Labor Day: Reflecting on the Dignity and Rights of the Workers

Monday of the 23rd Week in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Colossians 1:24–2:3
Responsorial: Psalm 62:6-7, 9
Gospel: Luke 6:6-11

Labor Day traces its roots back to the New York City labor movement, with the first celebration being held on September 5, 1882. In 1894, Congress made the first Monday in September a national holiday, declaring Labor Day as a day “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

In more recent years Labor Day has become a rite of passage from the heat of summer to the cool breezes of autumn. It is a day when families take excursions and have picnics.  Yet, if we pause to remember the true significance of this day there is a much deeper and profound meaning. Especially as we face the current economic crisis, many people remain unemployed or underemployed and major manufactures like those of the auto industry struggle to stay competitive. The sin behind much of current crisis is greed and a lack of respect for the human person and their right to work with dignity.

Pope Benedict in his recent encyclical Charity in Truth reminds us that, “the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is… the human person in his or her integrity: man is the source, the form and the aim of all economic and social life.” (#25) In today’s first reading Paul calls us to be mindful of the Christ in us as a sign of hope. He writes about his own sufferings and labor for the good of the Christian message. He tells us that it is in and through Christ where we will find the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  We must therefore stand before this difficult time in a country with a hope.

The message of the Gospel from Luke is also a message of amazing hope. Jesus once again performs a miracle, curing a man on the Sabbath (a day in which one is to rest from work). Perhaps Christ is telling us that rules and regulations are not of the most primary importance when it comes to the respect and dignity of the individual. They should be a means to an end and not an end in themselves.

President Obama will visit with workers who are members of the AFL-CIO today at their annual picnic. Unions have been an important part of the labor movement of our country. The Church has always been supportive of the workers right to organize. Pope Benedict renews this call in his recent encyclical and challenges unions to be more concerned with solidarity, justice and the common good than being self-interested units caught up in the current economic models. The Pope writes, “solidarity is clearly a specific and profound form of economic democracy.” The Pope calls us to recognize that solidarity is both the end and the means.  Unions must be networks of charity, if they are to function properly they must be concerned with justice for the human dignity of work and nothing more.

As we celebrate this holiday today and gather around once more the Eucharistic table let us pray for the dignity of work, for the rights of all who work, for the unemployed and underemployed. We remember those who have contributed tirelessly to the labor movement for the cause of justice and the common good. We pray that as we labor, we might be models of hope and come to know the “hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge” that rest in Christ’s love. May we share this love to bring about justice and charity for the common good.

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