Today is Labor Day - still a legal holiday, although what a holiday actually means anymore in our society certainly seems open to question.
Back when I was a graduate student in the mid-1970s, I dreaded the Labor Day "holiday weekend" because the University always chose that weekend to close the library for 3 days for its annual sprucing-up before the resumption of classes later in September. In those days, when so few places were air-conditioned, that meant not only no place for graduate students to read, study, and socialize with ease, but also no place to keep cool and to breathe pollen-free air!
Labor Day, a federal holiday since 1894, sadly long ago joined most of our other national holidays in losing much of its original civic significance and has 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 was still significant, 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 imminent return to school and normal activities. It was already losing its primary purpose as a serious civic celebration of American workers (and the affluence that their astounding productivity had helped to produce).
That great post-World War II quarter century or so of unprecedented, nation-wide, prosperity rooted in a strong labor movement and high tax rates seems such a distant memory now in this present era of increasing economic inequality, political polarization, and social dysfunction. Thus, the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2016 Labor Day Statement has called attention, among other things, to “the acute pain of middle and rural America in the wake of the departure of industry. Once the center of labor and the promise of family-sustaining wages, research shows these communities collapsing today, substance abuse on the rise, and an increase in the number of broken families.”
Solving our society’s decades-in-the-making economic and social problems has been made that much more complicated and problematic by the transformation of global economic activity and other social changes, which seem to have rendered obsolete so much that we used to be able to take for granted about economic and social life. That challenge, however, only makes it that much more urgent for us 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.