A New View of Labor Day

Deborah Stollery

We at ConSpirita Consulting Network are committed to improving leadership, especially ecclesial leadership.  These times of a global pandemic and a global awakening about racism cry out for courageous and humble leaders.  This series of blogs invite you to come along with us as we humbly, courageously and consistently undertake the work of self-education about racism in the United States, in the Catholic Church and in our own white, privileged lives.

“Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.  It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”  US Department of Labor “Labor Day: What it Means.”[i]

I sit here writing this mid-morning on a beautiful “hint of Fall” morning in West Virginia.  It’s Labor Day, 2020.  But it’s not the same kind of Labor Day I’ve marked in my past.  No cookouts with friends or family, no birthday celebrations, no last minute “back-to-school” shopping runs, no brand new lunch boxes gaping open waiting for sandwiches, snacks and drink boxes.  No speeches, parades or picnics – not in the year of Covid19, polarized relationships and racial unrest.

But here’s what is happening for me today.  I am ashamed to admit, but for the first time in my life, I thought about Labor Day and the labor of slaves, upon whose backs this country was founded.  I tied the economic system of slavery to Labor Day.  For the first time, I am wondering how many people of color were represented in the early celebrations honoring workers and their families?  And I am thinking about the current economic situation of so many people of color, more adversely affected by Covid19 and the economic impacts of the virus.  Has Labor Day ever been about racial injustice, a cry for more justice, for protections for workers of color?  Is this one more holiday created by and for white men and their families, with no thought of the labor of the enslaved black population that literally created this country?  And in the interest of transparency and honesty, I am also wondering how or if this holiday has benefited or does benefit all people of color and women. 

As is my habit when I begin to wonder, I turned to the internet to see what others are wondering about and saying in response to these kinds of questions.  I’ve quickly learned in these days of personal baby steps toward becoming an anti-racist, that just because something has just occurred to me, does not mean that there are not already many people concerned about this.  There are pioneers, trailblazers and those, sometimes two generations of people already, deep in the trenches with these issues, working hard for the dignity of work and the rights of workers to be sure these rights extend to the BIPOC population.  And three things happen when I find these men and women at work:  I am chagrined and embarrassed that my sources of information, my American story, have not to date included these people or their efforts; I feel the need to repent and then to re-constitute my list of storytellers;  and, I am heartened and encouraged by their clarity, courage and commitment.

Here’s one example from today’s limited internet read-around. It caught my attention because of its geographic focus, its depth and its breadth.  From an article in The Nation:

In the fall of 2019, a coalition of Black activists and leaders from the labor movement, the economic justice movement and academia gathered in New York for a three-day intensive conversation on the state of Black workers, our power and our unmet concerns.  We gathered specifically to envision a new method, a new project that would elevate both Black voices and Black strategists in our progressive movement as well as promote intentionally a Black, Southern focused school of thought.

The Advancing Black Strategies Initiative was born from those discussions, and is now a joint project of the Jobs with Justice Education Fund, the Black Worker Initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Morehouse College International Comparative Labor Studies.  Our overarching vision is to create at all levels, from students to seasoned veterans, a cohort of Black economic-justice-and labor-focused strategists committed to leading, developing and advancing policies and campaigns that support the collective power-building of working people, particularly in the South.[ii]

Learning about the existence of the Advancing Black Strategies Initiative is one more baby step on the way to becoming the kind of human being I believe God created me to be – a learner, who once I learn, I discern, and then I follow where Jesus leads – into the Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.  This Kingdom is one of right relationships between God and humankind, between human beings, one with another, and between us and God’s creation.  Labor Day 2020 has helped me reflect on our nation’s history of slavery, of labor, of pride and mythos about it, and on this moment in history when I join so many stepping into God’s Kingdom where there is no room for racial injustice.  The steps are small, but I am beginning to see that even something like Labor Day invites my continued learning and growing, questioning and searching for God’s vision for us, right here and now.  What about you?  What’s sparking your continued commitment to becoming more like Jesus and to participating in co-creating the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven and the fight for racial justice?

[i] https://www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history  Accessed 9/7/2020
[ii] Marc Bayard.  “Black Labor Leaders are Needed Now More Than Ever”  The Nation.   September 4, 2020  https://www.thenation.com/article/economy/black-labor-movement-strategists/  Accessed 9/7/2020

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