Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Columns

Christmas and Labor Day both at risk


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Of the federal government's 10 officially recognized holidays, the future status of two - Labor Day and Christmas - may be short lived. And, perhaps surprisingly, for the same reason: religion.

Already, officials in many school districts and municipalities have decided references to Christmas celebrations, events or holidays are politically incorrect, deeming them to be offensive to those of religions other than Christianity or of no religion at all. Often, the complaints come not from the average follower of any of those beliefs but from either fanatics or those who resent any ideas different from their own, whether they be religious, political, moral or anything else.

In the case of Labor Day, a holiday that originated in 1892 by the efforts of the New York chapter of the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, this country's first nationwide labor union, the reasons for the possible demise are less distinguishable.

What is obvious is that membership in unions continues a nearly steady 30-year decline. And since there have been similar declines in other countries, in recent years especially in this hemisphere, that is not likely to change as the result of any liberalization of immigration laws.

In a 2008 study, "Labor Unions in Central and South America," Mark Anner, a professor of political science and labor studies and employment relations at Penn State, found "a continued decline (of unionization) throughout Latin America." In a survey of trends from 1994 to 2004, Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at the City University of New York and the Institute for Labor Studies, found "a disproportionately large" decline of Mexican-born union members in this country, and a statistical chart, prepared by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, shows that union membership in Mexico has declined from a high of 17.5 percent of workers in 2004 to 13.6 percent in 2012.

The most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that barely more than one in 10 (14.4 million) of the 127.5 million working Americans belonged to unions in 2012, down half a percentage point from the year before and about half the more than 20 percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers who were union members in 1983.

Many factors - globalization, loss of manufacturing jobs, failure of union recruiting to keep up with population growth, slow structural changes in the unions to accommodate a growing number of women and young people in the workforce - are cited by the experts to explain the decline.

Overlooked, according to a piece last year in Canada's Cardus Daily, is what Lew Daly, prolific author of books and articles on religion and the economy as well as adviser to the Economic Crisis Study Team of the Presbyterian Church USA, is quoted as calling "arguably the deepest, most serious problem" in unions today: "the corrosion wrought by secularism" that is evident both within unions and in society itself.

Apparently, union leaders as well as observers forget the beginnings of effective organized labor in this country when Terence Vincent Powderly led the Knights' outreach across the nation. A devout Catholic influenced very much by his Baptist lay preacher predecessor, Uriah Stephens, Powderly, a nonsmoking teetotaler, attributed the roots of the labor movement to Christianity.

Writing in 1893 on the history of the Labor Day observance, which had begun only the year before and was not declared a national holiday until President Grover Cleveland acted in 1894, Powderly recounted centuries of labor history. "Trades-unionists, members of guilds, leagues and other organizations of workingmen embraced Christianity and proclaimed its doctrines as being especially advantageous to the welfare of the toiling poor," he said.

Reflecting the view of the machinist-labor leader who became a lawyer, an engineer and U.S. commissioner of immigration and in 2000 was named to the Department of Labor Hall of Fame, the preamble of his union's Declaration of Principles quotes Scripture.

As community organizer Daly sees it, unions and religious institutions used to find common ground in the "struggle for rights of association and a legitimate, protected place in public law."

And unions were strongest not when they used the coercive powers of the strike or litigation but when their "religious ideas helped to expose . profound tensions in American liberalism around labor issues generally and the place of unions in particular."

But he and others see that influence waning, as the annual Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center indicates a decline in the percentage of the American population who are strongly committed to their faith, and a related study shows that one-fifth of the U.S. public - including a third of the adults under 30 - are religiously unaffiliated today.

If the strength of labor unions and the continued existence of their holiday depend on a relationship with a religious population and the fate of Christmas as a national holiday rests on vibrant churches and the tolerance of other strong institutions of faith, perhaps all parties should pay attention to what Powderly advised:

"If Labor Day is observed as it ought to be, the gospel of humanity will be understood by all men and women . 'Love thy neighbor as thyself''... (and) 'Do unto your neighbor as you would have your neighbor do unto you' will have a meaning not now understood as they should be this side of the portals where eternity begins and God rules in the presence of those He calls from the earth."

Adon Taft, now retired in Brooksville, was for 37 years the religion editor for The Miami Herald. He taught social science at Miami-Dade Community College and authored the chapters on religion in the three-volume history of the state, "From Indian Trails to the Space Age," edited by Dr. Charleton W. Tebeau and Ruby Leach Carson. He can be reached at adontaft@yahoo.com.

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