Celebrate dignity of work, workers
By Fr. Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem.
May 17, 2013
April 28th was Worker Memorial Day. It commemorates workers who have been killed or injured on the job. Look at the history of iconic American structures. Numerous workers died in their construction. Workers have given more than their skills. They have given their lives.
All of this movement and celebration goes back to the 19th century. Labor unions, or trade unions as they are sometimes called, sprang up to advocate for fair pay and benefits for workers filling up the new factories and mills.
This was at a time when European immigrants flooded our shores to escape persecution of one sort or another, and took the jobs employers and factory owners offered to meet the demand of a new century. There were little to no regulations blocking this tidal wave of migration. In fact migration and the conditions of labor were intertwined from the beginning.
This early struggle of organized labor gave us much of what we take for granted, such as weekends. Employees worked from “can” to can’t” as the sharecroppers said, from sunup to sundown. A bloody struggle including hangings in Chicago gave us the eight-hour day and the weekend.
Agricultural work, especially sharecropping did not benefit from this early organizing by the newly formed unions. In fact, it took till the mid-twentieth when technology and the Civil Rights Movement helped end sharecropping. When Walter Reuther, head of the UAW, marched with Martin Luther King it forged a bond between the labor struggle and civil rights. Dr. King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated.
César Chávez and his United Farm Workers in the mid 1960s fought for labor rights for agricultural workers. He was formed by Catholic social teaching. Today we can see the continuation of this struggle in the Immokalee Workers in Florida.
A recently as April first of this year the Coalition of Immokalee Workers joined the march and rally in Chicago over McDonalds labor and agricultural policies as reported by David Dixon in his blog April 8:
“The Coalition of Immokalee Workers staged a five-mile march and rally in Chicago on April 1 to protest the food chain McDonald’s exploitation of farm workers.
The coalition’s website states, ‘As the march made its way through Chicago and the crowd grew, the march itself became the message — a diverse group of people, from farm workers to everyday consumers, brought together by a common vision of economic justice, a call for fair wages and human rights, finally, for workers whose exploitation has gone unquestioned for far too long while corporations throughout the food industry have profited from their labor.’”
The struggle for maximum profits at the expense of cheap labor is ongoing. However, our Catholic tradition of social justice is squarely on the side of workers. Our tradition of the common good and the dignity of the human person, makes our position clear and unambiguous. From the mid 19th Century through the 20th Century came the labor priests.
Several appeared in the East coast and Midwest championing the rights of workers. Some of their writings foreshadowed Vatican II almost verbatim, 100 years before the council. All of these organizers, cleric and lay people, paid a heavy price in their work to support human dignity.
The labor movement is part of the struggle for immigrant rights, civil rights and human rights. Those who give their lives for this stand on solid ground in Catholic social teaching
(Fr. Jeremy Tobin, O. Praem. lives at the Priory of St. Moses the Black, Jackson.)