Op-ed: A Labor Day Looking for Solidarity

“Solidarity” has long been the watchword of the U.S. labor movement. It represented not only unity within workers’ unions, but also signaled a community of support for workers by others in society, individuals and organizations (secular and religious).

            It was solidarity among workers and with supporters of different social classes that propelled the great changes in working conditions (the 40-hour week, seniority and job security, paid vacation, minimum wage – to mention a few), albeit with great struggle and suffering, and even loss of life.

            Labor Day unfortunately has become just a vacation day without meaning, instead of calling us to reflect on past struggles, give thanks for those who sacrificed to improve workers’ lives in an extraordinarily oppressive economic system, and to question where we are today.

            Union membership has declined over the years. To some ironic degree, it’s related to the successes of the labor movement and worker benefits that we now take for granted. But part of the decline is because of the lack of solidarity from those in other social classes and sectors. The result is stagnating wages and benefits for those at the bottom of the pyramid, whose backs hold up the pyramid. People often are forced to hold two or three jobs to survive.

            This lack of solidarity goes hand-in-hand with the rampant, rugged individualism that seeps ever deeper into our commonweal, which materialism and consumerism extols and trades on, making it even more poisonous. This lack of solidarity is undermining our society.

            When we hear things like, “why should I care; it doesn’t affect me” or “getting vaccinated and wearing a mask infringes on my personal liberty,” we should cringe. Cringe, because the unspoken part of this is “I don’t care about others; they don’t figure into my equation.”

            Not caring about others is contrary to our stated American aspirations and against our religious Scriptures and humanitarian goals. This lack of solidarity crosses all social sectors, despite pious protestations otherwise.

            The pandemic, once considered an opportunity to reconfigure some of our unjust social and employment structures, was an abysmal failure in that regard. The people, who were oppressed, became even more oppressed, having to do the hard, bottom-of-the-pyramid work to keep us afloat. Did we demand higher wages for them? Better health insurance? Legitimization of their immigrant status?

To the contrary, the screw tightened. And insult to injury, our system required them to work in health-perilous conditions, while much of privileged society self-isolated and worked from home. There is now more wealth at the top of the pyramid than before, thanks to Congress’ channeling money in that direction, while ending the eviction moratorium for workers and allowing the states to make it even more difficult for them to vote according to their work schedules.

            Surely, valid arguments can be made about how our country goes forward, and sometimes intractable disagreements. But the one calculus rarely on the table these days is solidarity – what is best for the community as a whole. There are some bright lights, of course, but too few.

Many of us can remember a time years ago when the good of American society was our articulated guiding principle. We aspired to be a community of common responsibilities and interest for each other. That was part and parcel of patriotism.

We often failed to follow that lighthouse beam, and the lack of self-correction in our steering has led us to run aground on the shoals of “my rights are paramount, not yours – not ours.”

            Solidarity, of course, is a central Gospel message, reflected in Jesus’ life and teachings. Jesus calls us to radically share our time and resources. This requires prayer and deep discernment, individually and as a community. Christian solidarity pulls us from our accustomed comfort levels of privilege into a more direct relationship with our marginalized brothers and sisters.

Solidarity is love in action, and often painful because it demands meaningful, not token, sacrifice. As St. James’ letter has been reminding us recently, solidarity is not an option for Christians; it’s part and parcel of who we are and what we give to our larger community.

This Labor Day, I lament the loss of solidarity across the American spectrum with workers, to the detriment of those laborers. I also lament the lack of solidarity with each other and the rampant individualism that is corrupting our social compact.

Maybe this Labor Day and the historical solidarity it represents might get some folks thinking about how we can re-direct where we’re going and then doing their part to help make it happen. The Gospel calls us to do just that: to lift our voices, dig deeply into our time and resources, and to put into practice what we profess.

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