Of Life and Labor

Labor DayWhile the origins of Labor Day may be disputed, there seems to be little disagreement about what the holiday means today. Whether it’s an occasion to take a break from the demands of labor, mark the end of summer or the start of school, Labor Day is a transitional holiday for most Americans.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Peter McGuire, who founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters in 1881, suggested setting aside one day a year to honor laborers in 1882. McGuire later joined forces with Samuel Gompers to found the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Through the AFL and the Carpenters unions, McGuire led efforts that resulted in the adoption of the eight-hour work day.

However, evidence suggests that a man with a similar last name, Matthew Maguire, may actually have been the father of Labor Day. By 1882, Maguire had helped organize the Central Labor Union of New York, and his activities made him a noted figure in the effort to bring the plight of manufacturing workers and their long hours to public awareness. His organization is recognized as the first to have planned and celebrated a “workingmen’s holiday,” on Sept. 5, 1882, with a parade and a picnic in New York. The organization held a second Labor Day on Sept. 5, 1883, and by 1884, the Central Labor Union had proposed the first Monday of September as a permanent holiday dedicated to the achievements of American workers, encouraging unions in other cities to do likewise.

By 1891, Pope Leo XIII had issued Rerum Novarum, an encyclical letter about the relationship between labor and business, in which he discussed the rights of workers to form unions and reject communism and unrestricted capitalism. Leo insisted that workers had a right to safe and sustainable working conditions and working hours, and that employers were responsible to provide these. “It is neither just nor humane so to grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies,” the pope said, adding that workers needed adequate rest periods and work that did not exceed their strength. Leo’s thoughts were foundational in the development of Catholic social teaching for the century that followed, which affirmed the dignity of labor, even though it often involved sacrifice and toil.

By the early 1890s, with the Labor Day movement picking up national steam, Gompers and the AFL feared that Maguire’s political beliefs were too radical and out of sync with the AFL’s goals. So, in 1894, when President Grover Cleveland signed legislation that established a national Labor Day, Gompers threw Matthew Maguire under the streetcar and gave credit for the idea to his friend, Peter McGuire.

Regardless of the politics back in the day or even now, and despite our contemporary culture’s emphasis on leisure activities, Labor Day continues to be an occasion to honor the contributions of workers to the strength, prosperity and well-being of the nation.

During several long walks along the lake, we talked about our jobs and their meaning in our lives. Although we have now spent more years in our current professions than we did in priestly service, we still find ourselves comparing everything with that experience–formative and deformative as it was.

When we were in active ministry, we felt a level of job security that has yet to be equaled in our secular roles. As long as we played by the rules and didn’t make waves we could count on a dignified career and a pleasant retirement. A catastrophic illness such as cancer or stroke would be met with an outpouring of support an care, even unto death. The trade-off, of course, was that we had to live a very public life–one which eventually became a burden too heavy to bear. Our relationship with ambition was tortured, at best. Neither of us were interested in advancement, which was always suspicious. In fact, the closer we drew to anything bright, the more wary we became and weary we felt.

As priests, we often felt emotionally isolated, personally unsupported and professionally frustrated. While we deeply loved being priests and ministering as priests, we realized that the relentless public scrutiny, criticism and judgment that are the necessary consequences of living such a public life had taken an unanticipated personal toll. Jon’s bishop summed it up: “Your problem is you’re too sensitive.” In other words, the problem wasn’t with the job itself, but with the relationships inherent to doing the job.

Fast-forward to today, as Cliff works full-time from home with a virtual team and Jon prepares to transition to a shorter “in office” work week with two or more days remotely. Then, as now, it’s not the tasks of our labor that matter but the relationships inherent to doing our jobs. The time we spend interacting with our colleagues is second only to the time we spend interacting with each other, so there’s no way to overstate the importance of good working relationships. The difference between the our time in the ministry and now, of course, is that it doesn’t matter how well we play by the rules or avoid making waves. It doesn’t matter how we conduct ourselves in public or manage our professional ambitions. Our jobs are only as secure as our particular businesses are successful, and our positions are only as reliable as the people we work with are agreeable. No guarantee of an honorable career, care in a time of need or a cushy retirement.

It is this fear of an unknown future that drives us to work. More than a sense of mission or purpose or dignity, it is the constant fear of joblessness that motivates us to keep working.


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