Thursday, September 03, 2015

Labor Day, the Battling ‘Guires, Corresponding Popes & a Prayer

Monday is Labor Day. This holiday, which informally marks the end of summer and "back to
school" (and work) after summer vacation, has its roots in the 19th century labor movement. The first observances took place during 1885 and 1886. At that time, a number of city governments passed ordinances setting aside the first Monday in September as a holiday to celebrate the contribution of workers to the strength and prosperity of the country. From the municipal level, a movement emerged  to have the day through legislation passed at the state level. Oregon was the first state to enact legislation to create the holiday named Labor Day. Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York followed. In 1894, Congress enacted legislation making Labor Day a legal holiday throughout the country.

But who thought up the idea first? According to the Department of Labor, two men hold claim to the title “Father of Labor Day”: a machinist named Matthew Maguire and a carpenter named Peter McGuire:
“Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor those ‘who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.’ 
But Peter McGuire's place in Labor Day history has not gone unchallenged. Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, not Peter McGuire, founded the holiday. Recent research seems to support the contention that Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.” (
Labor Day is a sad holiday to me, since it marks the passing of summertime. I haven’t given much thought to its origins as a day to celebrate the workingman and workingwoman. I’ve been thinking more about labor lately, though, as I contemplate the social implications of our current high unemployment.

I found a nicely put together selection of excerpts from Catholic social teaching on labor on the USCCB’s web site. A few years ago, I started to read Pope Leo XIII’s seminal encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor), but I didn’t get all that far into it and I’ve since forgotten what I did read. So it was a bit of a surprise to read on the USCCB site Pope Leo’s statement, from that encyclical, that “The most important of all [workplace associations and organizations] are workingmen's unions. . . .”  Will I have time to dig into the whole encyclical? Or maybe just read Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical written on its hundredth anniversary,  Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year)? It has relevance to current discussions on economic policy:
“Furthermore, society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings. This requires a continuous effort to improve workers' training and capability so that their work will be more skilled and productive, as well as careful controls and adequate legislative measures to block shameful forms of exploitation, especially to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable workers, of immigrants and of those on the margins of society. The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive in this area. “ 
Labor is just one of the areas of Catholic teaching I want to explore. My eyes are bigger than my brain, though. So much to read, so little time... especially given my television and movie habit.

But then there’s my prayer habit; it might come to my rescue. I found the following prayer while researching Blessed James Alberione, the Founder of the Pauline Family. I am a lay Pauline, a cooperator.  I intend to print this out and start praying it regularly. I will ask for the grace to learn what I need to learn, in order to be a participating citizen of the U.S., about the teachings on labor and their real life applicability. If America is going to go belly up--as it may in my lifetime--I don’t want to be asleep at the wheel when it happens.

The Worker’s Prayer, by Blessed James Alberione 

Jesus, divine Laborer and Friend of workers, deign to look benignly down upon the working world. We present to you the needs of all who carry on intellectual, moral, or physical work. See amid what fatigue, sufferings and snares we live our hard days. See the physical and moral sufferings! Repeat the cry of your Heart: "I have compassion on these people." Comfort us, through the merits and intercession of St. Joseph, model of workers and artisans.   
Grant us the wisdom, virtue and love which sustained you in your toil-filled days. Inspire us with thoughts of faith, peace, moderation, and thrift, so that together with our daily bread, we will always seek spiritual goods and heaven. Save us from those who deceitfully try to deprive us of the gift of faith and confidence in your providence. Deliver us from all exploiters who do not recognize the rights and dignity of the human person. Inspire social laws which are in conformity with the Church’s teaching. May charity and justice reign together, through the sincere cooperation of all members of society. May everyone consider the Vicar of Christ the teacher of the only social doctrine which assures the worker of a gradual social betterment, and of the kingdom of heaven, the inheritance of the poor in spirit. Amen.