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Labor Day: Now and then

Labor Day: now and then by Sue A. Larson

September marks a decline in the number of long, warm days of summer. It begins the slow slide into cool nights and the turning leaves that mark the season of fall. If you love football, this is your time. The games have started, the schedules are posted and fans are eager for action. But summer doesn’t really end until Labor Day weekend, when we give thanks for and reflect on our various occupations and honor the labor of all who work.

Mark 7’s gospel for worship, the weekend before Labor Day, shows a cultural conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, who kept a close eye on him. They had the luxury of maintaining the most exacting of religious guidelines and wanted to know why Jesus and his followers refused to comply with these laws. Some very clear reasons were that the disciples and other working class people did not have slaves or servants to bring them water for washing at the required times as the elite did. And, as a practical matter, they were often too far from a water source to find any. Then, as now, water in Palestine was a precious commodity. So the leaders’ insistence on compliance sounded privileged and out of touch. The culture in which they flourished did not function for people who had no resources to keep such rules.

Biblical theologian John Dominic Crossan describes the plight of Palestinian workers in the first century. In his scholarly work The Historical Jesus, he wrote that under Roman occupation, the people who followed Jesus “lived as close to bare subsistence as those who controlled them could calculate.” Drought, natural disasters, high taxation and heavy debt drove many to destitution. They could not keep the cleanliness laws nor pay the temple taxes required of them to be right in the eyes of the law. Jesus’ failure to adhere to these laws recognized the realities of their everyday lives.

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What about labor in our time?

For many workers, Labor Day involves the issue of unions and organizing. My family did not have that kind of a background, and my dad was pretty biased. He believed that, like the Teamsters, most unions were corrupt. I didn’t question that perspective because my work history when I was in my teens and twenties was pretty benign. I didn’t feel misused; and if I had, there were family members or co-workers who would speak up for me. Even if not entirely fair or just, my habits and understandings felt normal and right to me.

My views began to expand as I ventured farther from home and experienced more of the working world. On the radio I heard people such as Studs Terkel, the crusty Chicago broadcaster and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who told the stories of working Americans better than anyone else. He shared with great relish stories of going into the financial district of the city close to Labor Day and standing on the street corner with others waiting for the light to turn. He would position himself next to well-dressed couples hurrying to work in their tailored suits and begin to expound on the benefits of the labor movement, which brought an end to child labor and the gift of the eight-hour day. He laughed as he told about most of these well-dressed ones moving away from him as fast as they could. But he suspected that they really didn’t know a great deal about the labor movement and what it had achieved in American history.

I didn’t know that much about the history of the labor movement either; it wasn’t a required subject in school. But that changed a little when I agreed to be part of forming an interfaith religion/labor coalition more than 15 years ago that focused on the concerns of people, primarily Latinos, who experienced unfair working conditions in their workplaces in southern Wisconsin. A research organization that tracked income and the cost of living joined with the faith community and other advocates to publish a report in 2001 called “Can’t Afford to Lose a Bad Job.”
The report’s findings revealed a very challenging set of concerns. Workers had to juggle several low-wage jobs, unstable and inflexible work schedules, dangerous working conditions, fear of reprisals for any complaints, racial profiling, unequal treatment, harassment, high rents and crowded homes, lack of safe or affordable child care or health care, little sleep and enormous stress. But, for those who wondered why these workers put up with such conditions, there was an even worse, often far more dangerous life in the nations from which many of those interviewed had come. And, as meager as their wages were, these workers saved and sent money home to support their families still living in those nations.

The stories were often heart-rending. One woman worked from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. cleaning classrooms and offices, then worked at a food establishment for eight hours, followed by janitorial work at a temp agency for four hours. She was sleeping three hours a night. Another worked as one of two laundresses in a 200-room hotel. Washing and folding the laundry was more than the two of them could do; but they were told that if they didn’t like it, they should go somewhere else. One group of housekeepers did complain to hotel management; but when it came time to explain their situation with the boss, only three were willing to do so, and they were immediately fired. 

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Our baptismal calling

As Christians, we are encouraged to remember that wherever we work, we have opportunities to live out our baptismal calling in lives of witness and service. That came about for the board of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin (part of the Interfaith Worker Justice Network, www.iwj.org) in 2003 when it formed a Worker’s Rights Center. In its first nine years, the center helped thousands of workers save their jobs, assisted in recovering over a quarter of a million dollars in unpaid wages, and assisted workers who needed them with referrals to government and social service agencies. It developed a manual to provide training on basic rights to thousands of workers and offered training to employers on the rights of their employees.

At the core of theology for Martin Luther was the call to faith in a God whose love is unimaginably great, broad and deep. God’s love embraces all aspects of our physical and emotional lives. As Luther explained in the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer in his Large Catechism (“Give us this day our daily bread”), God intends for all people to have “everything required to satisfy our bodily needs, such as food and clothing, house and home, fields and flocks, money and property.” Luther saw the process of obtaining what we need through our labor as a holy act when performed with faith and gratitude, where, as he wrote, “picking up a piece of straw” could be equal in God’s eyes to formal study and prayer.

Luther also believed, as Jesus told the Pharisees in Mark 7, that our faith in God would result in righteous action. As a professor of the Bible steeped in the teachings of the Old Testament, he was passionate about God’s directions to the Israelites to live justly and righteously. He did not mince words summarizing the Seventh Commandment.

“To steal is nothing else than to get possession of another’s property wrongfully, which briefly comprehends all kinds of advantage in all sorts of trade to the disadvantage of our neighbor. To steal is … not only to empty our neighbor’s coffer and pockets, but to be grasping in the market … wherever there is trading or taking and giving of money for merchandise or labor. No more shall all the rest prosper who change the open free market into a carrion-pit of extortion and a den of robbery, where the poor are daily overcharged, and new burdens and high prices are imposed.”

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Justice as a sign of grace

Luther would have supported those with legitimate authority acting in the public realm to protect workers’ rights. As our worship liturgies proclaim, it is the ministry of all the baptized to proclaim Christ in word and in deed. God honors us by including us in working for justice and peace, for the unemployed, underemployed or people taken advantage of in their work as a sign of God’s saving grace.

Loving and caring relationships with family and friends can expand to include living lives as informed citizens who are aware of how our food is produced and harvested, of the lives of garment workers who produce our clothing and the work environments of those who work in restaurants, motels or other service industries. In doing so, we play a role in ensuring that all who lay their hands to any useful task may receive the just rewards for their work. With joy, we thank God for the rich variety of vocations to which, as a priesthood of believers, we are called. We rejoice in the knowledge that all labor is valued in the eyes of God.

The Rev. Sue A. Larson is an ELCA pastor and a former ELCA public policy director. She lives in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, with her husband, Terry, who is also an ELCA pastor. (back to top)

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