This Labor Day, we once again had the opportunity to reflect on the dignity of our work and the many benefits we enjoy as a result of our employment. It was also a time to recognize that there are still too many financially vulnerable families who are living precariously, paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes, they are forced to borrow against those paychecks from unethical predatory lenders, ensnaring them in a cycle of debt made worse by extremely high interest rates.
Although the economy is returning to a pre-pandemic norm with regard to unemployment rates and wage increases, most of the gains we’ve seen have been lost to inflation. And let’s not kid ourselves: The pre-pandemic norm was far from perfect. The persistent experience of many workers in low-wage jobs, which includes a lack of basic benefits, unsafe working conditions, and an increased level of stress, tells us that our nation must rise to the challenge of addressing areas of inequality throughout our economic systems. The most effective way to build a just economy is to make decent work at decent wages available for all those capable of working, and to prioritize the well-being of workers over the capital they produce.
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum, a document about the relationship between labor and business, in which he discussed the rights of workers to form unions and reject both communism and unrestricted capitalism. The pope insisted that workers had a right to safe and sustainable working conditions, as well as humane working hours, and that employers had a responsibility 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,” Leo said, adding that workers needed adequate rest periods and work that did not exceed their strength. In the 130 years since Leo’s encyclical letter, Catholic social teaching has consistently affirmed the dignity of labor, even though it often involves sacrifice and toil.
Though our jobs sometime involve sacrifice and toil, we enjoy them and we’re glad to have them. We have a good work-life balance, and in no way feel stupefied in mind or worn out in body. But the plight of low-wage workers who endure unjust or inhumane conditions is often on our minds.
This weekend, as we reflected on our life together and the labors that influence it in so many ways, we once again asked ourselves why do we do what we do? We both believe that we’re making a positive difference in our world–that our labors are contributing to something bigger than ourselves, and that we’re helping other people in some small, yet significant, way. At the end of our lives, we both want to look back and say that they were more about giving than taking, more about joy than sorrow, more about love than hate, more about care than pain, more about hope than cynicism, more about peace than conflict. Alas, we too often fall short.
In what was possibly a subconscious nod to today’s economic uncertainty, the highlight of our weekend was our Labor Day cookout that included the legendary yet little known Oklahoma onion burger. Homer Davis and his son Ross invented what he called the “Depression Burger” at the Hamburger Inn in El Reno, Okla., as a means to add inexpensive bulk to their burgers. It has since become a staple at roadside diners throughout the state, but remains an unappreciated treasure.
These burgers are cooked on a hot griddle, using a small ball of ground beef and a ridiculous mound of very thinly sliced onions. The burger is then smashed into the griddle, spreading it into a rough patty while simultaneously embedding the onions into the meat. When juices start collecting on the top of the patty, it’s flipped onto its onion side, seasoned with salt and pepper, smothered with cheese, and served on a steamed bun. Incredible! Especially when paired with crunchy crinkle-cut French fries.