All these rely on their hands,
and all are skillful in their own work.
Without them no city can be inhabited
Today we gather in prayer as a start to our celebration of Labor Day. Labor Day is a rightful national tribute to the impact of workers on the strength and prosperity of our country. That is no more evident than in this year of pronounced challenge.
The very first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City, organized by the Central Labor Union.
The Labor movement, through many trials, even attacks that resulted in the death of workers – remember just for instance the thirty killed in the 1894 Pullman Strike (my grandfather was a Pullman car painter) and the Lattimer massacre in Hazelton, Pennsylvania with the violent deaths of at least 19 unarmed striking immigrant miners in September 1897 – has stood strong in its advocacy for workers and their absolute right to fair wages and overtime, benefits, periods of rest, and so much more rightfully due.
Times of challenge call people of good faith together, in community, to stand beside each other and to do all things necessary, even to the sacrifice of their lives, so that their brothers and sisters might be treated equitably. So too in this year of challenge.
As we celebrated last year, who would have thought that the work of those who are so devalued by their employers would hold the key to our survival? Grocery workers (I was a member of U.F.C.W., the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, when I worked at Tops Markets as a teen), delivery personnel, government workers, warehousers, janitorial staff, health care workers, especially nurses who bear the brunt of the work, manufacturing workers, the United Trades, and so many others. We thank God for them and we thank them for their work! We remain in the midst of this crisis and our Labor Unions are again in the forefront, fighting to ensure worker safety.
The Book of Sirach takes a walk through the various trades: the artisan, smith, and potter and by way of example tells us that they are key to our very survival as a community, city, and a nation. We depend on labor. We depend on the worker. Their hands and skillful work are the basis for the statement: Without them no city can be inhabited. Scripture fulfilled in our current crisis, for without the grocery, delivery, warehouse, janitorial, health care, and manufacturing worker – we would fall apart as society. No city could be inhabited.
This lesson, and all of God’s lessons on labor are foundational to the work of the Christian and the Christian Church. As St. Paul admonishes us, we must build with gold, silver, and precious stones, the things that will last, on the foundation of Christ.
When our Church was organized in 1897, our first Bishop and all its clergy and people united to fight for fair wages and proper treatment of workers. We did not fight just for the sake of fighting, rather because God demands justice for His people. God demands unity of action among believers to protect the rights and dignity of people. God’s call is for His people to be lifted up, to be given the opportunity to grow and become. Our Church’s Creed states the following:
I BELIEVE that all peoples as children of one Father, God, are equal in themselves; that privileges arising from differences in rank, from possession of immense riches or from differences of faith, sex and race, are a great wrong, for they are a violation of the rights of man which he possess by his nature and the dignity of his divine origin, and are a barrier to the purposeful development of man.
I BELIEVE that all people have an equal right to life, happiness and those ways and means which lead to the preservation of existence, to advancement and salvation, but I also believe, that all people have sacred obligations toward God, themselves, their nation, state and all of humanity.
We had to bear witness to what we profess; purposes shown us by the Divine Master and Savior, Jesus Christ Who Himself was a tradesman.
We stood with workers in the face of abusive business practices, whether in the mines and steelworks of Pennsylvania, the rail yards, grain mills, steel and chemical factories of Buffalo, the auto-works of Detroit, or the great nexus of transportation in Chicago. We called for collective ownership of the means of manufacture. For this we were called communists and socialists. Our first Bishop was investigated by the FBI; you can request his file. That did not and will not deter us from building on the foundation of Christ with gold, silver, and precious stones, those things that will last.
Our work continues today and indeed must expand. The accumulation of wealth by the few while my neighbor suffers is unconscionable. The cries of those whose wages are stolen reach to the Throne of God, and we must act to stop that abuse. So many of our brothers and sisters suffer in an economy harmed by the current crisis. We must fight together for the sustainment of benefits so needed so that when we reopen, we are ready to get to work.
In doing this work we build up heavenly treasure for we support the dignity of each person and their opportunity for advancement.
This Labor Day, we honor all workers, from the front line, to those struggling for a fair wage and a safe workplace, to those striving to find a good job. In honoring and praying for them we resolve to set once more into the fight for worker justice and human dignity.