Labor Day Sermon

By Cornell, Tom | Tikkun, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

Labor Day Sermon


Cornell, Tom, Tikkun


IT'S LABOR DAY WEEKEND ALREADY, THE END OF summer, back to school. What does Labor Day have to do with labor? And why should we talk about it in church? When you get back to school, take a look at your high school history book, you students. Parents, you take a look too and see what it has to say about the labor movement. I have taught public high school in four jurisdictions: Connecticut, New York City, New York State, and New Hampshire. We are lucky here in Marlboro. Jack Mazza tells me there is a whole week-long unit on labor in the advanced placement American History course in our high school. That's great but it's not the way it is in most places, and it's still not enough. You're lucky to get a paragraph on the Knights of Labor in the nineteenth century and another on the AFL-CIO in the twentieth, and something about the Wagner Act of 1935 that established the National Labor Relations Board and (this they never tell you) the weakest labor laws in the industrialized world.

If a history book tells you in the preface that it's going to give you an overview of the story of our nation, how it came to be, who formed it and how, and it does not include the mighty battle to establish minimal protections for the working people of this country, then it is not telling you the truth. If it's not the truth, it's a lie. I realized this when a good Jesuit priest, Father Ryan, offered to teach a course in Labor History for us at Fairfield Prep, after school, not for credit It was the most important class I ever took, in high school or in college, because it taught me that what I had been led to believe was history, wasn't The struggle for the forty-hour week, for health and safety regulations, for the right to organize for collective bargaining, for social security and old age pensions, for workers' compensation for injury on the job, for unemployment compensation, for a minimum wage, that was all left out.

It cost blood! Yes, there was violence, almost all of it aimed against unarmed workers. Men, women and children were burned to death, men were shot, some were lynched, castrated, dragged through the streets and hanged. In 1897, deputy sherifls near Hazelton, Pennsylvania shot down nineteen unarmed Slavic, Hungarian and Sicilian miners because they went out on strike. That stimulated the building of the United Mineworkers Union. Organizers were imprisoned unjustly for as long as twenty years, all for trying to form a union. Why talk about this sort of thing in church? Church is where we come to get closer to God, to hear the Word and to come together in Communion with Jesus our God and with one another and all God's children. There you have it! All God's children, not just the sons and daughters of the powerful. The God we worship is a God who demands justice, "Whose mighty right arm scatters the proud in their conceit, who lifts up the lowly and casts down the mighty from their thrones, who fills the hungry with good things..." (from The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55)

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church had to deal with the devastating effects of the industrial revolution on its people. In countries where the bishops were chosen from the sons of the powerful, the Church was very slow, too slow to respond to the crisis, and Pope Pius IX lamented, "We have lost the working classes." In England, where the Catholic population was small and mostly Irish and poor, and in the United States, where the bishops were, almost every single one of them, sons of workers, the response was quick and positive. The rich and powerful, the noble families that ruled Italy, Spain, France, Germany and the Austro- Hungarian Empire and their bishop cousins wanted the Pope to condemn the labor movement, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Knights of Labor in the United States as Communists and enemies of Christ and his Church. On the other side were Cardinal Gibbons in Baltimore and Cardinal Manning in London. …

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