The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Labor Day with a twist

Posted by Ron George on September 5, 2011

American Workers, by David Burliuk, 1922

Labor Day, for most, is less a national holiday for commemorating the working classes of America than a day off, a day of rest and recreation, a day at the mall, a day at the beach or for a picnic or just hanging out at home doing a few chores and watching TV.

It’s been a national holiday since 1894, established as a sign of reconciliation between the nation’s working classes and their oppressors – the same ones we have today, big business, big banks, predatory employers of all shapes and sizes, except then it also included the federal government. Labor Day is about labor unions and their representation of working classes before the magisteria of financial interests, shareholders and profiteers. Labor unions formed to create a level playing field. They did become as corrupt as the oligarchs they challenged in the 19th century, but in theory and practice they were and are necessary in some form to protect workers from exploitation.

Unions ensure that workers get a fair share of income produced by the sweat of their brow. Employers, of course, want maximum profits in order to increase their wealth and stockholders’ earnings per share. They want to increase capital assets in order to grow. They hate everything they believe reduces the bottom line. Fairness is not part of market calculus. The Golden Rule of business is to spend as little as possible – especially for payroll – in order to earn as much as possible. Pretty easy to see how business and labor interests might conflict.

Employers resent unions the same way they resent suppliers who raise prices for essential commodities. When that happens, employers look for new suppliers; or customers have to pay more; or the workforce has to be cut or paid less. Employers hate to raise prices for their products because that chases off customers. The market doesn’t always let them shop for suppliers; often, commodity prices are what they are due to speculation or other economic factors beyond suppliers’ control (for example, supply and demand; or, the currency exchange rate). The workforce, however, belongs to employers to manage as they please – unless a union represents the workforce with a negotiated contract ensuring worker’s rights to fair treatment, safe working conditions and a fair share of the fruit of their labor, which produces the company’s income.

Workers, by David Burliuk, 1922

Unions and the labor movement have been demonized by the Republican party, especially since the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan fired the nation’s unionized air-traffic controllers for going on strike. Union representation of the nation’s workforce is lower now than it’s been since 1938, declining from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 11.9 percent last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union membership for non-agricultural workers peaked the year before I was born, 1946, at just about 36 percent. It’s been declining ever since, except for spike years between 1950 and 1957 when it reached 34 percent.

Unions are not an unalloyed blessing, but neither are they the demons right-wingers make them out to be. Properly understood and utilized, collective bargaining need not make companies less competitive in the world market or more likely to flee the country for cheaper labor elsewhere. (Just what kind of patriotism is that, anyway?) Unions need not be adversarial, and business need not treat them as adversaries – but that’s the way it’s come down in recent decades. Now Republican governors are blaming state-employee unions for spending deficits wrought at least as much by politicians’ refusal to pay for their promises with tax increases (a civic duty in almost anybody’s book); and their solution, of course, is to break the unions by outlawing their collective-bargaining rights.

Hell of a way to celebrate Labor Day, 2011. It’s been fascinating to see how the media have tended to swarm the unemployment rate this year while ignoring the wholesale attack on that aspect of American society for which Labor Day was founded – labor unions dedicated to and instrumental in creating the great American middle class.

All of which made me think of a workplace situation right out of the gospel tradition: Matthew 20.1-16, a parable unique to Matthew’s gospel.

The story of the laborers in the vineyard is a labor-relations nightmare. Early hires work all day but are paid no more than those who work just an hour. That doesn’t seem to be fair, unless you’re the worker who got a day’s pay for an hour’s work. Labor unionism is about treating labor fairly; in this case, the landowner likely would have been picketed. Jesus’ point has nothing to do with labor relations – and there’s nothing in the New Testament that does – but in the story, the landowner makes the point that he ought to be allowed “to do what I choose with what belongs to me.” He also declares that he’s been generous with what belongs to him and that everyone received what they were promised.

Worker in a Cap, by Pavel Filonov, 1935

So, just how fair is it that the contract with the early workers differed from that with the late workers? Well, everyone had work, everyone got paid; presumably, everyone received his daily bread. It’s just that the early workers felt exploited because they’d done most of the work under the most difficult circumstances.

Yes, the landowner should have paid them more, a bonus, in light of his giving late hires a day’s wage for an hour’s work. If that’s what an hour’s work was worth, then eight hours’ work must have been worth much more. The landowner seems to have screwed most of the workers he hired; and then he bought off his conscience by paying the late workers for a whole day. No wonder the early workers were pissed off. Real generosity would have given them more than they originally bargained for. The story may not be about labor relations – it’s about Jewish and Gentile converts to the Way of Jesus – but in light of contemporary standards, it’s not a good example of employer-labor relations. If Jesus actually told this story – maybe, maybe not – then it suggests that his view was conditioned by the practices of his day, in which it was unlikely that any employer would do as the parabolic landowner did. That may have been one of the more arresting features of this parable, something that startled hearers more than anything else: That guy way overpaid those one-hour workers!

Well, yeah, but the point of the story, whether Jesus actually told it or not, is that it doesn’t matter whether those who enter the Kingdom of God come first or last – all are equal in God’s sight. All received what they needed, not what they wanted. The Jews have no special position in the kingdom – or the church – which no doubt was still a burning issue by the time the gospel of Matthew was composed (C.E. 75-85). It was addressed primarily to Jews of the Diaspora from a Jewish perspective – and the message in this case seems to be: Yes, you were first in line in relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but that doesn’t make you superior in the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus Christ.

The point seems a little irrelevant today, but there is a point to be made from this parable about the church: Latecomers are no less entitled than longtime members to the ministry of Christ Jesus through his church; indeed, the New Testament ethic calls committed Christians to make way for the last and the least, to consider those needs before considering their own (see Philippians 2.1-18).

Matthew 20.1-16, by Patsy (last name unknown)

At the Methodist church I’m attending these days, a significant change has been made in the congregation’s liturgical life: The principal service of worship at 11 a.m. is now a so-called contemporary worship service in a venue called “fellowship hall” but which is actually a performance venue for a Christian rock ensemble. That service – and its congregation – have supplanted traditional worship services at 11 a.m. in the church’s main sanctuary. For the first time in more than 40 years, that sacred space stands empty and silent at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings. Services in that space have been subordinated to the main event at 11. Pure and simple, the congregation has radically changed direction to make room for newcomers.

It hasn’t been without pain or dissent. It’s clear that this fundamental change tests the loyalty of those whose memories span decades of sacrifice and the ebb and flow of congregational resources to bring these physical resources into being, the end result being a paradigm shift that few could have imagined. The principal Sunday service now scarcely resembles traditional Methodism. John Wesley, however, might have loved it, because his preaching ministry was most often conducted in unconventional venues. Precedent was no reason then to stop reforming the church, so maybe that’s what we’re witnessing now; except in this case, the church has taken the reform under its wing rather than forcing it into meadows.

I must admit that I am not partial to so-called contemporary worship, but I am chastened by gospel tradition that reminds me in no uncertain terms that the last will be first and the first last. As the Landowner said: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

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