September 4, 2016
Labor Day

From “The Seven Days of Creation” James McAuley
The Seventh Day

Stillness is highest act,
Therefore be still and know
The pattern in the flow,
The reason in the fact.

Sabbath of the mind:
The beaked implacable
Tearing of the will
Arrested and defined.

Not to need either
To kill or to possess
Is a day’s clear weather.

The grinding stops; we untether
The abused beast, and confess
We’ve heard of happiness.

Exodus 20:8-11
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Cesar Chavez
It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth. It is an awesome opportunity.

 

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Here is a fun fact:

What is the importance of the date, February 21st, 1887? That is the date the first state passed legislation recognizing the first Monday in September as Labor Day. Take a wild guess as to state that might have been?

Yes, Oregon.

Later that year several other states passed similar legislation. Seven years later 23 states officially recognized Labor Day and on June 28, 1894, Congress established Labor Day to honor American workers.

It began in New York City in September 1882.

It was the rise of the Labor Movement in the gilded age. Various smaller unions decided to form a large union to solidify their strength. They formed the Central Labor Union from people of various ethnic backgrounds.

Its first project was to sponsor a labor festival, the beginning of what would become Labor Day in September 1882, the year my grandfather was born. The goal was to impress the public and politicians about the power of organized labor and to encourage solidarity among workers.

On September 5th which happened to be a Tuesday they held a parade which meant the participants would need to miss work. 10,000 people marched in the parade and a quarter million people watched it. They marched in order of their group carrying the tools of their craft. Lots of flags and patriotic music and they carried banners with phrases such as

Less Work and More Pay

And

To The Workers Should Belong All Wealth

And

Labor Built This Republic, Labor Shall Rule it.

That was September 1882.

Labor day wouldn’t become a national holiday for another 14 years when President Grover Cleveland signed it into law. That is an interesting story.

The federal designation of Labor Day was in response to the Pullman Strike.

George Pullman was the owner of Pullman Railroad cars. Pullman, Illinois south of Chicago was the town he created for the workers who made the railroad cars. Workers had to live in the town. They couldn’t purchase their own house. They had to pay Pullman’s rents.

During an economic depression, the Panic of 1893, demand for railroad cars plummeted. Wages were cut but Pullman didn’t lower the rents on his company houses. Pullman would not lower rents or negotiate. On May 11th, 1894, 4,000 workers went on strike.

Eugene Debs, president of the American Railway Union supported the strike and on June 26, 1894, Debs called for a boycott of all trains carrying Pullman cars. 125,000 workers on 29 railroads that handled Pullman cars walked out.

Railroads hired replacement workers or strikebreakers and this led to hostilities. All over the country, there were protests, sympathy strikes and much dissension as people took different sides over the strike and boycott. The media supported the railroads painting the strikers as anti-American and led by foreigners.

President Grover Cleveland was not pleased. He found a way to make the strike illegal, in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and sent in federal troops to enforce the law.

Preachers became involved. Opinions were proclaimed from the pulpits on both sides.

A Methodist minister in Billings, Montana, J. W. Jennings, supported the American Railway Union. In a sermon he compared the Pullman boycott to the Boston Tea Party, and attacked Montana state officials and President Cleveland for abandoning “the faith of the Jacksonian fathers.” Rather than defending “the rights of the people against aggression and oppressive corporations,” he said party leaders were “the pliant tools of the codfish monied aristocracy who seek to dominate this country.”  Notation

Eugene Debs was arrested and spent six months in prison. While in prison he read Karl Marx and then ran for president five times on the Socialist ticket.

The strike ended by force. Unsuccessful, although a commission appointed by President Cleveland put blame on Pullman and his company town. The Illinois Supreme Court forced Pullman to divest ownership of the town in 1898.

Where did Labor Day get involved?

Even as Labor Day was conceived as a day to honor the American worker back in 1882, it was actually made a federal holiday by the urging of President Cleveland. Six days after the strike ended, the legislation was pushed through as an attempt at conciliation with unions. Cleveland also wanted an official holiday to honor labor in September as opposed to May 1st International Workers Day, which he feared would strengthen socialist and anarchist movements.

Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the Labor movement.

Now Labor Day is mostly a day to mark the end of summer, the beginning of school, Labor Day Sales, and the last day it is fashionable to wear white.

According to historian, Joshua Freeman of the City College of New York:

“The establishment of Labor Day reflected the growing power of organized labor in Gilded Age America, while the decline of its formal celebration marks the waning power of labor and the general privatization of American life.”

Going back further in history, the first Sabbath Day might have occurred in the 7th century BCE.

The book of Deuteronomy was likely written in that time along with Joshua, Judges, and the books of Samuel and Kings, called the Deuteronomic history.

The book of Deuteronomy which means second law is set as a speech from Moses to the Hebrew people as they get ready to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. Moses gets to the mountaintop but he won’t go there with them. His sermon tells the story of the people including the Ten Commandments.

I wonder if Deuteronomy is mis-named. It is really the first law, or an earlier law. The Old Testament was constructed in layers. The Deuteronomy layer is older than the Priestly layer that was composed in the 6th or 5th century BCE.

For instance, the first chapter in the Bible, the creation of the world is a later addition. Deuteronomy is older than that. Also the Ten Commandments in Exodus is later than the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy.

Why did the Lord in the fourth commandment, command the Hebrew people to observe or remember the Sabbath? The answer according to the priestly account in Exodus is because God rested on the seventh day referring to the creation story.

For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

But there was an earlier answer. The Deuteronomy version.

That version is what we might call the Sabbath Labor Movement. According to Deuteronomy this is why the Sabbath should be remembered:

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

The Sabbath arose because of Pharoah’s “codfish monied aristocracy.” Through force and violence, he made the Hebrew people make bricks without straw. It was the memory of slavery, the oppression of both human and beast, that began the Sabbath Labor Movement.

You were delivered from slavery. Don’t oppress others as you were oppressed. The Sabbath, a day of rest, is a social justice movement.

It is a movement that always needs to be remembered, observed, and revisited.

The “codfish monied aristocracy” will never go away. They will never voluntarily relinquish power. They will never out of the goodness of their hearts grant justice and rest, fair wages and dignity to those who actually make the things from which they profit.

Justice is never granted. It is taken.

The Exodus story illustrates that principle. Pharoah never voluntarily relinquished power. It was taken and as the Hebrew people remembered that story, the Sabbath Labor Movement was part of the Divine truth that sustained them.

If there is any substance to the claim of the existence of God, that substance has to do with justice for those who labor.

Now we are in the midst of a growing gap between the wealthy and poor. There is a revolution underway. We saw it in the public support of Bernie Sanders by those most disaffected by the demise of the myth of American capitalism, the young and people of color.

In her book, Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, Sarah Jaffe recounts the variety of movements in America since the financial crisis of 2008 and sees the movements growing, connecting, and becoming more sophisticated. Occupy Wall Street, Protests against foreclosures, student debt, Moral Mondays, Black Lives Matter, to surge in support of a socialist candidate for president in Bernie Sanders.

Even though it seems that the “codfish monied aristocracy” has won the day, Sarah Jaffe points out that we may not see the movements at work as they start and stop, because they do not move in a straight line, but they are present. She concludes her book by inviting the reader:

It is up to those of us who have not yet taken action to decide if we want a more equal, a more just country. If we do, we may just have to make some trouble to bring it about.

Kind of like what Moses did.

Amen.