The Common Good

Labor Sunday: What Can We Do to Honor Workers?

090904-honor-laborTo work is to pray.

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It's a Latin phrase that the Order of St. Benedict adopted as its motto.

St. Benedict, the founder of the order, recognized the sacred value of hard work, the notion that through the sweat of our brows and the strength of our arms and backs, we can worship the Creator.

Each of us works, whether with our hands or with our minds. Whether we are builders and teachers, executives or students, all of us spend a good portion of our lives at work. How we do that work and how we treat those who labor to make our world what it is says a lot about how we see the world spiritually.

This Sunday is, in some Christian traditions, Labor Sunday -- the day before the national holiday that was created more than 100 years ago to honor workers. It has come to mean an end to the lazier days of summer and -- for many of us -- a day off to relax.

The American Federation of Labor established the first Labor Sunday in 1909, 15 years after Congress made Labor Day a national holiday. It was meant to be a day for churches to pray for workers and to raise congregations' awareness of issues of injustice surrounding workers' rights and wages.

For several years, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (the forerunner of the National Council of Churches) issued an annual sermon for Labor Sunday, in the hope that it would be incorporated into worship services across the nation. The annual Labor Sunday sermons are no more, but one crafted in 1931, two years after the Black Friday stock market crash, rings strikingly true.

It said, in part: "Our generation ... has insisted on the rights of property to dividends but has concerned itself too little with the rights of workers. ... Our economic life now seems to be without a chart."

These days, with far too many of us out of work or scraping by (or not) making minimum wage that isn't a living wage, we all should be thankful for having a job. Any job. And spiritually speaking, the value of work should feel more sacred than ever.

As I'm typing this, I can hear three men on the second floor of my house hammering as they install new carpet. It's a hot, breezeless day -- sunny and well into the 80s. The men are working feverishly and without complaint.

I am grateful for my work here, labor of the mind and a few keystrokes, writing for you.

They are grateful for theirs -- albeit backbreaking, sweaty, bone-jangling labor.

And I am grateful for them.

So many of the stories in the Bible revolve around labor and laborers. Field workers. Shepherds. Fishermen. Builders. Weavers. Farmers. Servants. As one Labor Sunday sermon on the United Church of Christ Web site reminded me, Jesus (as a carpenter) was himself a "low-wage worker." In our society, workers such as child-care providers, custodians, farm workers, day laborers, sales clerks, and housekeepers typically make the lowest wages for the longest hours.

"One-quarter of all jobs in the U.S. pay poverty-level wages," the UCC sermon says. "In addition, these jobs are more likely to require evening, night, weekend or rotating shifts. They are less likely to provide health insurance, a pension, or even paid sick leave. They are more likely to be filled by women and people of color -- marginal jobs for the already marginalized. Just like Jesus."

What can we do to honor workers?

Certainly we can and must urge lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, further improve workplace safety, and provide more equitable health care.

But there are more individual things we can all do -- small gestures that may have enormous impact on the life of a worker.

  • Be polite. When the construction crew has the highway blocked to repair potholes (standing in the hot sun all day, inhaling exhaust fumes), obey the speed limit and heed the signs. Wait patiently in line at the fast-food joint. Say hello to the store greeter when he welcomes you to the Gap or Blockbuster video store.
  • Be generous. Tip well. Waiting tables is hard, often thankless work. Ten percent is not sufficient. Fifteen percent is fine, but 20 percent can be the difference between a good night and a lousy one for your server. (I'm speaking from experience here.) Never snap to get their attention. Say thank you when they put the water down. Don't be cheap. When the babysitter wants a raise, give it to her.
  • Be mindful. Notice the workers around you who make life what it is. Bring the lawn guys or the carpet installers iced tea. When you say grace before a meal, don't just give thanks for the food. Think of how it got to you. Who grew it? Who raised it? Who transported it or sold it to you? Give thanks for them, too.

The National Farm Worker Ministry offers the following prayer, a perfect benediction for this Labor Sunday:

Bless the hands of the people of the earth,

The hands that plant the seed,

The hands that bind the harvest,

The hands that carry the burden of life.

Soften the hands of the oppressor and

Strengthen the hands of the oppressed.

Bless the hands of the workers,

Bless the hands of those in power above them

That the measure they deal will be tempered

With justice and compassion. Amen.

Cathleen Falsani is the author of the new book The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. She blogs at The Dude Abides.

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