As we celebrate Labor Day with barbeques and final trips to the beach this weekend, Americans should take a moment to reflect on how this holiday honors values at the heart of diverse faith traditions that continue to shape ongoing struggles for worker justice.
Faith communities, inspired by the Gospels and Hebrew Scriptures, have long been at the forefront of affirming the dignity of work. While Glenn Beck attacks social justice as a sinister liberal conspiracy, centuries of religious teaching emphasize the duty to pay workers a living wage, the essential role of unions and the need for a more just distribution of wealth. Clergy have been central to labor history, and faith-based advocacy continues today. This is particularly critical at a time when families face daunting economic pressures, and our culture venerates hyper-individualism and crass materialism in ways that fray the bonds of social solidarity. Politicians offer lip service to “family values,” but those lofty words often ring hollow when the United States lags far behind other nations in providing workers paid sick days, paid parental leave, quality child care and other vital benefits that protect parents from having to make the cruel choice between caring for their children and keeping their jobs.
While it may not receive a lot of media attention, a recent Labor Day statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is an urgent wake-up call that serves as a bold economic critique for those who forget that the hardships faced by millions of unemployed Americans, the mining tragedy in West Virginia and the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico are powerful examples of why the economy is fundamentally a moral issue. The Labor Day message echoes Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate, a timely reflection on economic justice. The pope denounced an ideology that worships unfettered markets, and promoted robust safeguards to protect families from financial abuses.
Along with the Catholic Church’s centuries-old commitment to labor rights, many faith-based social justice groups are leading the fight for fair wages and corporate accountability across the country. Interfaith Worker Justice, a Chicago-based national advocacy organization, has played an indispensable role drawing attention to wage theft – the illegal underpayment or non-payment of workers. Each year, wage theft affects millions of workers, often forcing them to choose between paying rent and putting food on the table. Since 1996, through a Labor in the Pulpits program, thousands of congregations across the country have focused their Labor Day weekend services on the injustices faced by low-wage workers. Groups such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Jewish Funds for Justice support local organizations that empower workers and advocate for policies that protect working families. PICO National Network, a national network of faith-based community organizations, plays an important role mobilizing people of faith to pressure financial institutions to end predatory lending and strengthen low-income neighborhoods through sound economic development. And unlike today’s Tea Party movement and other anti-government zealots, faith groups affirm the essential role government has in serving the common good and protecting those who are most vulnerable to market downturns.
This chorus of voices for economic justice transcends conventional liberal/conservative political divides. People of faith speak up for workers not because we vote Democrat or Republican, but to bear witness to the transcendent commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves. As midterm elections loom and the nation is divided on many issues, let’s unite behind an economic agenda that honors the dignity of work and finally makes family values more than a throwaway line in a political stump speech.