Labor Day

By Rev. David Wilson Rogers |  August 30, 2014

            In the 1880’s, some 134 years in the past, great political and economic changes were taking place in the United States. As our nation emerged from the destruction and deviation of the Civil War, increased technology, industry, and manufacturing capacity were revolutionizing the American labor force. As always, such change came with a certain degree of friction and, unfortunately, bloodshed.
            Along with the sweeping changes in the American labor force came the rise of unions and Organized Labor. As labor movements increased in popularity and enjoyed broader recognition in various states, annual days of celebration that highlighted the vital role of labor were inaugurated. Although dates and themes varied somewhat, the general principle was to give honor and a sense of unity to those who worked in the nation’s factories, workshops, mills, and industrial operations.
            Predictably, opposing interests erupted between labor and business. Those tasked with the physical jobs of creating products, as well as mining and refining raw materials for industry, and building the infrastructure that made industry possible, felt a need for a larger slice of the economic pie. Yet, all the hard work and industrious laborers would be nowhere without the massive capital investment into industry. Consequently, those who invested resources into industry and expected meaningful profit margins from their investments desired to maximize profits as much as possible.  Each side felt absolutely right in their moral convictions regarding the proper distribution of the wealth industry created and both were willing to stand their ground against the other in attempts to prevail.
In 1894 a particularly brutal dispute between labor and business in the railroad industry ended in riots, sabotage, and over 30 deaths from the ensuing chaos. In response to this cataclysmic explosion of violence, president Grover Cleveland initiated a federal holiday to honor the labor force of the United States and give recognition to the critical role they had in the economy, as well as future, of the nation.
Initially the holiday was recognized with parades and picnics, as well as events that would both give workers a rest from their labor and cultivate a strong sense of solidarity among workers for their shared commitment to the vital American Economy. Designated as the first Monday in September every year, however, the celebration quickly took on different tones as an opportunity to herald the close of summer and an opportunity for merchants to cash in big on seasonal sales.
Scripture repeatedly calls out for the fair, just, and equitable treatment of laborers. Sabbath laws call for the rest of all in the household. By logical extension of Sabbath laws, all servants, employees, and even the beasts of burden are to be excused from labor on the days of rest. Wages are never to be withheld and any fraudulent manipulation of financial compensation is strictly forbidden. Most of all, while the Bible never forbids the honest means of earning money and even encourages prudent investment of capital, to do so at the expense of labor is a great sin. Ultimately, scripture reminds us, the human dignity of laborers is far more important than profits.
For many, the Labor Day weekend is a time of barbeques and outdoor play. Yet as we take our Labor Day recreation into account, let us also prayerfully consider the original meanings of the holiday, as well as the scriptural priorities to uphold the human dignity of all.