Honoring the Laborer

". . .for the laborer deserver to be paid." ~Luke 10:7

"All these rely on their hands,
   and all are skilful in their own work. 
Without them no city can be inhabited,
   and wherever they live, they will not go hungry.
Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people," ~ Ecclesiasticus 38:31-32

Monday marks the 135th observation of Labor Day, which began as a city holiday in New York in 1882 and was fully recognized as a national holiday by 1894. Originally a holiday for celebrating laborers and those in trades, it is now most often celebrated as the last break of summer and a great occasion for sales before the school year begins! Yet, while many relax, we must also remember health care workers, first responders, public safety officers, transportation workers, retail, hospitality, and food works who will all work so that others their days. There's a certain irony that a day to honor the working class now sees many of the working class back at work.

We owe a tremendous debt to laborers and the labor movement - a regulated work week, fair labor laws, occupational safety standards, associations that allowed the voices of working people to be heard by those wielding the levers of power. The people honored by Labor Day are the people who put our infrastructure in place and make the engine of our economy hum. 

Globally and locally, the economy is transitioning at such a rate that all occupations have to adapt to radical change over the course of a career. This has been especially true for many of the working class where whole categories of employment are disappearing due to technology and relocation. In the South, I remember how mills moving from the North created a booming economy. When I moved to Rhode Island, I saw the economic deprivation that the loss of major employers brought tovillages and towns. Indeed, the Diocese of Rhode Island closed several churches in the 1990s that could no longer financially survive after the moneyed mill-owners and management moved away. The workers that stayed behind mostly became unchurched, which speaks to the challenges churches also face in adapting to new realities.

Today, automation and off-shore manufacturing create similar scenarios. Kellogg's announced a major layoff at several plants due to more efficient production. We as a nation want merchandise priced at a level that cannot be affordably manufactured in this country. Automation and the development of robots reduce the size of the workforce needed. The ever-evolving economy does not promise replacement jobs for occupations affected by these changes.

Pressures exist also for those traditionally known as white-collar workers - it's not always easy to take vacation without the fear of losing a promotion, or even one's job. Older workers get displaced for less-expensive younger workers in all fields. Working for one company is a quaint relic of the past for most.

Foreign visas, legal immigration, and undocumented immigration all have an impact, as well, though data is not as clear how negative or positive that is compared to the political debates around the same. There is a downward pressure on wages and more competitive workforce, but also a labor pool willing to take positions that others aren't.

There are many verses in Scripture that honor laborers. Jesus himself said that the laborer is worthy of his hire, meaning that labor deserves compensation. The reading from Ecclesiasticus assigned for Labor Day celebrates the skill of artisans and laborers, while lamenting that their voices are excluded from governing councils. Labor and the Economy are as much spiritual and theological issues as they are secular issues, and Jesus's work of redemption seeks to address them as well. As we all celebrate Labor Day, let us be sure to remember the work of others that makes our lives possible, let us offer thanksgiving for what we ourselves contribute in our labors, let us remember those who are unemployed and underemployed, and let us have compassion for all who face tremendous upheaval in their occupations. Above all, let us be mindful of labor and skill as gifts from God that we can use for the building up of God's reign in our lives.

I leave you with this prayer for Labor Day:

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, the lives of others: So guide us in the work we do that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, for ever and ever. Amen.