When I was a graduate student back in the mid 1970s, I actually dreaded the Labor Day weekend because that was when the University library would close for 3 days for its annual sprucing up before the start of the school year. In those days, when so little was air-conditioned, that meant not only no access to our preferred place to read, study, and socialize, but also no place to keep cool and to breathe pollen-free air.
Labor Day, a federal holiday since 1894, long ago joined most of our other national holidays in losing much of its original civic significance to become just a "holiday weekend" – an opportunity for shopping and other diversions. Even when I was a child and the American labor movement was still strong and the traditional Labor Day Parade still defined New York’s Union Square, Labor Day was already becoming more about the end of summer vacation, the last day for women to wear their white shoes and men their straw hats, and the return to school and normal activities - and less of a serious civic celebration of American workers (and the affluence their astounding productivity had helped to produce).
That great post-World War II quarter century or so of unprecedented, nation-wide prosperity and a strong labor movement seems such a distant memory now in the present era of increasing economic inequality. Today, as the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops 2012 Labor Day Statement notes, “Millions of Americans suffer from unemployment, underemployment or are living in poverty as their basic needs too often go unmet” – a situation the Bishops’ Statement suggests “represents a serious economic and moral failure for our nation.” Certainly one dimension of this failure is a diminished appreciation of the centrality of productive work for a fulfilling human life and a flourishing economy. “Work is more than a paycheck,” the Bishops’ Statement reminds us; “it helps raise our families, develop our potential, share in God’s creation, and contribute to the common good.”
Solving our society’s complicated social and economic problems has been made even more problematic by the globalization of economic activity, which has rendered obsolete so much that used to be taken for granted. That challenge, however, only makes it that much more urgent to recover an authentic understanding of human nature and human solidarity – and of fulfilling human labor as an essential component of a productive economy and a good society.