FAITH IN ACTION
By Katherine Marshall
Labor Day evokes images of politics and picnics, summer's end and a fresh school year. But this celebration of work and workers has important spiritual dimensions. First celebrated in the late nineteenth century (1882), when active labor disputes were the stuff of constant tension, Labor Day gradually came to be celebrated as a national holiday in all fifty states. And by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday before Labor Day was declared Labor Sunday, dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.
This history of the labor movement is not far removed from religion, because both trade unions and employer associations, most often in opposition to each other, sought common ground in the last century in their shared Christian character. The labor movement was seen then as a moral institution, fighting for justice, strongly grounded in ethical values. As a legacy of that time, the International Labour Organization (ILO) is the only United Nations Institution with an official religious advisor position. ILO was one of the earliest international organizations to survive today and the religious advisor, first appointed in the early 1920s, has been, with only one exception, a French Jesuit.
Juan Somavia, the Chilean leader of today's ILO, has made "decent work" his central call. And the theme of decent work is prominent in the recent Papal Encyclical, Caritas in veritate, issued in late June by Benedict XVI. Decent work means many things, among them a fair wage, reasonable security, good working conditions, and just and dignified respect for work and workers.
Other religious traditions besides Christianity highlight the moral dimensions of the workplace and the need to treat workers and the work they do not as drudgery but as a central part of life. Mahatma Gandhi in 1925 defined seven "modern" sins, among them "wealth without work" and "commerce without morality."
These themes were prominently on display last week as Georgetown University celebrated another great lion of our era, John Sweeney, longtime leader of the AFL/CIO. In accepting an honorary degree, Sweeney cited the Encyclical liberally, emphasizing that his Catholic training and the values instilled were a major driving force throughout his long career: The encyclical acted as a "timely tonic to my spirit," he said.
Sweeney is retiring after a tireless career that honored the worker and the dignity and even joy that work deserves. Causes which to him are basic social justice include health care for workers, immigration reform, and women's participation in the labor force. He dedicated his degree to the "millions of working families who continue to inspire me through the work they do every day to make our country a wonderful place to live."
Both Sweeney's celebration and the Papal Encyclical bear witness to how far labor issues have moved from their early focus on trade union bargaining and the fight for interests of organized movements. They stress that the moral imperative for labor leaders demands that they work to advance the interests of those outside unions, including especially the far poorer workers in other parts of the world. Georgetown President John D. DeGioia commented: "John understands that in our increasingly globalized world... we cannot truly defend workers' rights and conditions in the United States, and we cannot truly fight for authentic human development at home unless we also fight for the rights and conditions of workers abroad."
This is not an easy time for the labor movement and for work. High unemployment gives a new face to work: "The poor and out of work are no longer abstract or invisible," Sweeney said. "They are our sons and daughters, our mothers and fathers, our friends and neighbors." And the widening gap between workers who labor and the bosses who earn vastly more is hard to escape. "Wealth without work" is a bitter reflection of the contrast between those who work multiple jobs for constant or declining real wages and those, for all the long hours they may put in, who lead far more secure lives.
Sweeney commented that today's crisis "exposes the evils of unfettered globalization, shattering the notion that markets can be counted on to regulate themselves and that building quotas of poverty and underdevelopment are acceptable ways to make markets work... The Holy Father reaffirms our belief in government as a legitimate tool for correcting injustice and inequality and for regulating business."
Some messages for Labor Day 2009 are clear: don't forget the worker in this crisis, and let's take the opportunity of the crisis to rethink some of the disconcerting patterns of our times, the move towards less security, less focus on the dignity and joy of work, and the increasing focus on immediate, rather selfish interests. Surely we can do better.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.
Posted by: Navin1 | September 8, 2009 3:06 PM
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