By: Deacon Mike Monagle
What are the origins of Labor Day? a) A day to mark the end of Summer; b) A day to mark the return of students to school; c) A day to commemorate the efforts of childbirth; or d) a day set aside to recognize the strides made by organized workers to improve their economic and human status. If you answered “d”, you’re probably older than a millennial.
The reality is that today only about 10% of U.S. workers nationwide belong to a labor union, roughly ½ the percentage in 1983 (US Bureau of Labor Statistics). For workers between the ages of 16 and 24, the percentage drops down to 4%. Even though only 1 in ten workers are union members, all of us have enjoyed the fruits of the efforts of organized labor over the past century: higher wages, expanded health benefits, vacation leave, sick leave, family leave, wage and hour laws, workers’ compensation laws, etc. Unions have played a pivotal role both in promoting legislation securing labor protections and rights such as safety and health, overtime, and family/medical leave and in enforcing those rights on the job. Whether you hold a union job or not, support union activity or not, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the accomplishments of organized labor.
Through its teaching on social justice, the Catholic Church has long spoken of economic activity in terms of meeting the needs of human beings – not merely as a means of producing goods or maximizing profits. As the Catechism states, “Work is for man, not man for work. Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community.” Catholic social teaching supports the right of workers to choose whether to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively, and to exercise those rights without reprisal. A number of popes have addressed this issue, including Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium), Pope Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate), Pope Saint John Paul II (Laborem Exercens), and Pope Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum) – just to name a few. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, through its Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development has many additional resources setting forth the Church’s teachings on this issue.
As important as the Church’s teaching on this matter are, it’s not my intent here to produce a treatise on economics and social justice. Instead, I want to condense it down and reflect on the words of Pope Francis in Gaudete et Exultate: “Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters…Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.” All of us who are either employees or employers spend the majority of our waking day at work. And if you are like me, you find yourself caught up in the affairs of your work, focusing on your own agendas and efforts, letting yourselves be engrossed by personal, economic, or political ambitions and goals.
It is easy to be holy one hour each Sunday, but being Christian is a full-time, 24/7 job. We are called to live that life not just in church on Sunday, but also in the workplace Monday through Friday. Jesus tells us to “Be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect.” This universal call to holiness that Pope Francis speaks of challenges each of us to strive for that perfection, not just at home or while we are sitting in the pews, but at our workplaces as well.