It's Labor Day again - a day I have looked forward to most years as heralding the beginning of the end of summer and also (way back when I was a student) the return to the familiar world of school. Of course, besides being a seasonal marker, Labor Day is also a civic holiday with an underlying (if largely forgotten) civic significance.
In his pre-Labor Day column last week in The Washington Post, "In corporations, it's owner- -take-all," Harold Meyerson highlighted the ambivalence of Labor Day, which he called "the mocking reminder that this nation once honored workers ... posing the nagging question of why the economy ceased to reward work." (One can read Meyerson's entire column at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/harold-meyerson-in-corporations-its-owner-take-all/2014/08/26/0c1a002a-2ca7-11e4-bb9b-997ae96fad33_story.html).
Like our other civic holidays, Labor Day gradually lost its significance as we evolved (rather rapidly and recently actually) from a civil society to a nation of suburbanite shoppers. Even so, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops managed to remember what Labor Day is supposed to be about. (One can read the USCCB's Labor Day Statement at: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/labor-employment/labor-day-statement-2014.cfm).
Labor Day, the statement reminds us, "gives us the chance to see how work in America matches up to the lofty ideals of our Catholic tradition." The result of such an inquiry can only be discouraging. "The poverty rate remains high, as 46 million Americans struggle to make ends meet. The economy continues to fail in producing enough decent jobs for everyone who is able to work, despite the increasing numbers of retiring baby boomers. There are twice as many unemployed job seekers as there are available jobs, and that does not include the seven million part-time workers who want to work full-time. Millions more, especially the long-term unemployed, are discouraged and dejected."
The statement expresses special concern about how "our young adults have borne the brunt of this crisis of unemployment and underemployment. The unemployment rate for young adults in America, at over 13 percent, is more than double the national average (6.2 percent). For those fortunate enough to have jobs, many pay poorly. Greater numbers of debt-strapped college graduates move back in with their parents, while high school graduates and others may have less debt but very few decent job opportunities." Here, the statement invokes Pope Francis, who "has reserved some of his strongest language for speaking about young adult unemployment, calling it 'evil,' an 'atrocity,' and emblematic of the 'throwaway culture'." Following Pope Francis, the statement rejects "an economy of exclusion" to embrace "an authentic culture of encounter."
The statement also calls attention to the by-now familiar and increasingly worrisome relationship between our crisis of work and our crisis of marriage and family life. "Marriage rates have declined by close to 20 percent in the last 40 years, and the birth rate is the lowest on record. Among young adults, the decline in marriage has been steeper, at 40 percent. Although not the only reason, many young adults, because they are unable to find decent work, are delaying marriage and starting a family."
Finally, but no less importantly in our present political climate, the statement addresses the unresolved problem of our currently unsatisfactory system for welcoming immigrants. "As a nation of immigrants, we recognize that a vibrant and just economy requires the contributions of everyone. Those who come seeking decent work to support their families by and large complement, rather than displace, American workers. But we need to fix our broken immigration system to stop the exploitation and marginalization of millions of people as well as address the development needs of other countries. In doing so we would also level the playing field among workers, provide more opportunity for all who can work, and bring about a needed "change of attitude toward migrants and refugees" (Pope Francis, Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees)."
I doubt this statement will be read much at the nation's beaches this weekend - or read much anywhere anytime soon. Still, it never hurts to be reminded what Labor Day is actually about, what America is supposed to be about, what any approximation at a just society has to be about!