The Labor Movement's Religious Roots Have Been Forgotten

Tired Young Businessman staring into space, profile
Tired Young Businessman staring into space, profile

(RNS) Of the 10 holidays recognized by the federal government, the future status of two – Labor Day and Christmas – may be short-lived. And, perhaps surprisingly, for the same reason: religion.

Already, officials in many school districts and municipalities have decided references to Christmas are politically incorrect, deeming them offensive to non-Christians or those of no religion at all. Often, the complaints come not from the average believer but from fanatics or those who resent any ideas different from their own, whether they be religious, political, moral or otherwise.

In the case of Labor Day, a holiday that originated in 1892 by the efforts of the New York chapter of the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, this country’s first nationwide labor union, the reasons for the possible demise are less distinguishable.

Yet both holidays have something in common: Christmas has become secularized in an America where religious commitment is down and the number of the religiously unaffiliated is up. The labor movement, meanwhile, has forgotten the religious roots that propelled the movement that won a national holiday.

What is obvious is that membership in unions continues a nearly steady 30-year decline. And since there have been similar declines in other countries, that is not likely to change as the result of any liberalization of immigration laws. What’s happening here is also happening across Latin America.

The most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that barely more than one in ten (14.4 million) of the 127.5 million working Americans belonged to unions in 2012, down half a percentage point from 2011. In 1983, that figure was more than 20 percent.

Many factors are cited by experts to explain the decline of unions, including globalization, the loss of manufacturing jobs, lackluster union recruiting and slow structural changes in the unions to accommodate a growing number of women and young people in the workforce.

Overlooked, according to a piece last year in Canada’s Cardus Daily, is what religion-and-economics expert Lew Daly calls “arguably the deepest, most serious problem” in unions today: “the corrosion wrought by secularism” in both unions and society at large.

Union leaders have forgotten the religious roots of organized labor in this country. Terence Vincent Powderly, who led the Knights’ outreach across the nation, was a devout Catholic influenced by his Baptist lay preacher predecessor, Uriah Stephens. Powderly, a nonsmoking teetotaler, attributed the roots of the labor movement to Christianity.

Writing in 1893 on the history of the Labor Day observance — which had begun only the year before and wasn’t declared a national holiday until President Grover Cleveland acted in 1894 — Powderly recounted centuries of labor history:

“Trades-unionists, members of guilds, leagues and other organizations of workingmen embraced Christianity and proclaimed its doctrines as being especially advantageous to the welfare of the toiling poor,” he said.

Powderly became a lawyer, the U.S. commissioner of immigration and later was inducted into the Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor. The preamble to his union’s Declaration of Principles quoted Scripture, and union rules precluded Sunday meetings, banned cursing or smoking during meetings, and denied membership to anyone involved in the liquor business.

As community organizer Daly sees it, unions and religious institutions used to find common ground in the “struggle for rights of association and a legitimate, protected place in public law.” Unions were strongest not when they used the coercive powers of the strike or litigation but when their “religious ideas helped to expose … profound tensions in American liberalism around labor issues generally and the place of unions in particular.”

If the strength of labor unions and the continued existence of their holiday depend on a relationship with a religious population, and the fate of Christmas as a national holiday rests on vibrant churches and the tolerance of other strong institutions of faith, perhaps all parties should pay attention to what Powderly advised:

“If Labor Day is observed as it ought to be, the gospel of humanity will be understood by all men and women … ’Love thy neighbor as thyself’’ … (and) ‘Do unto your neighbor as you would have your neighbor do unto you’ will have a meaning not now understood as they should be this side of the portals where eternity begins and God rules in the presence of those He calls from the earth.”

(Adon Taft was the religion editor for The Miami Herald for 37 years. In September he will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Religion Newswriters Association. He lives in Brooksville, Fla.)

Quotes For Labor Day