In my early teen years, I set pins in a parish bowling alley for $1.05 an hour. I also worked on a family farm over four summers for a total of one year’s time for total earnings of $20.00. Both activities I carried out at the behest of my parents. I always had a roof over my head, food on the table, clothes to wear, school to attend, friendships to enjoy, and the love and mingling company of family members. What kind of labor was it?
In the first reading we have heard the words “wisdom”, “counsels”, “understanding”, “common sense”, among others, all words we can connect with tomorrow’s Labor Day. In the second reading, St. Paul speaks of Onesimus, a not yet freed slave. Paul wants Philemon to exercise manumission, i.e., to free this indentured person, and accept him as a member of his family. He challenges Philemon to be a partner in doing away with slavery, in accepting Onesimus as a free member of society. How would Philemon accept and react to the the ideas raised by tomorrow’s Labor Day?
There are dozens of synonyms for the word “labor”. Some of the negative ones are “slavery”, “drudgery”, “hackwork”, “overwork”, “grind”. More positive ones are “social class”, “organized labor,” “labor force” and “manual labor”. The history of labor has not always been a positive one. On which of the seven continents is labor honored the most? Labor unions, laws protecting against accidents and injury, health care, and proper pay scales, are all present basically in North America, parts of South America, Asia and Australia and Europe. On which ones is labor honored the least? If we look at other parts of Africa, Asia and South America there are often dismal conditions and for the carrying out of work and the existence of everyday life.
In today’s gospel, the planners of a new house, the suppliers of labor, equipment, technical know-how and financial ability, must be able to fulfill their parts of the agreements and contracts. These are the aspects that without labor, i.e., the input of human ability and experience and knowledge, cannot be taken for granted.
How many families are a paycheck away from poverty? How many workers are subjected to injury-causing activities and without insurance coverage? Guest workers, among whom are included the sex slaves the world over, are exploited by their lack of language ability, by having no health or other kinds of insurance, by having to give up passports as a means of identity, by being forced to live in deplorably unhealthy living conditions. Unions in past times exercised a powerful influence on working conditions, but that aspect is fading under great pressure from moneyed interests. The ultra wealthy exercise too much influence on the political process in our country. In this regard we need an ethically guided atmosphere for promoting the common good and the preferential option for the poor. Popes in the past exerted strong leadership in their writings, but their value is slowly disappearing. Labor Day is an occasion for us all to reassess our values when it comes to this most necessary activity of human existence. Amen