Labor Day: Good Work and a Good Society

By Bruce Epperly

photo courtesy of Hermes via C.C. license at FlickrFor everything there is a season and in the seasons of the calendar year, Labor Day marks the end of summer and return to school and work. Although Labor Day is not a religious holiday, any faith that sees God as present in the everyday lives of people must take secular holidays seriously as mediators of sacred truths. God is present not only in our sanctuaries but in our places of work.

Labor Day celebrates the interplay of work and rest in creation.  After six days of creative artistry, God rests, enshrining the Sabbath as essential to human life. Life is rhythmic -- good work is followed by recuperative rest. Leisure as well as activity make up a good life. On Labor Day, we rest from our labors, trusting that God's movements in the world will sustain us.

Labor Day affirms good work and the quest for justice. The biblical tradition celebrates the gifts of working persons. The prophetic tradition makes it clear that workers should be treated fairly by their employers. Greed, injustice, and dishonesty toward working persons wreaks havoc on a nation's economic and spiritual life. Accordingly, Labor Day provides an opportunity not only to give thanks to those who labor on our behalf, but also to insure that today's workers receive just wages and benefits. In 1898, Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, called it "the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed . . . that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it."

Labor Day, sometimes celebrated in the church as Labor Sunday, has gained in significance as a time of reflection and action in recent years. With higher unemployment, outsourcing, and decreasing (or elimination) of medical and retirement benefits, now more than ever it is important to support good work and just compensation. This is not a matter of economic class, but social and national well-being. In contrast to rugged individualism and self-interest typical of business practices and economic policy, the biblical tradition recognizes that we are all in this together: as 1 Corinthians 12 notes, if one rejoices, all rejoice; if one suffers, all suffer. This recognition of the interdependence of life includes undocumented workers as well as U.S. citizens. While governments must make distinctions between citizens and non-citizens, both are equally loved by God. God wants all persons to have sufficient work, prosperity, and leisure to live a good life.

This year, Labor Day calls us to give thanks to those pioneers who made it possible for workers -- whether blue or white collar, unskilled or skilled -- to have paid holidays, days off, compensation for on the job accidents, health care, social security, and disability. We take these for granted, but these essential rights came through the sacrifices of labor leaders and workers. But, as we give thanks, we must also claim our role in promoting the well-being of workers everywhere -- in the U.S. and abroad -- and to challenge any political movements that would turn back the clock for today's and tomorrow's workers.

The biblical tradition is clear: healthy communities and care for the vulnerable are more important than corporate revenues or individual prosperity. Capitalism, according to the biblical tradition, is not about profit at the expense of the poor and powerless, but initiative, innovation, creativity, and care for society as a whole. Labor Day celebrates the vision of Shalom, a world in which good work abounds, every family has enough to get by, and people have leisure to rest, play, love, worship, and study.

On this Labor Day, let us celebrate the gifts of good work, the need for justice and safety in the workplace, and the importance of placing personal and social well-being over individual and corporation profit.