I want to talk about this holiday weekend, and specifically Labor Day itself, before launching into some thoughts about our readings today. I find the history around some of our national holidays we celebrate to be interesting and also unusual, especially based on why and how they are celebrated now as compared to their original intent.
Paraphrasing from that mega online encyclopedia source, Wikipedia: Labor Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the first Monday in September, that generally celebrates the economic and social contributions of workers. The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. By early 1894, 30 states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers. It was finally nationally recognized in mid 1894 to placate unionists following the Pullman Strike (something I am sure we all remember well, being that this happened almost 120 years ago!).
We know about strikes and boycotts that have happened more recently, but check out this Pullman Strike, a nationwide railroad strike in the United States in the summer of 1894. It pitted the American Railway Union (ARU) against the Pullman company, the main railroads, and the federal government of the United States under President Grover Cleveland. During a severe depression (the Panic of 1893), the Pullman Palace Car Company had cut wages as demand for new passenger cars plummeted and the company's revenue dropped. A delegation of workers complained that wages had been cut, but not rents at their company housing or other costs in the company town of Pullman in Chicago. The company owner, George Pullman, refused to lower rents or go to arbitration.
On May 11 nearly 4,000 factory employees of the Pullman Company began a wildcat strike in response to the reductions in wages. Many of the Pullman factory workers joined the ARU, which supported their strike, and launched a boycott on June 26 in which ARU members refused to run trains containing Pullman cars. The plan was to force the railroads to bring Pullman to compromise. Within four days, 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads had "walked off" the job rather than handle Pullman cars. The strike and boycott shut down much of the nation's freight and passenger traffic west of Detroit, Michigan.
An injunction was obtained in federal court barring union leaders from supporting the strike and demanding that the strikers cease their activities or face being fired. The leaders of the ARU ignored the injunction, and federal troops were called up to enforce it. City by city the federal forces broke the ARU efforts to shut down the national transportation system. The arrival of the military led to more outbreaks of violence. During the course of the strike, 30 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded. Property damage exceeded $80 million.
In an effort to conciliate organized labor after the strike, President Grover Cleveland and Congress designated Labor Day as a federal holiday. Legislation for the holiday was pushed through Congress six days after the strike ended. The September date originally chosen was selected rather than the more widespread International Workers' Day on May 1st, because Cleveland was concerned that observance of that day instead would associate it with the Communist, Syndicalist and Anarchist movements. Since then all U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and the territories have made it a statutory holiday.
From the U.S Department of Labor website: “The vital force of labor has added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”
Just to show how “far” we have come away from the origins of Labor Day, and with the recent declines in union membership, Labor Day weekend is now generally just viewed as a time for family gatherings, barbeques and the end of summer vacations, and for some children time to go back to school. For those who see $$ with any holiday, to take advantage of large numbers of potential customers free to shop, Labor Day has become an important sale weekend for many retailers in the United States. Some retailers claim it is one of the largest sale dates of the year, second only to the Christmas season's Black Friday. Ironically, because of the importance of this sale weekend, some of those who are employed in the retail sector not only work on Labor Day, but work longer hours. [The retail sector employs about 24% of our nation’s workers, and many feel they have to work on this day.]
Finally, for those excited about U.S. sports, Labor Day weekend marks the beginning of the NFL and college football seasons. NCAA teams usually play their first games the weekend of Labor Day, with the NFL traditionally playing their first game the Thursday following Labor Day.
So, what does all of this have to do with our Gospel reading from Luke today? Probably not much!!
At the least, Jesus said that just because it was the Sabbath (when the priests and lawyers claimed that Jewish law said there should be no work), that it is fine to honor this day, but not to be legalistic about it. In a part left out of our Luke 14 reading, Jesus healed a man with dropsy on the Sabbath, and then berated the Pharisees, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they had no reply to this.
I think this business of legalistic thinking about the Sabbath is pretty silly. Here they are having a dinner party on the Sabbath, and somehow all of the food and all the logistics around the meal is handled without anyone doing any work at all on this day? I don’t think they had refrigerators or microwaves to keep the food fresh or to reheat it. Or maybe this law doesn’t count for the servants or slaves (indicating a serious split class culture, which we know they had!). I think trying to honor everyone by not having to work on our Labor Day holiday actually makes more sense than this. But I’m not going to look badly on those who have to work to just survive. But look out you greedy corporations taking advantage of these people. If we want to honor the Sabbath then let’s change our overall views about work and lifestyles such that is enough money made in the first 6 days of the week so people don’t feel they have to work Sundays or holidays just to get by. And I think that also applies to having Sunday scheduled for kids sports activities; forget the religious context—just looking at having a day of rest and down time with family and friends and for those who want to worship makes sense to me.
What do we see today that reminds us of the real reason that brought about Labor Day—we see low paid, entry level people in jobs where they do not even earn a wage to survive or with benefits like health care—yet many of the corporations they work for make record profits for a few shareholders or for their CEO and top leaders. Again we see strikes and boycotts of the mega fast food industry and major sales stores and their corporations—because they refuse to pay reasonable living wages and benefits, yet make insane wealth for a few. What our Luke reading today tells us, using the example of seating at a formal dinner, is that whether you are the top honoree or simply the guest from off the street, you can act humbly and let the event be one of honoring and recognizing each other. Further, we can live our lives this way, to invite those with less—the poor, the crippled, and lame and the blind--into our banquets of life, and ensure that all are provided for and treated fairly and with dignity.
Shared at the announcement time--some sayings related to Labor Day and work:
I believe that summer is our time, a time for the people, and that no politician should be allowed to speak to us during the summer. They can start talking again after Labor Day. --Lewis Black
If all the cars in the United States were placed end to end, it would probably be Labor Day Weekend. --Doug Larson
The candidate out front on Labor Day has historically been the one who stayed ahead in November. --Peter Jennings
Rules like 'don't wear white after Labor Day' or 'shoes matching the handbag' are antiquated. Modern women should feel free to experiment. --Stacy London
Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation. --Samuel Gompers
All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence. -- Martin Luther King Jr.
Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. --Confucious
There is no labor a person does that is undignified; if they do it right. --Bill Cosby
I know you've heard it a thousand times before. But it's true - hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice. If you don't love something, then don't do it. --Ray Bradbury
If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. It's the hard that makes it great. --Tom Hanks
The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary. --Vince Lombardi
Labor Day is a glorious holiday because your child will be going back to school the next day. It would have been called Independence Day, but that name was already taken. --Bill Dodds
Many times a day I realize how much my own life is built upon the labors of my fellowmen, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received. --Albert Einstein
I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it. --Thomas Jefferson