Labor Day and Its Ironies

“Work is a divine gift and those who refuse it are sinners.” Historian Richard Donkin thus describes George Pullman’s secularized version of the Puritan work ethic. At least Pullman (manufacturer of sleeper train cars) understood the connection between a satisfied workforce and increased productivity. His late 19th century worker town, just outside of Chicago, gleamed in comparison to the filthy stockyards and slum settlement of Packingtown, only miles away. Pullman City had parks, schools, a boathouse, and recreational access to Lake Calumet; its company homes even had indoor plumbing. No shit – literally. Pullman, however, had his grabby fingers in every transaction that occurred in the town. With the economic downturn of 1893, Pullman slashed worker positions and wages without reducing rental charges for the company housing, which led to a worker strike. President Grover Cleveland, claiming the strike to be illegal (US mail service had been disrupted), sent in federal troops to quell it.  The ensuing conflict resulted in the deaths of thirty workers, and Pullman City and its architect/owner were doomed. (When Pullman died just a few years later in 1897, his coffin was encased in thick concrete lest any of his legion detractors were to desecrate his grave.)

The Pullman worker strike lasted some two months during the summer of 1894. The conflict and accompanying deaths of workers, ironically, sealed the deal for President Cleveland to nationalize a Labor Day holiday (various states had been passing legislation for such a holiday as early as 1887). Designated the first Monday in September, it was purposely distinct from the May 1st holiday – International Workers’ Day – chosen in 1889 by the worldwide Communist and Socialist movement. This organization was one of many advocating for an eight-hour, five-day workweek.


People rush and race every morning to arrive to their jobs as fast as possible. Is it because of the great love they have for their work? Somehow I don’t think that’s it. Many of us are sleep deprived and we allow minimum prep time before leaving for work. On top that – none of us want to spend more time than necessary on the road arriving to work. That’s why we are racing to work, with a small minority of us every morning getting in a fender bender (or worse) as we participate in the big race. Who in their right mind wakes up in the morning thinking today would be a good day to get into an accident on the way to work? American workers have been described as “crazy, driven, hard-working believers” – and that makes it tough to slow down. Why smell and savor the coffee, when instead, we can have it splash onto our laps when we slam on the brakes? (Sorry, not enough time to have put on the coffee cup lid!)

Some 25% of us will be working this Labor Day. Schools, banks, and government offices are closed for the national holiday. Stores, restaurants, hotels, and other service sectors will be laboring away. Some will be happy to be working and earning; others will not be. For these latter, their taskmasters demand obeisance. The irony of Labor Day – officially born only six days after federal troops violently cracked down and broke the Pullman strike on the side of an autocratic employer – continues in this society so defined, uplifted, and desecrated by work. Remember, at the time of the Pullman strike, Andrew Carnegie’s steel workers were putting in 12 hour days, seven days a week.

Work is, without question, a great blessing. Productivity for self, family, and community makes it so. This Labor Day weekend, it will be good to ask the following question: Whom does our work benefit – ourselves and our community, or are we unwittingly part of some larger design where our contributions are parasitically annexed for someone else’s gain? If you go to worship this weekend, perhaps you’ll hear some recapping of the Exodus story (chapter 3) where God tells Moses that he has heard his people’s cries and has seen the oppression that they have suffered. God did not create his people to serve as the slaves of the Egyptians. Enough was enough. God led the protest, Moses organized the people, and liberation blossomed for a people that had slaved under the hot sun of injustice.

Swiss historian and economist Jean Charles Leonard de Sismondi (1773-1842) warned long ago: “Humanity should be on guard against . . . the error of identifying the public good with wealth, abstracted from the sufferings of the humans who made it.” The God of Israel, no less, agrees.


These ideas are adapted from my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available at the Blue Ocotillo website.



Playing the Game

How much money do you make? Do your possessions measure up to your neighbor’s? What does your car or truck (I live in Texas) say about your social status? The level of importance we lend to the answers of these questions determines the extent to which we are playing the game.

The confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism is the game – and in my book, Just a Little Bit More, I call this game the dominant force in American society. It has its good side: playing the game puts food on our tables, clothes on our backs, roofs over our heads, and money in our bank accounts. Not only that, it gives us purposeful activity and work (most of the time) that benefit fellow members of the human family. The playing of the game, however, can go too far. Americans work more hours than we used to, and the heightened pursuit of possessions and goods drives us into greater debt. Instead of the promised joy and fulfillment these possessions seem to promise, we can find ourselves stuck in a cycle of depressing and anxiety-producing consumption. This game will rule those who devote themselves to it.

The Gilded Age (1870 – 1900) was a previous era of societal fixation on material consumption. American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in 1899 to describe the spending by the richest Americans to build up their own prestige and image. Whether the Gilded Age or today: Isn’t it interesting that we almost always “compare up”? It can serve as positive motivation to see that your over-achieving neighbor has bettered her standing and that of her family by a combination of hard work and fortuitousness. But, comparing up – evaluating  your status in contrast to your neighbor who has more – can also erode a sense of shared community and eliminate a feeling of gratitude for what one does have.


Since the 2007-08 economic swoon, to be a part of the richest 1 percent – unless your name is Donald Trump or Tom Perkins – has not been something about which to toot your horn. If you live in a household that has a yearly income of more than $383,000 in the United States, you are a 1 percenter. Most of us (but not all) reading this blog are not 1 percenters. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a 1 percenter. If it gives you a certain sense of relief to not be included in that exclusive grouping, momentarily repossess your unease. US households that take in $140,000 a year are included in top 1 percent of earners globally. Perspective is important; the United States has more 1 percenters than we might think . . .

The United States, because of advanced development and sheer strength of population, has half of the world’s richest 1%. Seventy million people make up 1 percent of overall world population (7 billion), and the United States has some 35 million people (about 11 % of US population) that are part of households that take in more than $140,000 a year. The remainder of the global richest 1 percent primarily come from Britain, Germany, France, and Japan. Conversely, 2.5 billion people (35% of world population) live on less than $2 a day, the majority of these being women and children. An incredible reality – and let’s not bicker about the definition of poverty – that one in every three humans lives with significant material deficiencies.

Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about those who live in poverty. This attitude – screw the poor – is also part of playing the game. All we (who don’t live in poverty) need to do is work and consume and the gate-keeper of the game, the Market, will take care of the rest! We just buy stuff and consume to our hearts’ content and we don’t have to worry about those “below” us. If they want some of what we got, let them get in the game and work for it. True enough for some, but not universally true for all. Adults, whether living on $2 a day or $383,000 a year, are responsible for their own actions and suffer the consequences of bad choices. Yet, it’s a fallacy (and if you identify as religious, it’s idolatrous) to believe that an ever-expanding market system will provide all that we and everyone else will need.

A regular reader of this blog, in agreement with the principles brought forth in Just a Little Bit More, asked me: So, what are we to do? Answer: Inform yourself and stay up to speed on the topic of inequality, be part of the conversation (especially with the younger generation currently being initiated into the lures of materialism), and, take positive action. Perhaps the most important part of taking positive action is to make sure you’re not playing the game. If you’ve got enough to eat, if you own a house that is in good shape, if you are shepherding a vehicle or two (or three) . . .  and you’re still playing the game – then it might be time to reconsider your values and your goals. The game is good up to a point. But beware: the continual striving for more and more, as with an addiction, eventually satisfies less and less. Compare down for a change. You might see a new reality and be inspired to play the game in a different way.


Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

 Thanks to Pastor David Moore of Austin, Texas for the suggestion, via conversation, of this topic. David, in talking on this topic, prefers to use a basis of individual earners as opposed to households. Using individual earners lowers the threshold considerably for top 1 percent earners globally – down to about $50,ooo a year – as non-workers (children, mostly) in households are disregarded. Pastor David’s Moore’s website: