Faith Perspectives: A Christian celebration of Labor Day


Graphic by Yolanda Chow

Labor Day, the national celebration of the American working class, was this past Monday, and I thought there would be no better way to kick off our Faith Perspectives column than to celebrate the holiday from a Christian perspective. 

To begin, we should address the accomplishments of the labor unions, who largely led the labor movement. After all, many would argue that the work of the labor movement and the unions are why we have an official holiday to celebrate American workers. Following the industrial revolution, workers were exploited for the sake of company profit, often working 12 hour days in more dangerous work environments; children were even put in sweatshops. The labor movement itself was haunted by the Haymarket Riot of 1886 where “several police officers and workers were killed.”  

So, on Labor Day we remember, just as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders tweeted on Monday, that unions gave us “weekends, 8-hour workdays, a minimum wage, paid overtime, breaks during work, the right to strike, child labor laws, and workplace saftey standards.” The “Economic Policy Institute” seems to agree, citing that unions have been largely successful in improving workplace standards, workplace diversity, and the wages of union and non-union workers.

Perhaps more convincingly, scholars Bruce Westerna and Jake Rosenfeld argue in “American Sociological Review,” “unions helped institutionalize norms of equity, reducing the dispersion of nonunion wages in highly unionized regions and industries.” In other words, unions reduced inequality.  

But what does labor have to do with Christ? 

Quite a lot actually. God himself rests after creation and institutes similar respite laws in passages like Exodus 20:9, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” God rested, and so shall we. In the Old Testament, Israel operated in accordance with the Year of Jubilee, where on the 49th year in a given cycle, debts would be forgiven and properties restored to their owners — an act providing economic rest to many. To add to the biblical references, Jesus then reinforced the Sabbath throughout the New Testament in passages like Mark 2:23-28. 

The achievements of the labor movement, chiefly eight-hour work days and two-day weekends, serve as a civil sabbath or jubilee. The labor unions, by pushing for laws to limit work days and provide for safer working environments, acted as the hands and feet of God and thus gave the possibility of rest to the masses. This concept recalls the words of Pope Francis: “Money has to serve, not to rule!”

Likewise, in the United States the labor movement partly drew its strength from faith. As Adon Taft points out in his article “Labor Day and the unions’ forgotten religious roots” for “Religion News Service,” “Terence Vincent Powderly, who led the Knights’ outreach across the nation, was a devout Catholic influenced by his Baptist lay preacher predecessor, Uriah Stephens. Powderly, a nonsmoking teetotaler, attributed the roots of the labor movement to Christianity.” 

As students in Grand Rapids, we know that many local schools start before Labor Day, including Grand Valley State University and Aquinas College. But Calvin University doesn’t start until after the holiday, like the neighboring Christian higher education school, Cornerstone University. While Michigan schools have historically started post-Labor Day to protect the tourism business, the late start can still serve the purpose of encouraging the Calvin, and largely Christian, community to reflect on, pray for and to celebrate working class America. 

Even though the labor movement enjoyed some successes, things aren’t perfect. According to Pew Research Center, the wealth gap between America’s top 10% and bottom 10% has widened. And although it isn’t the only factor, it doesn’t help that unions, who championed for the workers in the past, have continued to decline in membership, which directly correlates with a decline in the American working class according to “The Atlantic.” It is the Christian case to challenge this status quo — to be in solidarity with the poor, the meek, and the worker — just like the labor unions were. 

To summarize, the words of Christ in Mark 10:21 will suffice: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’”