The Dignity of Labor

Our Gospel this Labor Day weekend is the story of the laborers in the vineyard; it explores a number of important ideas.  Hearing the story again helps us to consider what is fair and just in terms of how the workers are compensated, despite the hours that they worked.  It also includes that oft-quoted line, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” which, I believe, is intended to provide us with a much broader understanding of how we are viewed in the eyes of our creator…that those who are often among the least or the last are seen as a high priority in the heart of our God.  When we read this story, I think so many of us can understand the grumbling of those who worked all the extra hours and will be paid the same as those who came later.  Of course, it’s a larger story about generosity in the eyes of our God who wants us all to live abundantly.  This is Labor Day weekend and so I thought a story about the laborers would be important for us to reflect upon this day.  Let us pray, O gracious Creator, we thank you this day for the work of our lives, for the ways in which our own work has brought meaning and purpose to our days as well as providing us with what we need.  We ask your blessing this day upon the workers across our land and especially those who work the longest days, those who have put their own lives at risk, and those who often feel their work goes unnoticed.  We ask all of this, always, in the name of your Son, Jesus.  Amen.

            Just a few weeks ago, we had a team of roofers spend the day at our home to tear off our old roof and replace it. We had done some research on good roofing companies, but it took us awhile to get folks to come out and even get estimates.  Finally, the day arrived and early that morning, a team showed up and set to work.  I think they were there at a little after 7 or 7:30 and they worked incredibly hard the entire day.  There were 2 women on the team and a little boy, age 7, who was the son of a couple working with the group.  The boy at times would help pick up things from the ground and help his parents.  At other points, I saw him sitting in the shade hanging out so I went out to chat with him.  I had heard them speaking Spanish and so I was able to speak with him and his parents and learn that all of them were originally from Ecuador.  I brought some coloring books and crayons to the boy, along with some books to occupy his time. 

            It was getting dark as they finished up, well after 8pm.  They had barely taken a break except for lunch.  Even to the end, they walked around our home and made sure everything was picked up and disposed of.  They did an amazing job and I was sorry that they had to travel back to Massachusetts where they lived and then turn around early the next day to come back to another roofing job.  In the days following, several of our neighbors commented that they were the hardest working team they had ever seen.  We really felt humbled by their hard work, their dedication, their pride, and I could only hope that they are compensated fairly.  They were exceptional. 

Tomorrow, we observe Labor Day which is intended to pay tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers, traditionally observed on the first Monday in September. You may know that it was created by the labor movement in the late 19th century and became a federal holiday in 1894.  Labor Day has its origins during one of American labor history’s most dismal chapters.

In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages.  People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.  (

As manufacturing increasingly supplanted agriculture as the wellspring of American employment, labor unions, which had first appeared in the late 18th century, grew more prominent and vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay. The history of protest against these conditions led to strikes, including the famous Haymarket riot in New York which led to the deaths of workers and police, as well as the Pullman Riot in Chicago in May of 1894 which resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers. 

As we sit here in Biddeford Pool, we may know the stories of those who worked in the Saco and Biddeford Mills.  My great grandparents and grandparents worked in the mills of Lewiston and I recall stories of the working conditions there with no benefits or protections, no workman’s comp or other important ways for workers to ensure that they were treated with respect and dignity. 

Over this past year and more, we were reminded often of the toll the pandemic took on those who had to go out to work each day, on the health care workers, the workers in the meat packing industry where the virus spread unchecked, on the grocery workers and those who did not have the privilege of working from home.  I recently heard an interview with a film maker  in England who has been working on a film which depicts the life of  a couple over this time of pandemic.  I was particularly struck by his observation when he noted, “this was a pandemic where the working class brought things to the middle class who often were able to remain working safely in their homes.” Sad but so true. 

We know that great gains have been made since the turn of the last century in terms of workers rights, but sadly, too sadly, this pandemic has taught us that still, the disparities in our country are great, and that the ones who have suffered the most and have paid the highest cost are the workers who make the least, who have the fewest benefits, if any, and who live paycheck to paycheck.  I am certain that many of us come from families who have our own stories of the hard, hard work of the generations before us.  The dignity of work, the importance of having work that is meaningful, and the means to support oneself and one’s family, is so important to having a good and decent life.  So, today, we pray for all workers, for those who have put their lives on the line to save others, whether in hospitals or fighting fires in the west or bagging our groceries.  We are indebted to them.  We know from the many passages in the Bible that our God is a God of justice, a God who understands the needs of the workers, and invites us to recognize the needs of others who work the longest hours for the least amount of pay.  It may be easy to forget that too many of our neighbors are still struggling to emerge intact from all that this pandemic has taken from us.  Work  is essential to our lives, whatever form it may take, so let us be mindful of the work of others and grateful for the ways in which our own work has enriched our lives and provided us with so much.