Imagine working in a place where the conditions are hazardous, the hours are long, the pay is very low and there is little respect for what you do or who you are. This was not an uncommon situation for workers toward the end of the 19th Century. With widespread child labor and horrible work environments for women, America was dealing with the dark side of the industrial revolution; the exploitation of workers to maximize profits on a grand scale.
At the same time, a movement began to spread across the country. A movement of people committed to better workplace conditions and a greater sense of worth for workers. The idea of "Labor Day" was birthed as a way for the nation to acknowledge the need for safer working conditions and respect and dignity for all workers.
As Labor Day celebrations grew across the nation, calls for a formal national holiday succeeded shortly after the Historic Pullman strike of 1894, and Labor Day was founded. Today, Labor Day continues to honor and value not only the worker, but the work they provide.
Unfortunately, hazardous working conditions with long hours, low pay and little respect are still all too common over a hundred years later for too many workers. These are the workers who are the backbone of our economy. The workers who pick and serve our food. The workers who take care of our loved ones. Who clean our homes and offices.
So many workers honored on Labor Day are also at the forefront of the struggle for a better work place. Workers like those in Immokalee, FL, who came to this country looking for a better life and have been toiling in fields picking crops for as low as $40 a day but are now gaining ground by fighting for the Fair Food program and another penny per pound for their labor.
Or Shantel Walker, who along with tens of thousands or her fellow workers in the Fight for $15 have been organizing for years for a living wage and better working conditions.
Labor Day matters because workers matter.
Still, it's difficult to believe that in 2015 the debate over whether full-time workers should make more than poverty wages is still being argued. That in 2015, many businesses systemically commit wage theft. That in 2015, poor workplace conditions continue to harm workers at alarming rates. That is why in 2015, Labor Day is as important as ever.
This isn't a question of economics, it's a question of what type of nation we want to be. We know what major faith traditions tell us. In my own faith, I think of verses such as Ecclesiastes 3:13:
"And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God." It's a matter of deciding if we really value what we say we value and Labor Day gives us a great opportunity to ask that question and then do something about it.
I hope that all people of faith and good will will share in a Labor Day prayer and action.
First, the prayer: "Creator in heaven, we ask that you be with those who are giving their work and talents yet are not being fairly treated in return. We ask that you give them the strength to continue on a path that leads toward greater respect and value for who they are and what their labor provides. We also ask that you touch the hearts and minds of the employers and public officials who have yet to act in favor of workers and that they be moved to follow your will and promote justice in the workplace and greater value on the worker."
And now the action: Take a moment to join us in paying tribute to workers of all stripes on our #ThankAWorker Tumblr blog today and throughout the week.
This Labor Day, show your solidarity with workers through prayer and action and together we can show America why Labor Day matters.