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Labor Day Thoughts

I’m going to have to move to a new office this week. It’s a hassle I didn’t anticipate, but I’m part of a big office shuffle at the Seminary to make space for some new staff who will be arriving soon to help us grow. A good thing! And the facilities crew will manage most of it for me. It will mean downsizing the book shelves considerably, which is painful. But that would need to happen sometime in the future so perhaps I’m just being given the opportunity for a head start. Farewell old friends. I hope you bless a new generation of religious leaders!

I will have had eight offices over the span of forty years. Some large, some small. Some with windows, some not. Some with great views, some with ugly views, some with no views. Some have announced high status, some, not so much!   Amid all these moves, however, there have been some constants which count for far more than comparing square footage with the colleague down the hall: Steady, meaningful work that has been interesting, engaging, and rewarding. Good pay and benefits. A comfortable work environment. Great colleagues. Respect from the people I’ve worked for. Opportunities to learn new things. The list goes on and on.

As Labor Day approaches in the midst of my mini-transition from one office to another, it’s good to consider what I haven’t had to deal with over my forty year career. I’ve never

  • had an employer try to steal my wages by failing or refusing to pay for overtime
  • been sexually harassed on the job
  • been verbally abused on a regular basis by my boss
  • suffered from racial or gender discrimination
  • had to come to work when I’ve been seriously ill
  • had to leave a sick child at home or had my pay cut for taking a day off to take my child to the doctor
  • had to wonder each week what my work schedule would be, or how many hours I’d be scheduled for
  • been consistently forced to stay late without getting paid for it or asked what kind of impact it would have on my family
  • been threatened with termination when I’ve raised questions or concerns about activities in the workplace
  • been exposed to toxic chemicals without proper training or protection
  • been laid off abruptly and had my severance check bounce
  • had the governor campaign on the conviction that the pension promised to me as a state employee is the basic cause of the state’s financial problems and was part of a “corrupt bargain” to begin with, making the promise null and void
  • worked without written personnel policies detailing my rights and responsibilities

No, I’ve never had to deal with any of this. But millions of American workers have and still do. Which is why strong enforcement of federal and state labor laws and a vibrant labor movement is a vital component of a just economic environment.

Protecting the rights, the dignity, and the well-being of American workers remains crucial whether they sit in offices like mine or fill orders at Amazon or serve customers at McDonalds or care for aging, homebound persons in their apartments. Indeed, such protections ought to be the priority across the political spectrum. But of course they aren’t. Far too many candidates are beholden to wealthy oligarchs who mask their own greed by urging policies that seek to extract as much productivity from a decreasing number of workers for lower and lower wages and fewer and fewer benefits. Stripping away the rights of workers to organize is not about promoting growth; it is about eliminating the inconvenience of countervailing power in order to maximize profits for the few.

Labor Day is more than a picnic, a day off, and a ceremonial send-off to summer. It should also be a clarion call to protect and honor workers by supporting a strong labor movement in the United States – legacy industrial and trade unions, farm worker unions, public employee unions, teacher unions, nursing unions, service sector unions, the growing network of worker centers that help workers organize to fight workplace injustice, and the emerging coalitions like Fight for $15 combatting poverty wages. This year the money saturated presidential primary campaigns remind us more than ever that justice, absent organized power, is little more than naïve sentimentality.  

As I cope with the modest disruption of my office move this week, Labor Day reminds me of the real struggles of millions of workers for whom the dream of a nice little office, let alone a decent job, a living wage, and the respect of the boss, remains terribly elusive. In 1986 the Catholic Bishops in the United States affirmed that “no one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself.” Today, thirty years later, that reminder, shared by countless other religious communities, is more urgent than ever. As candidates attend picnics across Iowa this Labor Day, it would be good for them to ponder this admonition.

John H. Thomas
September 3, 2015

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