Seasonal Reflection: Labor Day

Stephen Lynch, OFM Features

With Labor Day approaching, friar Stephen Lynch, OFM, offers thoughts about the holiday and the meaning of work that he said is relevant “given our current unemployment crisis.

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor, points out: “Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country. 

“All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. 

Labor Day is devoted to no person, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”

Unemployment Crisis
With escalating unemployment, work has become a priority like it never has before in our living memory. Many lifestyles have taken a turn for the worse due to business bankruptcies. Healthcare is looming as perhaps the crisis of the century. Prices of just about everything are skyrocketing.

Like it or not, work stands as part of life’s reality. As Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey put it: “Work! The one great sacrament of humanity from which all other things flow — security, art, literature, even divinity itself.”

People work for many reasons, not the least of which is money, self-fulfillment and security. One worker commented, “If all I do is work, I can’t appreciate life and I neglect the people I love. I need balance in my life.”

Taking pride in one’s work is generally tied directly to the quality of what the worker produces. Highest on the scale of a worker’s priorities in terms of his or her work seems to be values such as respect, recognition, the chance to develop skills, job security, the opportunity for creativity, fulfillment and input into how the work gets done.

In one study, more than 60 percent of workers identified “pay tied to performance” as the feature they wanted most from their work. Few other industrialized countries have as little vacation time as America, where there aren’t even legal guarantees of vacation time. Some refer to America as the “no-vacation nation” because of this. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 26 percent of U.S. workers take no vacation at all. 

A philosophy of getting the maximum amount of gain for the least amount of work tends to vitiate any concept of the pursuit of excellence. 

Labor Day and the Bible
Taking care of “good old number one” at the expense of everybody else can easily degenerate into a narcissistic kind of vested self-interest that tends to impersonalize the workplace in favor of enlightened selfishness.

Jesus teaches that a good tree bears good fruit and that a bad tree bears bad fruit. By their fruits, you shall know them. Jesus warns that quality work means dedication to the pursuit of excellence. God will judge us by the quality of what we do in this life — be that in little things or big things.

The biblical concept of work emphasizes attitude and performance. Working attitude sees work as a God-given opportunity for both self-enrichment and service on behalf of the common good. Working performance means commitment to the pursuit of excellence. The pursuit of excellence is its own reward. Emerson points out: “The reward of a thing well done is to have it done.”

— Fr. Stephen lives at St. Anthony Friary in Butler, N.J. His most recent reflection in 
HNP Today appeared in the July 1, 2009, issue.