Our common life and each other's toil

On Labor Day, we remember those who work.

In the Book of Common Prayer, the following prayer from Compline is appropriate:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Episcopal Church does not have an official Labor Sunday, still what Cathleen Falsani writes on God's Politics about what we can do to honor workers is worth acting on every day:

For several years, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (the forerunner of the National Council of Churches) issued an annual sermon for Labor Sunday, in the hope that it would be incorporated into worship services across the nation. The annual Labor Sunday sermons are no more, but one crafted in 1931, two years after the Black Friday stock market crash, rings strikingly true.

It said, in part: “Our generation … has insisted on the rights of property to dividends but has concerned itself too little with the rights of workers. … Our economic life now seems to be without a chart.”

These days, with far too many of us out of work or scraping by (or not) making minimum wage that isn’t a living wage, we all should be thankful for having a job. Any job. And spiritually speaking, the value of work should feel more sacred than ever.

As I’m typing this, I can hear three men on the second floor of my house hammering as they install new carpet. It’s a hot, breezeless day — sunny and well into the 80s. The men are working feverishly and without complaint.

I am grateful for my work here, labor of the mind and a few keystrokes, writing for you.

They are grateful for theirs — albeit backbreaking, sweaty, bone-jangling labor.

And I am grateful for them.

So many of the stories in the Bible revolve around labor and laborers. Field workers. Shepherds. Fishermen. Builders. Weavers. Farmers. Servants. As one Labor Sunday sermon on the United Church of Christ Web site reminded me, Jesus (as a carpenter) was himself a “low-wage worker.” In our society, workers such as child-care providers, custodians, farm workers, day laborers, sales clerks, and housekeepers typically make the lowest wages for the longest hours.

“One-quarter of all jobs in the U.S. pay poverty-level wages,” the UCC sermon says. “In addition, these jobs are more likely to require evening, night, weekend or rotating shifts. They are less likely to provide health insurance, a pension, or even paid sick leave. They are more likely to be filled by women and people of color — marginal jobs for the already marginalized. Just like Jesus.”

What can we do to honor workers?

Certainly we can and must urge lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, further improve workplace safety, and provide more equitable health care.

But there are more individual things we can all do — small gestures that may have enormous impact on the life of a worker.

* Be polite. When the construction crew has the highway blocked to repair potholes (standing in the hot sun all day, inhaling exhaust fumes), obey the speed limit and heed the signs. Wait patiently in line at the fast-food joint. Say hello to the store greeter when he welcomes you to the Gap or Blockbuster video store.

* Be generous. Tip well. Waiting tables is hard, often thankless work. Ten percent is not sufficient. Fifteen percent is fine, but 20 percent can be the difference between a good night and a lousy one for your server. (I’m speaking from experience here.) Never snap to get their attention. Say thank you when they put the water down. Don’t be cheap. When the babysitter wants a raise, give it to her.

* Be mindful. Notice the workers around you who make life what it is. Bring the lawn guys or the carpet installers iced tea. When you say grace before a meal, don’t just give thanks for the food. Think of how it got to you. Who grew it? Who raised it? Who transported it or sold it to you? Give thanks for them, too.

The National Farm Worker Ministry offers the following prayer, a perfect benediction for this Labor Sunday:

Bless the hands of the people of the earth, The hands that plant the seed, The hands that bind the harvest, The hands that carry the burden of life. Soften the hands of the oppressor and Strengthen the hands of the oppressed. Bless the hands of the workers, Bless the hands of those in power above them That the measure they deal will be tempered With justice and compassion. Amen.
Comments (3)

There's more to do. Support a rise in the minimum wage. Think globally and buy fair trade goods. Examine the labor practises of companies churches invest in.

John Sandeman

As well, I would encourage Episcopalians to urge their congressional representatives to support labor rights legislation (Employee Free Choice Act) that is working its way through the legislative process.

In practice, labor rights have been eroded over the years, and extremely well-funded pressure tactics against union organizing drives have grown. Even if an election is actually held and a union established, a majority of workers do not get a first contract within a year of bargaining. Labor law reforms being discussed include binding arbitration and increased employer penalties for breaking the law--penalities are now so low they are considered the cost of doing business.

General Convention 2009 endorsed labor law reform--Congress needs to be pushed on this, from a faith and moral perspective. The decline in unionism and worker rights is directly correlated with the decline in real wages for the majority of workers and especially the middle class--loss of family wage jobs combined with the current jobless recovery is one of the biggest crises facing our country today (see Bob Herbert's column in the NYTimes today).

Hear, hear to both of the above!

JC Fisher

[Also, support REAL Health Care Reform (inc. a Public Option). US businesses could afford to hire more workers, if they were not saddled w/ obscenely expensive health care costs!]

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