Labor Day “constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor. 

This year, perhaps even more than recent years, the celebration is marred by continuing high unemployment, underemployment, job uncertainty and a presidential election campaign that has raised critical questions about the sustainability of our national debt levels, entitlement programs and tax structure.  

Catholics — whether employees, employers or underemployed — must battle this powerful temptation to reduce work to a simple economic transaction.

While the unemployment rate has slowly dropped from a high of 10 percent three years ago, it has been above 8 percent for some 43 months, the longest period in modern history. 

Worse are numbers from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, which puts the percentage of those Americans who are underemployed — including those who have some sort of part-time job but would like full-time work — at 15.6 percent. Two states have underemployment rates over 20 percent. 

Add to that the ruthless economic and competitive pressures being faced by employers, which in some cases affects how they view and treat their employees. A glaring example came in a recent cover story in The New York Times about the quickening pace of robot deployment in manufacturing environments, a development that threatens to displace more workers in the quest for efficiency. The chairman of Foxconn, the world’s largest manufacturer of electronics components (including Apple’s iPhone) and the largest private-sector employer in China, with more than a million employees worldwide, was quoted as saying: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.” 

job hunting
A former clerical worker searches job listings. CNS photo

Catholics — whether employees, employers or underemployed — must do battle against this powerful temptation to reduce work to a simple economic transaction in which employees are seen solely as units of output or animals to be replaced as quickly as possible by machines. 

Centuries of Catholic social teaching, rooted in tradition and Scripture, hold up a vision of work as inherently humanizing, not degrading. It both recognizes and contributes to the dignity of each human being, and it is essential to the nurturing of the individual and the family. 

In sharp contrast to the Foxconn executive’s view, Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, notes that “work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures.” 

“Work is a good thing for man — a good thing for his humanity,” the pope wrote, “because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’” 

Even in the midst of economic uncertainty, may Catholics this Labor Day 2012 rededicate themselves to becoming more human through their work and transforming their workplaces into environments that are not only competitive and efficient but also ones in which each worker finds fulfilment. Catholics may also find it appropriate to take a moment to offer a prayer for those looking for work: 

As we give you thanks today for the gift of work, O Lord, we remember those who are unemployed or underemployed. May they soon find meaningful work, Lord, so that together we can build up your Kingdom on earth. Amen.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.