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Labor Day Reflection

Susan Rutkowski
September 2, 2022

This weekend we celebrate Labor Day,  a celebration of the millions of workers who keep the United States running. A more detailed history: difficult working conditions during the Industrial Revolution inspired American workers to come together and fight for dignity and justice in the workplace.

One startling statistic that comes to mind every year on Labor Day is that deaths from heart attacks are much higher on Mondays. More people die Monday morning at 9 a.m. than at any other time of the week.  Not to sound too morbid, but it seems that people would rather die than go to work!

Consider the lifestyle of lower-wage workers who grind out a living working two jobs just to make ends meet. Many employers exploit them to do the work that some of us refuse to do, and they become the target of unfair treatment.  Many of us professionals have not and likely will not experience that kind of physical or emotional stress on the body. But all of our work lives are susceptible to pangs of meaningless and loneliness, feeling overqualified or trapped in unsatisfying work; a quiet life of desperation that over produces cortisol and triggers dis-ease in our bodies. We know now how much mental health affects our physical bodies.

Modern Catholic Social Teaching began with the question of work. When Pope Leo XIII wrote the encyclical that would become the basis for our social justice doctrine, the industrial revolution was well underway. How can the church and each of us as Catholic Christians play a central role in reviving a vision for work and the fortunes of American workers?

First and foremost, we need to recognize that human existence – human dignity – comes before human labor. In Catholic reflection on labor, a key implication is that workers deserve pay and conditions commensurate with their God-given dignity.  A job’s goodness therefore, is not measured by salary, benefits, and intellect rather than manual labor, but by how well it preserves the dignity of workers and contributes to their fulfillment.  As Pope Francis has stated, “Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person.  It gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one’s family, to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation.”

God invites us to work as co-creators. When the work of our hands and minds advance our sense of wonder and curiosity, when our skills and training engage our intelligence, when we truly partner with God to share in the ongoing work of creation-we can celebrate work, accomplishments, advances in technology and the increasing production of the fruits of the earth. We can see how work is indeed dignified, humanizing, and how it is a major factor in our sense of satisfaction with our lives. But work is not dignified where it divides people, where the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.

As we celebrate Labor Day this weekend, let us celebrate the labors of our human family. Let us rest. Let us rest in each other. Let us find comfort in one another’s humanity and in each other’s peace.  Let us find renewal – take the time to recharge our batteries to renew our hope and faith in humanity. May we see the blessed humanity and inherent dignity in each other and finally remember to say to someone, Thank you for the work that you do, I trust that you are doing your best to make the world a better place.