I was 16 years old and newly graduated from high school when I was hired for my first real summer job (1952 A.D.). With the assistance of my pastor, I became a member of local #108 of the national Laborers and Hod Carriers Union of Racine. I was part of a construction crew helping to rebuild the futuristic research tower of the S. C. Johnson Wax building which had been experimentally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and sorely needed some resurfacing to withstand the elements of Wisconsin weather.
I made the princely wage of $2.35 per hour, an amount which, now much to my embarrassment, exceeded that earned by my dad working in the city’s Twin Disc factory at the time.
His job paid very good wages and was non-union. I was fresh out of seminary high school classes in Catholic social teaching. The eminent Fr. John Beix was the professor at the time and captivated us with his commitment to the importance of labor unions in the effort to seek justice for a nation coming out of the shadow of the Great Depression of the ‘30s and the burdens of the Second World War. I argued with my dad over the obligation to join a union. That and issues related to his ardent membership in the National Rifle Association were the only things we ever disputed over the decades.
I began thinking back to that experience over the weekend as our nation once again paused to commemorate the end of summer and the dignity of all human labor.
When meeting someone for the first time I often ask what she/he does by way of occupation. I know that we shouldn’t ask that question right off the bat because it may serve to intensify the unfortunate American presumption that a person is defined by her/his work. Still, I ask because I see all types of human labor as important tools in the transformation of the world. Our whole purpose as a church after all is to praise God by transforming the world in which we live and to which we are sent. Work matters.
The issue is all the more important given the high rate of unemployment in our nation and world in these days of economic lethargy. Some surveys rate national unemployment at more than 8 percent, but even up to as high as 50 percent in central city Milwaukee!
There are some men – maybe women, too, but it seems more like a “guy thing” – who dress for work and go off every morning, even though they have been eliminated from their jobs. They haven’t even told their families! It’s too difficult for their personal pride and responsibility; so they sit in a library all day, and come home with an empty lunch bucket at the usual afternoon hour.
Catholic social teaching states that human beings need to work for their own sense of personal dignity and for the opportunity to make a contribution to the larger society, no matter what the form of labor.
These days we Americans sometimes find ourselves confronted by debates which address questions of immigrants seeking work to support families, as well as by our national need for workers to do what no one else is willing to do! Everyone’s labor is valuable.
The encyclical letter of Pope John Paul II, Centesimus annus (May 1, 1991), even spoke about the value of trade unions and other workers’ organizations to “defend workers’ rights and protect their interests as persons” (§35). Unions, however, at times have focused so exclusively on wages and benefits as to forget the importance of the high quality performance expected of those who do the work. These are some of the issues to which Catholic social teaching speaks clearly and directly. They are a part of our Catholic heritage which surfaces each year at Labor Day.
Already in the eighth century B.C., the prophet Amos complained about those who rush from temple worship to defrauding their customers and clients (5:21-24 and 8:4-10). More recently Pope Paul VI lamented the dichotomy between liturgy and life, as if Sunday eucharistic worship had nothing to do with one’s occupation and preoccupations on Monday.
Those who celebrate the Eucharist pray that the “church stand as a living witness to truth and freedom, to peace and justice, that all people may be raised up to a new hope” (Fourth Eucharistic Prayer for Special Needs).
No one should take advantage of vulnerable clients in their work, or forget the obligation to help those who fall through the cracks because of illness, ignorance or misfortune. Bitter complaints about taxes without ever acknowledging any corresponding need to work for the common good often seem short-sighted, narrow minded, mean spirited and down right hard hearted, not to mention un-Catholic.
Labor Day brings all these thoughts to mind again this year. For us Catholics, the same considerations were already raised on May 1 when we celebrated the Feast of Joseph the Worker (proclaimed by Pius XII in 1955 to offset the May Day rallies of Communist Europe).
These and so many related issues are worth raising each year. Circumstances change, but the need to respect the dignity of all labor remains … as well as the enduring gratitude we owe to those who devote their life’s energies to work in our world. Work matters.