The first Labor Day in the United States was observed locally on September 5, 1882 by the Central Labor Union of New York. It became a national holiday twelve years later, following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of U.S. marshals and the military during the Pullman Strike… signed into law a mere 6 days after the end of the Strike.
The Pullman Strike was perhaps our nation’s most violent and famous strike, wherein railway manufacturing workers’ protest of wage reductions and 16 hour work days spread to the nation’s whole transportation system following the financial panic of 1893. President Grover Cleveland made reconciliation with the labor movement a top political priority!
The September date we know today and already observed by many U.S. labor unions was preferable to May Day or International Workers’ Day– May 1 already had too strong a left-wing or socialist connotations for the U.S. political climate. The Second International had established it as a commemoration of Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket Massacre, when police fired on a crowd of workers. An unknown person had thrown a dynamite bomb at police while they were dispersing a public meeting during a general strike for the eight hour workday. The police’s violent reaction killed both demonstrators and, from “friendly fire,” police officers too.
Labor Day as a day-off of work, a national day of rest, has always seemed oxymoronic to me. Like observing Martin Luther King’s national holiday with sales and shopping. Why not, instead, focus and act for workers’ justice and racial justice respectively?
Since the labor movement is weak in our current difficult economic times, it is hard for me to imagine either any broad-based recognition of our dependence on the common worker or demonstration for worker’s justice. Still, perhaps, as Christians, we ought to make room for reflection…
It’s not just an extra Sabbath day God created because we work so hard the rest of the time! Between our last picnics and beach visits of the summer, could you find a moment to reflect on the religious meaning of work?
Do you even think about what you do to make a living through the lens of your faith? How do your hours and labors on the job serve and witness to God’s love? Or do they stand in opposition of God’s will and the reign of God Jesus preached? Can you find room at work for your commitments as a Christian: compassion, justice, responsibility, love? On the job, do you seek to empower those who have no power and to help those who are in need?
Or approaching the question from another angle, do you ever think how much of your life and comfort depend on the labor of others– untold workers hardly recognized who do difficult work for less than just wages? Farmworkers and the food on our tables. The folks who clean up public places or after we have vacated hotel rooms. Police who protect us and firemen who rescue us. Medical personnel who expose themselves to infectious diseases to treat us. People who work nights and holidays to keep services we count on operating. And the foot soldiers in our country’s endless wars.
As well, in these difficult economic times, I think our Christian duty includes praying for all the people looking for work. (Do you know that the unemployment rate of Black men and women is 16% and 13% respectively, roughly twice the rates for the population as a whole?) And how people are no longer even counted in the unemployment statistics because they have given up altogether searching or hoping for work?
Beloved, church is not just what we do for a few hours on Sunday mornings. And it’s never narrowly only about our own needs. Instead, it’s more than what we do when we are together. It’s about the whole world around us. Church is who we are, how we are, and how the world meets us everywhere and all the time.
Have a blessed day remembering workers, and I hope to see you for the liturgy (literally, “the work of the people”) on Sunday…
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