by Richard Slizeski
The first Labor Day was held in New York City on Nov. 5, 1882. Its purpose was to celebrate the labor movement’s social and economic achievement that contributed to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country. Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.
The Sunday of Labor Day weekend gives us a moment of reflection on the dignity of labor, especially as it relates to the common good and the Gospel’s demand for justice.
Pope Francis has said, “Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities.”
He follows a long and proud tradition in Catholic social teaching’s concern for the laborer and the pursuit of the common good in society.
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII wrote in his encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (“On the Condition of Working Classes”): “The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work as their bondsman, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character. They are reminded that working for gain is creditable, not shameful, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers – that is truly shameful and inhuman.”
In 1931, on the 40th anniversary of “Rerum Novarum,” Pope Pius XI wrote “Quadragesimo Anno” (“Reconstructing the Social Order”), noting that a balance was needed between solidarity and subsidiarity to achieve the common good: “The principle of solidarity is a way of life that recognizes that we are all brothers and sisters regardless of race, creed or ethnic background.”
The principle of subsidiarity proposes that the best solutions to social problems are done at the most local level as possible. Solidarity without subsidiarity, Pope Pius XI noted, can lead to a welfare state. Subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging self-centered nationalism.
“If these principles are observed by everyone, everywhere, and always, not only the production and acquisition of goods but also the use of wealth, which now is seen to be so often contrary to right order, will be brought back soon within the bounds of equity and just distribution,” said Pope Pius XI.
This Labor Sunday, while appreciating the contributions of labor over the generations, perhaps we can reflect on the rich history we share in Catholic social teaching for the dignity of labor and the call for an equitable and just society in pursuit of the common good.
Slizeski is the vice president of the Office of Mission at Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens.