Labor Day: The Day of the Prophets

I grew up in a small coal town in western Pennsylvania. For many years, Colver was a typical company town, reflecting the power differential between miners and mine owners, and reinforcing mining families’ total dependence on the company for income and services. Even the name of the town reminded its citizens of company dominance, deriving as it did from a mash-up of the owners’ names: Coleman and Weaver. But by the time my father returned to his hometown to work in the mines, the industry’s influence over the town and surrounding area was mitigated by another force, the labor union. Once free as “job creators” to dictate the working conditions and living arrangements of their employees, coal companies now had to negotiate with the collective power of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

For most of my childhood, the United Mine Workers were led by Richard Trumka, who passed away recently after a lifetime of advocating for the American laborer, in roles with UMWA and the AFL–CIO. For his part, my father was active in UMWA District 2, Local 860, even after a back injury ended his active employment. Dad hurt his back when I was seven, but by the early eighties his fellow miners found themselves unemployed as well, displaced by the end of workable coal strips underneath our sleepy town. The coal industry remains the centerpiece of Colver’s history, but by the time I became a teenager, the mine’s demise (and the absence of any substitutable prospect of work) was the defining reality of the present.

Union life made an impression on me, though, even if it would be years before I realized its importance beyond identity marking. As a child I heard whispers of strikes and negotiations that made little sense to me at the time, but I would come to understand that unions were responsible for the disability compensation that allowed my parents to raise five children in strained socioeconomic circumstances. In college, I would learn the history of labor organizing in the United States, discovering raw accounts of the brutalizing working conditions in coal mines, steel mills, and factories at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the ways that wealthy industry owners conspired for decades with government leaders to violently suppress worker organizing. I learned of the strong cultural resistance to labor unions in the first half of the last century, a fear rooted in labor movements’ alleged resemblance to communist uprisings setting Europe on fire at the time. Labor unions eventually would prevail in their struggle for national sentiment, and their efforts to organize the American worker would yield employment protections we now take for granted: a minimum wage, the forty-hour workweek, prohibitions on child labor, overtime compensation, health benefits, and disability protections.

At the turn of the twentieth century, some Christians recognized that commitment to the biblical norms of justice required the church to actively side with the American worker. In a movement called the Social Gospel, Christian leaders denounced the church’s apathy toward the intolerable conditions many in the working class suffered, and they called the church to focus its preaching and service on the alleviation of suffering in this life—not just the salvation of souls for the next. Reacting to massive industrialization around coal, steel, and manufacturing, the Social Gospel demanded just wages, safe working conditions, and a workweek that provided adequate time for rest, religion, and family. Responding to droves descending on urban centers in search of work, the Social Gospel insisted on fair housing laws and decent living conditions for the nation’s workers. Coming of age during heavy waves of immigration, the Social Gospel responded with a robust defense of new Americans’ dignity and rights. To participants in this progressive Christian movement, allegiance to Jesus required the church to stand in solidarity with the suffering American worker, because Christ himself befriended the poor and the oppressed.

The Social Gospel was not a fringe leftist movement; it was the pulse of mainline Christianity in the early twentieth century. The Federal Council of Churches, the predecessor organization of the National Council of Churches and the representative of American mainline Protestantism in Washington DC, issued a statement in 1908 that captured the spirit of the Social Gospel. Responding to the unregulated conditions of industrialism, “The Social Creed of the Churches” called for the elimination of excessively dangerous working conditions and child labor. It advocated for collective bargaining for labor and more equitable distribution of profits between owners and workers. It declared the churches’ support for a weekly day of rest, a mandatory living wage, and disability and retirement incomes.

Because of the efforts of labor organizers and their Social Gospel allies, by the early 1970s, the so-called War on Poverty was effectively won. The income gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of the population was the lowest it had been in a hundred years, and the power of unions to represent the collective interests of the American labor class led to vast improvements in working conditions in a number of industries. A half-century later, however, we have given back many of those hard-earned accomplishments. CEO compensation is roughly 250 times the average income of the working class. Historic protections like a livable income and reasonable workweek are eroded by a national minimum wage that fails to keep pace, resulting in more Americans than ever working multiple jobs just to earn enough to live, often with inadequate health benefits attached to any of the jobs they hold. Workplace discrimination against women and people of color continues, albeit more subtly than in generations past. Union bargaining power is weaker than it has been in nearly a century. Fewer laborers are joining unions and fewer have the option, as mega-corporations like Amazon squash organizing efforts and the federal government retreats from its commitment to protect the right to collectively bargain. Cultural bias against labor movements has reemerged, too, ingeniously stoked by politicians and certain media outlets beholden to power brokers in major industries. Once again, the charge of “socialism” rings out against anything that appears to conflict with the American gospel of laissez-faire capitalism, including the equally American tradition of union organizing.

This Labor Day, we Christians should stand in solidarity with the American worker, in the spirit of the “Social Creed of the Churches.” Labor Day is one of those national holidays that once commemorated an important dimension of the American experience, but more often now it just serves as another three-day excuse to eat hot dogs and watch fireworks. Labor Day ought to be an annual celebration of the American worker, an acknowledgment of the importance of the working class to the common good of the United States. With all due respect to the “job creators” to whom US economic policy is so subservient, the health of our economy and our democracy depends on labor, on the production and consumption of our working class. Labor Day offers a ritualistic reminder of our indebtedness and responsibility to our laborer-citizens. It invites our country to annually renew its pledge to protect the working class, in the name of the common good.

Let’s make Labor Day a festival of the Social Gospel, a day when the dream of Amos becomes our wish for the nation: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Given our theological commitment to a just society, we Christians should be leading the renewal of that Labor Day pledge. We know what those Social Gospel activists a century ago knew, that there is no better discharge of our responsibility to a Jesus-ethic than standing on the side of those without power, marshaling the prophetic might of the church to call for public policies that more effectively serve the health and well-being of the working class. Justice, solidarity, and the common good are religious convictions at stake in the struggle for labor rights. Labor Day should be not just a secular holiday but a Christian holy day. Labor Day is the Christian Day-of-the-Prophets, a moment to honor the vision of God’s Reign bequeathed to us by those seers of the Hebrew Bible, and by the One who came to proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives. Let’s make Labor Day a festival of the Social Gospel, a day when the dream of Amos becomes our wish for the nation: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Adapted from American Liturgy: Finding Theological Meaning in the Holy Days of US Culture

From the National Archives: Photos taken by Jack Corn in 1974 of coal miners working for the Virginia–Pocahontas Coal Company, at Mine #4 near Richlands, Virginia

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