I like the idea of celebrating “homo faber”—man the maker or worker. Work is something that is part of our dignity, a triumph of the human spirit. The celebration of work is something desperately needed in our culture today.

“Why are we celebrating Labor Day? You don’t belong to a labor union,” one of my sons said. I wasn’t inclined to take the question terribly seriously as it was only geared at trying to get out of going to Mass. If we are not daily Mass attendees in the Deavel household, we try to go when we can, especially on holidays both ecclesiastical and civil. And though the parish Mass on federal holidays is at 9 AM, allowing us to sleep considerably later than the school day 6 AM wake-up, the flesh is strong, especially when one is fifteen—or 45, for that matter. The Garden of Gethsemane wasn’t the last time alleged disciples slept through the Passion of the Christ.

But I did answer the question anyway. I don’t particularly like many labor unions, I said, but I like the idea of celebrating homo faber—man the maker or worker. “That’s not what it’s about!” yelled the would-be divine worship truant. Ah, but I think it is. Like many things of which I disapprove because of their origins—soccer (commie Europeans), salad dressing (made from Xantham gum, which is procured from rotting vegetables), vanilla flavoring (from the secretion of glands in a beaver’s anus), sausages (don’t even ask), laws (really, don’t ask)—Labor Day is a holiday which I wholeheartedly approve even though I’m not connected to the labor movement myself.[1]

Why approve it? Historically, the movement to have a day in the fall was opposed to the use of May 1—the historical folk holiday of spring—by many labor unions and socialist groups, who wanted a date commemorating the May 4, 1886, Haymarket Affair, in which someone threw a bomb and police fired on striking workers who were demanding an eight-hour work day (the strike had begun on May 1). To this day, many countries celebrate an “International Workers Day” or “Labour Day” on May 1. And here in the U. S., socialist groups still celebrate it. In the Twin Cities where I live, there have been May Day celebrations since 1975 sponsored by a puppet group called Heart of the Beast. We went one year to see what it was like and found that it was about what one would expect—nutty leftism expressed in cool but often creepy puppets.

I have never seen any September Labor Day events that involve creepy puppets.

But beyond the fact that this holiday doesn’t have the same socialist ring to it, I like the idea of a day honoring workers and work. The report presented to Congress when the bill to make a federal holiday was being debated noted that federal holidays were established to commemorate some “great event or principle” and included these lines about the principle behind such a holiday:

By making one day in each year a public holiday for the benefit of workingmen the equality and dignity of labor is emphasized. Nothing is more important to the public weal than that the nobility of labor be maintained. So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen.[2]

Now one might object to the implied distinction between labor and capital involved in this movement. It’s not just blue collar work that is work—and it’s often not the case that the wealthy in our country got that way just by investments. They tend to work a lot. But the celebration of work is something desperately needed in our culture today.

First, work itself—productive activity, whether paid or not—is something that is part of our dignity. While the first command of God in Genesis 1 is “Be fruitful and multiply” (nice work if you can get it), the second command given is to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (verse 28). We are made to work. In Saint John Paul II’s 1987 encyclical letter Laborem Exercens, the late pope argued that

Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons.[3]

Sluggards can go the ant or the beavers for lessons in one sense, but we are the only true workers who are responsible and creative in our work. Human work is a triumph of the human spirit because we don’t work by instinct. We work as a decision and we work by using our minds to take on tasks that need to be done in the community of persons in which we dwell.

This is true in any situation, even a prison camp. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works are filled with stories of zeks, prisoners in the Gulag, who found meaning and dignity in their work. The eponymous hero of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is himself a man who not only finds satisfaction in doing his own jobs well but also in doing extra work for other prisoners who have resources.[4]

And that ability to make money off of work is not to be dismissed, either. One of the great difficulties of our time is that men in the prime of life have dropped out of the labor force in great numbers. Charles Murray, in his 2012 book Coming Apart, wrote about this among white Americans in his chapter on “Industriousness.” If black men were often kept out of the work force (and often by unions), white men did not have this problem. Yet from 1960-2010 the percentage of men in the prime age groups—particularly those from lower economic classes—working and working full-time decreased. Dr. Murray is skeptical about the argument that labor markets squeezed all these men out since the decline of blue collar jobs actually came after the trend for men to be out of the work force. Much of it seems to have come from the downturn in marriage among blue collar men—marriage actually having a “marriage premium” that causes men to work harder. But it doesn’t explain everything—Dr. Murray thinks the causation with marriage goes both ways. Some of it is connected to “leisure,” meaning entertainment that is now available cheaply and is not simply unpaid work.[5]

This blue collar trend of less work has been met more recently by white collar failure to be in the workforce. Several National Bureau of Economic Research papers have shown that millennial college-educated males have had a much more difficult time finding work than have millennial females.[6]

A decrease in industriousness associated with a decrease in family formation—that then causes a further decrease in industriousness. These long term trends are somewhat ominous. In the shorter term, the trends in labor force participation have been relatively good for the last several years under President Trump.[7] They need to continue to grow, especially for men.

No, I didn’t join a union on Labor Day, but we did go to Mass and celebrated man the worker. I said a prayer for my children and those of the nation that they would find good work that allowed them to “feel that [they] hold an honorable as well as useful place in the body politic” and be “loyal and faithful citizen[s].” Even more, that they would show their likeness to the God who made the world in six days and rested on the seventh.

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[1] The grossest examples in my list—well, aside from law and sausages—I obtained from this helpful article by Racquel Hestley, “Fifteen Everyday Items with WTF Origins.

[2] Labor Day a Legal Holiday Act, H.R. 28, 53d Cong. (1894).

[3] John Paul II. “Laborem Exercens.” The Holy See, 14 Sept. 1981.

[4] For more on this theme, see my article “Ivan Denisovich and the Search for Happiness,” St. Austin Review 18:6 (November/December 2018): 13-16.

[5] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2012), 168-188.

[6] For a summary and links to the research, see Annie Holmquist, “Millennial Males With Degrees Are Getting Crushed in the Workplace,” Intellectual Takeout, March 2, 2018.

[7] “United States Labor Force Participation Rate.” Trading Economics, August 2019.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Gleaners” (1857) by Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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