Why There is a Labor Day Holiday

Some of the special days this country observes have more history attached to them–like the tail of a kite–than others. The birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, is a statement of regret over centuries of persecution and pain inflicted upon his people by those in power in this and other countries.

Labor Day is one such holiday. The existence of this day on the calendar admits that for untold decades and, yes, centuries, that class of humanity we call “working people” were mistreated and dishonored.

…in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).

“You’re a preacher. What do you know about work?”

Enough to know how to appreciate those who do it. Enough to appreciate my present retirement. And enough not to respond to that kind of barbed question with the sharp retort it deserves.

Last weekend, preaching in Grace Baptist Church of Palmyra, Illinois, I said to Pastor Jim Allen, “You have something going for you many of us preachers do not. You have logged a full career in farming and the business world. When you speak to your people about integrity in work and sharing faith in the marketplace, they know you know whereof you speak.”

My brief history of (ahem) work looks like this: raised on the Alabama farm with all that that implies, part-time jobs through college in bookstores, print shops, men’s clothing stores, and the railroad terminal, then, for two years after college working in a cast iron pipe plant. When the Lord gave me a pastorate that paid full-time so that I did not need to hold down a job on the side, I was one happy camper. And extremely grateful.

Of course, pastors work, too. Brother, do they ever. But for the most part–if you will allow me–I will say, it’s not the kind of work we are honoring on Labor Day.

On Labor Day, we honor those men and women who go unheralded the rest of the year. Those who make this country go: coal-miners, farmers, sanitation workers, sewer workers, plant and factory employees–well, you get the idea.

Most of what I know about the labor movement in America, I learned from the best teacher imaginable: my father who lived through it. At the age of 12, he dropped out of the 7th grade to begin earning a living. That was 1924. For two years, he carried drinking water to workers at a planer mill for 50 cents a day. At 14, he began working inside the coal mines alongside his father. He would tell me, “I was doing a man’s work for a man’s wages.”

As soon as he was able, my father–Carl J. McKeever–joined the miners union.

Dad would say, “Son, the mine owners cared more about their mules than for the men working for them. If a mule died, they would have to buy another one. But if a man was killed inside the mine, his body was taken to his house and dumped, and the owner hired another man from the ones hanging around outside.”

If you ever wondered why unions were needed, that’s why.

And if you ever wonder if they are needed today, consider the mining disaster in West Virginia a few years back. The Massey Mining Company was hiring non-union men and buying off mining inspectors by favors to keep from having to install safety devices to protect workers. After a number of men were killed by an explosion and the feds stepped in, it turned out that the company had a consistent history of safety violations. When cited for failures to protect their employees, they chose to pay the fines rather than install the expensive protections. (In saying the company employed non-union men, my point is these employees had no way of protesting, no power to make their voices heard, and thus were victimized by selfish management and money-hungry owners.)

Have there been abuses by unions? You bet. Some of those I have seen up close.

I asked an uncle who worked at a steel plant in the Detroit area, “What do you do there?” He answered with a laugh. “Not a d—-d thing.” When I insisted, he finally said he was the union rep, and even though he was assigned to a job in the plant, he did nothing all day but take care of his men.

Later, when the steel business in this country got in trouble and many companies ceased to exist, I thought of Uncle Pat’s statement.

Even so.

Our world does well to honor the principle of working and the men and women who do the menial work in our society.

Honor work itself.

Before sin entered the Garden of Eden, Adam had been assigned by God to “keep” that bit of earth. The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it (Genesis 2:15).

John MacArthur says, “Work was an important and dignified part of representing the image of God and serving Him, even before the Fall.”

We do well to teach our children to work–to do it, to do it well, and even to enjoy it.

A prominent SBC pastor told me once when his children were young adults, “The biggest mistake I made was not requiring them to get jobs as they were growing up. They expect everything to be handed to them.”

Another pastor serving a great congregation told me how his parents managed to raise a large family which produced several college presidents, a missionary, and the head of a major Christian ministry. I was looking for something profound, but all he said was, “From the time we were able, they taught us to work. We knew what was expected of us and we were taught to give our best. In our teens, we each held down jobs.” That’s all.

They were taught to work.

Honor the workers.

A generation ago, the sanitation workers of New York City made a lasting impression upon their world as to their value. When they struck for benefits (or wages or something), at first, the citizens scoffed. “The nerve! Who do they think they are? Just garbagemen!”

But as the garbage and trash piled up on sidewalks and in back alleys–as the stench set in and rats multiplied–they soon changed their tune. “Whatever we pay them is not enough,” was the cry.

This weekend, a tropical storm battered my city for several days. The seminary closed its offices at noon on Friday, and a number of government offices shut down at the same time. Saturday, during a lull in the rain, I drove a few blocks to my cleaners only to discover they were closed. However, the paper boy threw my paper around 4 o’clock each morning, the postal delivery was on time, and the garbage workers made their collection as scheduled early Saturday morning. Impressive.

Our generation has had a wakeup call about these people who serve well and usually in anonymity by the blockbuster movie “The Help” and the Kathryn Stockett book on which it was based. In one scene at a banquet, the lady presiding acknowledges the host of men and women on one side of the room: “And now, let us show our appreciation to the help.” A scattering of weak applause followed.

We would be lost without our help.

We who follow Jesus Christ–and who get our identification and assignments from Him–cannot help but recall that we were sent forth to become “the help.” Jesus said, “I am among you as One who serves” (Luke 22:27).

He said, “He who would be great among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:26).

Someone asked Billy Graham once where he ranked himself among the great Christians of the ages. Among other things, he said something to this effect: “I wouldn’t be surprised if the greatest Christian in the world is someone no one knows, but some unknown person working faithfully for the Lord in their corner of the world, serving people day after day, year after year.”

Serving anonymously, receiving no accolades, garnering no publicity, expecting no appreciation, just glad to make a difference.

“Father, help me be such a one.”

2 thoughts on “Why There is a Labor Day Holiday

  1. Good Morning Joe,

    Your comments are, as usual, very thought provoking. A recent missive led to this personal observation. Following graduation from Mississippi State University, Trans World Airlines [TWA] saw fit to hire me as a pilot.

    Since that time, my thinking has transitioned from———“Company has a right to be opposed to labor unions!—to—Labor unions protect the workers!—to—Something is needed to protect the workers from the union!”

    At retirement I hadn’t yet arrived at the answer to that third level of thinking.

    This much I DO KNOW! Throughout years of varying degrees of union/company relationships, God’s continuous presence enabled me to look back on a rewarding career!

    For that blessing—-among many others—–I am profoundly greatful!

    Wayne Boyd

  2. It’s no secret that you and I are steeped in a very conservative culture in the SBC, Brother Joe. I really appreciate you saying these things that deviate from the “party line” just a bit. I say this as a rather conservative Republican. But if labor unions have gone too far, I don’t want to make the same sort of mistake by letting the pendulum swing too far in the other way.

    When it comes down to it, no matter who we empower to make things better, those people always seem to let it go to their heads and become currupt. It seems that all the murderous dictators of the 20th Century were put in power by the working people. All in all, our country has managed to forge a rather decent way of handling power and injustice.

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