Monday, September 5, 2022

Labor Day

My NYC311 phone app reminded me yesterday that NYCASP rules ("Alternate Side of the Street Parking") will be suspended today in observance of Labor Day. It is refreshing to be reminded that we still celebrate holidays, and that Labor Day is still one of them. I am actually old enough to remember when holidays were actually observed on their own terms, and when Labor Day was not just another "long weekend," an end-of-summer celebration of whatever, but actually honored human labor and the political, social, and cultural accomplishments of America's organized working men and women.

Notwithstanding the morally repugnant and politically disastrous "unholy" alliance of some contemporary Catholics with the Republican party, one of the more admirable aspects of the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, at least until relatively recently, has been the Church's commitment to the dignity of work and workers, and her support for unions and the labor movement. Institutionally this can be traced back explicitly to Cardinal Gibbons' famous February 20, 1887, Memorial to the Holy See supporting the Knights of Labor.

On that occasion, Cardinal Gibbons spoke frankly of the "grave and threatening social evils, public injustices, which call for strong resistance and legal remedy." He noted "that for the attainment of any public end, association - the organization of all interested persons - is the most efficacious means, a means altogether natural and just ... almost the only means to invite public attention, to give force to the most legitimate resistance, to add weight to the most just demands." To the (then more worrisome) objection that organized labor involved Catholics mixing with non-Catholics, he pointed out the obvious fact that they are mixed "precisely as they are at their work; for in a mixed people like ours, the separation of religious in social affairs is not possible." Gibbons also defended strikes as "a means almost everywhere and always resorted to by employees in our land and elsewhere to protest against what they consider unjust and to demand their rights." He also pointed out how "it is absolutely necessary that religion should continue to hold the affections, and thus rule the conduct of the multitudes," and how supremely important it is "that the Church should always be found on the side of humanity, of justice toward the multitudes who compose the body of the human family." Accordingly, he warned of "the evident danger of the Church's losing in popular estimation her right to be considered the friend of the people" and warned against an alternative policy as a result of which may "of the most devoted children of the Church would believe themselves repulsed by their Mother and would live without practicing their religion." In this, he proved especially prescient!

One result of the 19th-century American hierarchy's courageous openness to organized labor was the 20th century reality in which American Catholics increasingly influenced politics primarily through what Kenneth Woodward called the two mediating structures in which they had come to play a dominant role - the Democratic party and the Labor Movement. Much of the economic inequality, social injustice, and lack of opportunity which characterizes working class life in our country today can accordingly be traced to the decline of the Labor Movement and to its estrangement from the Democratic party since at least the 1970s. Perhaps something similar may be suggested regarding religion's increasing irrelevance in contemporary American culture, corresponding to its increasing estrangement from those  mediating structures.

Of course, there have been and still are heroic voices echoing the moral and political wisdom of Cardinal Gibbons. Labor Day repeatedly reminds me, for example, of John Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York from 1984 until his death in 2000, who, in his homily during a Labor Day Mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral almost 40 years ago in 1986, almost exactly a century after Gibbons' Memorial, affirmed his own strong commitment to organized labor: “So many of our freedoms in this country, so much of the building up of society, is precisely attributable to the union movement, a movement that I personally will defend despite the weakness of some of its members, despite the corruption with which we are all familiar that pervades all society, a movement that I personally will defend with my life.”

By then, however, the Labor movement was already in conspicuous decline, a decline which has only accelerated since then - a decline directly paralleled not just by an increase in economic inequality, social injustice, and lack of opportunity, but also by increasing disconnection between labor and effective political action. As Charles Taylor, for example, has observed: "the decline of class consciousness, and hence class movements, like Trade Unions ... breaks the link that connected many people to the political system. Their link to the whole was via a class identity and a certain understanding of class struggle. A world in which there are fewer and fewer people liked through identity to the 'Labour Movement' ... is probably also one in which the level of abstention rises." [A Secular Age, Harvard U. Pr. 2007, p. 824, n. 26.].

And that, sadly, is the way it is on this Labor Day 2022.

(Photo: The first Labor Day Parade, New York, September 5, 1882,

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