Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Day: Remembering Labor

As a child, the only meaning I knew of the word "labor" was what happens when a woman begins to give birth to a baby. I thought it funny that we had a general holiday to celebrate this activity.

Then I learned that labor also simply meant "work." I then found it funny that we had a holiday to celebrate such a mundane every day experience.

It was much later that I learned why "Labor Day" exists--when I learned that it was a great feat for individuals to earn certain "rights" within their places of work.

Regardless of your political beliefs in labor unions and their missions, we can probably agree that Unions have done both good and bad things for our country. I have seen both.

Recently at a "Five Guys" restaurant, the 16 year old working the french fries was working on such a greasy floor that he literally skated (tennis shoes on grease) his way to the counter to deliver our fries. He was working with grease that was probably 400 degrees, can could not take 3 or 4 steps without sliding significantly. I wondered if he felt empowered to tell the management that something needed to be done about the floor. Of course, if he complained too much, it is possible that they could fill his slot with someone else desperate to make $7.50/hr. The usefulness of unions representing workers became apparent.

When I was a teenager, my family moved from the Indianapolis, IN area to Evansville IN. That move forced my mom to retire from the school district where she had built more than 20 years of experience. One might think that in a world that at the time needed more teachers, she was more than qualified to find a good teaching position in Evansville. However, the union required that she be paid on scale with teachers who have 20 + years of experience. While that is not entirely inappropriate, it caused her to be unable to find work. She was not already in the system, so when the school system would hire a new teacher, they would hire someone right out of college, as that is the least expensive choice. Mom would have probably taken a pay cut to do the job, but the union would not allow it... (sets bad precedent for other teachers with significant experience--or so the argument would go...)

So regardless of your support or disdain for labor unions, I find in Labor Day an interesting reminder... that left to their own devices far too many employers will take advantage of their employees... saving money at the cost of safety; firing people who express legitimate concerns; employing under-qualified people to complete critical tasks in order to pay less salary, etc. Certainly not all employers would engage in such practices, but enough that in most all developed industrialized countries the need for labor unions arose.

Why does that matter to the Christian? Partly, it matters because we are a people called to bring good news to the poor (i.e. working class) But also it matters, because it gives those who are workers (laborers) a way of understanding what Jesus was saying when he said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant..." If you have a union boss or employer exercising authority over you; let that be a negative example... it is not so among you who call yourselves followers of the way.

Or in 1 Samuel 8, when the Israelites demanded a King, the Lord instructed Samuel, tell them,
This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day. 19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.”

Labor Day reminds us that Power corrupts. It corrupts Kings, it corrupts Union Leaders, it corrupts employers. And if we are not careful it can even corrupt leaders of the Church. So today as we celebrate the advances in labor rights, let us remember--it is not so among you. There is no contentious fight for power in the church. There is no need for arbitration and conflict over contracts.. It is not so among you; rather the one who is to be great must be the servant.


  1. Thank you, Eric for the reminder of what we are commemorating today. Iwish your comments about not there being no contentious fight for power in the church were true:-( Unfortunately even Christians are human and can become corrupted if they do not truly seek to serve.

    On another note, you will be happy to hear that we have a new (female) senior pastor at GUMC who CELEBRATES having children in church!!
    All the best to you and Kristin,

  2. Hi Merryl! Great to hear from you. Congratulations on moving Jacob onto college!

    Certainly there are contentious fights for power in the church, but only when the church is failing to live up to being the church (The body of Christ). In fact, I believe many people are most tempted to fight for power in the church because it is a place where they can exert control even if they have lost control in every other aspect of their life.

    I am aware of Jeanette's appointment to Grace, and have prayed for her and GUMC much since the appointment was made! I am sure she is doing well. If you all ever take a vacation down to south jersey, let us know!