Labor Day and the Virtue of Work
by James Bemis – Catholic Exchange
Labor Day Roots: The first Labor Day celebration took place in New York on September 5, 1882, and featured a march around Manhattan’s Union Square by 10,000 workers. Later, there were picnics, dancing, fireworks and, naturally, speeches extolling the virtues of the working class. So successful was the event that unions called for its annual celebration, designating the first Monday in September as Labor Day.
The idea caught on. From its union roots, Labor Day began honoring the broader contribution made by all workers to life in these United States. Oregon first recognized Labor Day on February 21, 1887. Within a few years, Labor Day became a federal holiday, fulfilling Peter McGuire’s dreams.DOWNLOAD THE BULLETIN
The Church View: Catholic social teaching has long stressed the value of work in developing the dignity of each person. As the great Pope Leo XIII said in his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, “gainful occupations are not a mark of shame to man, but rather of respect, as they provide him with an honorable means of supporting life.”
More recently, in his encyclical On Human Work, Pope John Paul II wrote, “Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes more a human being.”
Much of our thinking in this country about the value and dignity of a good day’s labor comes from what sociologist Max Weber called “the Protestant work ethic,” a term you don’t hear much anymore. Under Weber’s thesis, American settlers brought an attitude of hard work and thrift as religious and moral obligations.
For earlier generations of Americans, work was considered a calling, a way of honoring God. Thus, any legitimate work had inherent value, no matter how menial or low-paid. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books — among this country’s greatest literary works — provide some of the best portrayals of the old American work ethic. Her parents’ self-reliance and industriousness would shame today’s hardest-working entrepreneurs.
Time-Honored Work Ethic: Although the welfare state has undercut much of this work ethic, belief in the value of industry in building character and responsibility remains strong. Our own self-image and spiritual well-being are still directly tied to how productively we spend our waking hours — no different than in Laura Wilder’s day.
Today, of course, Labor Day signals the final breath of summer, the end of vacation, the last bit of fun before school starts. But it’s also fitting that we pause to pay tribute to the simplest, as well as the most complex, of human endeavors: the time-honored notion of good, honest labor that earns its daily bread.