Labor Day weekend is customarily Americans’ end of summer, the last chance to get away before school starts in earnest. Somewhere amidst farewells to summer, it’s also time for politicians (especially in election years – watch out Virginia, New Jersey, and now California) to pay tributes to and seek the votes of American labor.
Labor Day 2021 is apt to be a little different. During two weeks on a New England vacation, I was struck by a real labor problem: the lack of workers.
I’d heard about businesses having difficulties finding workers, but the reality came home repeatedly during my trip. Restaurants in Maine asked me to wait for hours because they lacked staff. It wasn’t just sit-down places. Ice-cream stands were forced into reduced hours. Motels and hotels looked out of the corner of their eyes, hoping you just might leave before check-out, so that they had more time, with less staff, to clean rooms. Lots of places displayed signs like “Pardon Our Wait Times” and “Thank Those Who Showed Up.”
Some Maine and Massachusetts spots told me that the foreign youth who would normally work as part of the “Summer Work and Travel” visa program either didn’t or couldn’t come because of COVID. I had to wonder why there were no Bay or Pine Tree State kids who needed summer work.
Catholic social thought (CST) has always underscored unemployment as a social evil. CST urges those with a role in the economy – business and government leaders – to strive to maximize employment.
That commitment stems from how CST understands labor. Labor is not just a “thing” or a “commodity,” a factor to be plugged into the cost/benefit analysis of an economic undertaking. Labor is essentially a human reality that is fundamentally good. Labor is an expression and extension of God’s creative act: man and woman, made in God’s image and likeness and charged with dominion over the world, carry on God’s work of creation. Sure, in a world after the Fall, labor also has its downsides (the resistance of work and the injustices done to labor), but those flaws come from sin, not work itself.
That’s why the situation on Labor Day 2021 should concern Catholics. Are we losing the will to work?
One is reminded of St. Paul’s words to those knocking off in expectation of the end of the world or presenting fall-term tuition bills from the University of Thessalonica: “He who will not work shall not eat.” (II Thess. 3:10)
Some governors have suggested that COVID unemployment benefits disincentivize finding work. Whatever the truth of that claim. social scientists have repeatedly documented the perverse incentives of regulations in our social welfare system that do discourage work: either by offering transfer payments at least as generous as pay for the typical skills those workers bring; or reducing benefits of workers seeking to transition out of the welfare system.
Others note that, in the absence of workers, employers are offering wages at hourly rates or with sign-up bonuses significantly above statutory minimum wages. Still, some workers fear future cutbacks if labor “markets” return to normal.
Whether they will return to “normal,” however, is a real question.
National shutdowns across the world because of COVID will change the workplace. Anyone who thinks “normal” means “pre-March 2020” is engaged in wishful thinking.
At least for part of labor, the tether between job and a physical location has been loosened, if not broken. Many jobs (and many aspects of many jobs) will require some in-person presence, but the COVID shutdown made clear the Emperor’s tailor need not sew clothes at the palace. If there’s been a recurrent theme heard from post-2020 workers, it’s that they don’t miss commuting.
That’s likely to have implications far beyond the workplace. If I were the leader of any big or medium-sized city, where employment patterns match transportation ones, i.e., work hubs and bedroom community spokes, I’d start rethinking my assumptions.
If I were a worker, I’d beware of a two-tier workforce, where “good” jobs (i.e., those paying better and/or with a greater creative component) become portable while “essential” jobs (i.e., those that require on-site presence and are often repetitive or menial) receive laudatory lip service but little else. Even those with more portable jobs might realize the wisdom of St. Augustine’s injunction to “be careful what you pray for; you just might get it,” as the voracious American model of work is likely to invade the home, upsetting the work/life balance.
Of course, we also need to ask about remaining COVID policies that, in closing down parts of the economy, continue to hike unemployment temporarily and/or destroy jobs (and the employers who generate them) permanently.
I’ve often commented that in Communist Poland in the 1980s there was great theological focus on the meaning of labor. Solidarność didn’t come out of nowhere: theologians and philosophers like Wojtyła, Wyszyński, Tischner, Majka, Gałkowski et al. created a Catholic vision of labor. It’s a paradox that in America, where work didn’t have to labor under the chains of socialism, little such thought has arisen.
Part of the tragedy of the current massive crisis of moral rot and dogmatic confusion in the Catholic Church is that, at a time when people need the insights of creative Catholic thinking, ecclesiastical influence and attention is blunted and dissipated by the drip-drip-drip of clerical sexual scandal and time wasted relitigating what are settled doctrinal and disciplinary issues.
But deep changes are now upon us. Nowhere is that more likely than in new directions for labor. There’s no need for a tired repetition of USCCB policy statements about concrete political programs, yesterday’s solutions to tomorrow’s problems. We’re in a qualitatively new day. In this area of leavening the City of Man, the Church needs to start rethinking and providing the new moral leadership America needs.
*Image: City Building  by Thomas Hart Benton, 1930-31 [The MET, New York]. This is one of ten panels in Benton’s America Today series commissioned by New York’s School for Social Research for its boardroom. It has been resident at The MET since 2012. “Every detail of every picture is a thing I myself have seen and known,” Benton said. “Every head is a real person drawn from life.”
You may also enjoy:
Robert Royal’s The Soul of Work 
Fr. Thomas Wray’s Work in the Midst of Lockdown