Labor's Day

September 7, 2015

It’s Labor Day in these United States of America, which we always celebrate on the first Monday in September. Some of our loyal readership from beyond our borders may wonder why we don’t have our Labor Day on the 1st of May, like most other countries, especially since the impetus for that holiday was the Haymarket Affair, which took place in our very own Chicago. It’s because President Grover Cleveland didn’t want our workers having a holiday that grew out of the Haymarket Affair. That’s why.

But I don’t want to stir up any controversy about the date we celebrate Labor Day. We like to do things differently here in the United States. That’s why our version of football is one where the ball is actually kicked by only two, sometimes three, distinct players on a team. Likewise, I don’t want to call a lot of attention to the fact that our Labor Day is a day where our retail workers have to work harder and longer than usual, though I did just call some attention to it.

No, what I want to talk about is Catholic Social Teaching, which is what Christian Democracy, the webzine you’re reading, strives to be about. Labor Day is a good time to talk about it, because it was the very unpleasant conditions that working people were putting up with that inspired Pope Leo XIII to write that Magna Carta of Catholic Social Teaching, his encyclical Rerum Novarum

The good Pontiff wrote that workers had a right to a wage that could support their families. Nowadays we call that the “living wage.” Right now, there are a lot of people, particularly fast food workers, who are trying to get that wage. But to what is to my surprise, at least, is that there are people who disagree with them. 

Now no one is ever going to accuse me of being an economist, but I have no end of difficulty understanding the point of those who oppose a living wage. The opposite of a living wage has to be, unless I am missing something important, a non-living wage, that is, a wage that isn’t enough to support a family. So it has to be that there are actually people in the world who are saying that they have a right to pay their employees less than what they need to support their families.

Like I said, I’m no economist. But when I hear people saying that no employer should be required to pay his employees enough to support their families, words like “supply and demand” come up. Now I had been led to believe that supply and demand were words that were used about products, as in, the price of a product will be based on how much of it there is and how many people want it. So when people are saying that wages should be decided by supply and demand, what are they saying? Are they saying that employees are products? I know there was a time in our country when some people were products, but I was pretty sure we got rid of that after the Civil War.

Besides, one thing I notice about unemployment is that it’s never zero percent. There are always people looking for work who can’t find a job. That tells me that there are always more people looking for work than there are jobs, meaning there is always more supply of workers than there is demand for them, and, if memory serves, that means that the price of workers, if you think of them as products, will always be pushed in the downward direction.

But people aren’t products anyway. People are people. It seems wrong to treat them like widgets. So, maybe it’s good that we have a Labor Day, whether it’s in May or September, so that we can try to remember that. But if people don’t remember that, maybe it’s a way to look forward to the time when labor has its day.

And maybe we could give the retail workers a break too.

Louis Rose