A Gathering Voices Post by Laura Cheifetz
Labor Day was initially celebrated in multiple places by various people during the Industrial Revolution, one of the worst times in history for American workers. It was typical during the Industrial Revolution for American workers to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, regardless of age or immigration status, with the most vulnerable (particularly children and recent immigrants) working in conditions with few safety measures in place, little access to fresh air, and certainly without breaks.
The 40-hour work week, robust regulation protecting workers and businesses alike, and paid sick leave didn’t come about because business owners thought that would be nice. They came about because workers went on strike, protested for months at a time, and died fighting. Here’s a good example of the changes in protections for coal miners over the years.
My stint with hourly work began in a bookstore, a job I got as a teenager because my mother worked there. I learned to clock in and clock out. I learned how to take inventory, ring up purchases and process returns, handle customer requests, and I learned how to work through monotony. When I graduated from high school, my parents told me to get a full-time job. So I went and worked for two summers at a Thai restaurant. I started bussing tables, moved to hosting, then worked as a server.
It was hard work. People were mostly nice, but there was a lot of ignorance to go around, and being on my feet all day was not what I would call fun. I was asked at least three times a week if I were Thai, as though it mattered. I was once asked if we had egg drop soup. My mother, an Asian food purist extraordinaire, had so limited our intake to foods that were really worthwhile (i.e. wonton soup with handmade won ton) that I didn’t know what “egg drop soup” was, but I knew it wasn’t Thai (news flash: not all Asians are the same, nor is Asia one giant food country). There was some crazy racial bigotry, with none of the Latino men I worked with advancing past busing tables.
The wife of the dishwasher stopped me one day to tell me she was proud of me for going to college. I came from a family in which college was a given, so it startled me. It finally hit me, more than my parents telling me a minority of Americans attend college, more than being aware there were just about half of the students graduating high school with me were even thinking about college, that hourly work is not something done just by college students, who would move on fairly quickly to salaried professional work. My two summers working in food service was permanent for many of my coworkers, because college and salaried work was not and is not a real possibility for a very large proportion of the population.
I am protected at work by extensive policies. I get paid sick leave and paid vacation. If I were to adopt or give birth, I would get paid maternity leave. My employer is required to maintain a safe environment. And I know this is not true for everyone. As a Christian, I care about everyone else. Being a Christian means believing everyone else is my neighbor (even if I don’t know them or don’t like them). Isaiah 65:21-22 states that in the new heaven and new earth, the people of God will be able to enjoy the fruits of their labors - "and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands." Those working for wages too low to cover the costs of housing, food, childcare, transportation, and medical care, are unable to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Those hourly workers who have to make a choice between going to work sick or going without a much-needed paycheck are unable to enjoy the work of their hands. These are our neighbors we are talking about.
Many faith communities are committed to advocacy for the rights of workers, particularly the most vulnerable: low-wage workers. The director of the Labor Department’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the Rev. Phil Tom, says: “The religions of the world teach that people should be treated with dignity and equity, and also that we’re all connected…Increasing pay for those at the bottom of the pay scale is an investment in workers’ dignity as well as an investment in our communities.”
In the international community, May 1st is a big deal. That’s International Worker Day, a day for solidarity, and an opportunity to celebrate workers. The U.S. doesn’t celebrate International Worker Day with the rest of the world, in part because President Grover Cleveland worried such a celebration would create support for the Communist and Anarchist movements. The U.S. is the only country to celebrate Labor Day in September. And in the U.S., Labor Day is primarily a day off in which businesses to remain open in order to offer us better sales, or make sure we have a place to pick up last-minute barbecue fixings.
Labor Day is more than a day off with friends and family. It is more than a day for me to watch someone bus my table, pour me more water, sell me a car, or ring up my last-minute package of veggie burgers for the barbecue. This Labor Day, I’m going to act like the Christian I am, and I’m going to talk with my friends about raising the minimum wage, and then I’m going to send my senators some emails.
For more information, you can check out the work to raise the minimum wage by the Department of Labor’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Interfaith Worker Justice, and the Office of Public Witness of the PC(USA).