Labor Day and the Virtue of Work

Labor Day’s Roots

Fittingly, Labor Day has its roots in the union movement. The idea was the brainchild of Peter McGuire, leader of the Knights of Labor. He suggested that while there were holidays commemorating religious, civil and military observances, none represented “the industrial spirit — the great vital force of every nation.”

The first Labor Day celebration took place in New York on September 5, 1882, and featured a march around Manhattan’s Union Square by 10,000 workers. Later, there were picnics, dancing, fireworks and, naturally, speeches extolling the virtues of the working class. So successful was the event that unions called for its annual celebration, designating the first Monday in September as Labor Day.

The idea caught on. From its union roots, Labor Day began honoring the broader contribution made by all workers to life in these United States. Oregon first recognized Labor Day on February 21, 1887. Within a few years, Labor Day became a federal holiday, fulfilling Peter McGuire’s dreams.

The Church View

Catholic social teaching has long stressed the value of work in developing the dignity of each person. As the great Pope Leo XIII said in his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, “gainful occupations are not a mark of shame to man, but rather of respect, as they provide him with an honorable means of supporting life.”

More recently, in his encyclical On Human Work, Pope John Paul II wrote, “Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes more a human being.”

Much of our thinking in this country about the value and dignity of a good day’s labor comes from what sociologist Max Weber called “the Protestant work ethic,” a term you don’t hear much anymore. Under Weber’s thesis, American settlers brought an attitude of hard work and thrift as religious and moral obligations.

For earlier generations of Americans, work was considered a calling, a way of honoring God. Thus, any legitimate work had inherent value, no matter how menial or low-paid. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books — among this country’s greatest literary works — provide some of the best portrayals of the old American work ethic. Her parents’ self-reliance and industriousness would shame today’s hardest-working entrepreneurs.

Time-Honored Work Ethic

Although the welfare state has undercut much of this work ethic, belief in the value of industry in building character and responsibility remains strong. Our own self-image and spiritual well-being are still directly tied to how productively we spend our waking hours — no different than in Laura Wilder’s day.

Today, of course, Labor Day signals the final breath of summer, the end of vacation, the last bit of fun before school starts. But it's also fitting that we pause to pay tribute to the simplest, as well as the most complex, of human endeavors: the time-honored notion of good, honest labor that earns its daily bread.

(Copyright 2001 Catholic Exchange)

A Life's Work

Pushing her cart loaded with fresh-smelling towels and sheets, tiny bars of fragrant soap and miniature shampoo bottles to a quiet stop, she raps delicately on the hotel door, taking care not to intrude upon anyone inside.

Keys jingle as she slowly unlocks the door, propping it open with a rubber stop. She enters noiselessly, moving with the grace of a wary cat.

As she leans over to make the bed, a small crucifix falls from her blouse. She smiles as she works, as if a pleasant tune is running through her head, reminding her of childhood dreams and innocent pleasures. Time moves quickly, and soon the trash is removed, the bedroom vacuumed and cleaned, and the bathroom scrubbed and freshened.

Before leaving, she adjusts the air conditioning to comfort the occupants upon their return. For them, it will seem like a new room has been created out of the untidiness of the old — as if a wizard stopped by and performed his magic while they were gone.

For guests, it is magic; for her, a life’s work. Closing the door firmly, she moves on to the next room, knocking softly, not wanting to disturb.

It’s easy to take for granted the labors of those like the humble hotel maid, whose efforts make civilized life possible, and to miss their subtle skill, diligence, and just plain decency. From priests to police officers, grocery clerks to gardeners, machinists to mothers, we tend to appreciate the product without acknowledging the producer.

Once a year, though, we’re reminded to tip our caps to those who make the world better, safer, easier or just more fun. This is the great significance of Labor Day — a time to slow down, relax, and think about the debt we owe our fellow employees — and employers, as well.


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