Labor Day gives us an opportunity to reflect on how our country treats its workers. In the 1800s when this federal holiday was created, the United States was at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Although many innovations and economic growth are touted as great benefits of this time, it is important to remember that many workers were exploited. “The average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages.”* Fortunately, people began to organize and fight for worker rights. The worker protections and rights that exist today are a result of their efforts: the 40 hour work week, minimum wage, and prohibition on child labor are a few examples. There have been several other periods in our history when workers have organized to continue to improve their working conditions and wages.
During the pandemic many of us became alarmingly aware of the important role workers have in our community, calling some workers essential and heroes. I remember walking in my neighborhood and seeing thank you signs for the people who delivered food and other essential goods. Our newspapers and social media feeds were full of impassioned articles and stories
of unsung heroes in our communities. People realized that people who do essential jobs – like nurses, teachers, paramedics, truck drivers, grocery employees, and garbage collectors – should be paid better wages.
Unfortunately, as part of our desire to get back to normal, we have stopped talking about the value of essential work. Those thank you signs that were in my neighborhood have faded away. The parades cheering our hospital employees have ceased. However, the workers of today still need to know through words and actions that they are integral to the success of our communities and they should be treated with dignity and respect.
As disciples of Christ we have promised that “we will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”.** Part of respecting people’s dignity is ensuring that they are paid a living wage. No one who works should be food insecure, unsheltered, or without access to healthcare. Workers today are experiencing some of the same unsafe conditions experienced by workers during the industrial revolution. Many are working 12 hour days six to seven days a week to make ends meet. These conditions do not reflect God’s vision for His people. Jesus tells us there is a cost to discipleship. Maybe we need to pay more for our goods and services. Maybe we need to be willing to pay higher taxes so that local, state, and federal employees can make a living wage. Maybe we need to stand with workers supporting their rights to organize so they can get better wages and safer working conditions.
Workers' lives can improve when people of faith stand together with workers. The city of Austin and Travis County have both adopted a minimum wage of $20, which comes out to about $41,600 per year. It is still lower than the cost of living in Austin, but it is a $5 increase that will help many families have a better quality of life. The wage increase did not come about easily. Hundreds of hours by Central Texas Interfaith leaders who are Christians, Jews and Unitarian Universalists, labor union leaders, and members of other organizations was required to create the political will to increase city and county wages. And, there is a financial cost to all taxpayers. However, as Christians we believe that we are to stand for justice even when there is a cost to us.
As you enjoy your Labor Day picnic or your three day weekend, do not forget the workers among us who will not be celebrating or taking time off. They will continue to stock our shelves, provide medical care for loved ones, and deliver our packages. The least we can do for them is offer a prayer of thanksgiving and stand with them when they call on their employers and our government to improve their wages and working conditions.
**BCP p. 305