environment, economic security).
- All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefit, to decent working conditions, as well as to organize and join union or other associations.
In this year’s Labor Day statement, the bishops of the United States note that we have strayed from those ideals, and that it is time for a new social contract that would embrace the uniqueness of our current economy and provide those basic rights once again. They write: “This Labor Day we must seek to protect the life and dignity of each worker in a renewed and robust economy. Workers need to have a real voice and effective protections in economic life. The market, the state, and civil society, unions and employers all have roles to play and they must be exercised in creative and fruitful interrelationships. Private action and public policies that strengthen families and reduce poverty are needed. New jobs with just wages and benefits must be created so that all workers can express their dignity through the dignity of work and are able to fulfill God’s call to us all to be co-creators. A new social contract, which begins by honoring work and workers, must be forged that ultimately focuses on the common good of the entire human family.”
This Labor Day reminds us with urgency that we don’t have permission to write off human labor as some kind of necessary evil or a commodity to be bought and sold. We are reminded that the economy exists for the good of people, not the other way around. We must truly venerate all labor, that of our own efforts as well as that of others. We must vigorously defend the rights and dignity of workers, particularly of the poor and marginalized. And we must always offer all of this back to our God who created us to be co-creators with him. May we pray with the Psalmist this day and every day, “Lord give success to the work of our hands!”