Worth and Dignity: A Labor Day Meditation

Labor day is a very secular holiday, but it should hold a special place for Unitarian Universalists as part of the ongoing development of our faith. Labor day is fundamentally tied to our values and the Principles of the UUA.

Just last week, we passed the 54th anniversary of the MLK-led “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, the event at which he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. And we need to remember that the fight was not just for “civil rights” as we think of them, but for opportunity in education and employment and for economic justice. Among the goals laid out by organizers of the march were:

A program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed;
A Federal law prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring;
A $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide;
Withholding Federal funds from programs that tolerate discrimination;
A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to cover currently excluded employment areas.

These issues are all central to the labor movement, and have been for over 100 years. In short, the Labor Movement is about recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of the working class in the terms of our capitalist society. It is about fair compensation for the time and energy given over to producing things for consumption and the idea that people deserve to have a life, a full and rewarding life, outside of and funded by their employment. Those were things most White people were enjoying in 1963, thanks to unions and laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act. They were not extended to Black Americans fully due to segregation and exemptions based on the kind of job Black people were more likely to hold.

They are values that have been eroded, as income inequality is on the rise, non-wage benefits have been slashed, and unions have been demonized. We must remember the work and the risks undertaken to shape the American Dream. It was not handed down from on high. It was created by people willing to take risks to see justice done. That is how change has always come, but it has always come. We can be part of continuing that proud tradition.

Labor Day is about the power of a worker to stand up for their own worth and dignity against companies that only see them as “human resources”. We honor that people fought, bled, and even died fighting for safer working conditions, time with their families, and a living wage for a week’s worth of effort. It is a memorial to those who made that all possible. It is a celebration of the human spirit and the knowledge that people will always work, always fight, for a more just and equitable world. We must work to ensure that we keep moving towards that goal, together.

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