(RNS) Of the 10 holidays recognized by the federal government, 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 are politically incorrect, deeming them offensive to non-Christians or those of no religion at all. Often, the complaints come not from the average believer but from fanatics or those who resent any ideas different from their own, whether they be religious, political, moral or otherwise.

Socialist and labor union demonstration, Union Square, New York City (1914)

Socialist and labor union demonstration, Union Square, New York City (1914) Photo courtesy Library of Congress


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.

Yet both holidays have something in common: Christmas has become secularized in an America where religious commitment is down and the number of the religiously unaffiliated is up. The labor movement, meanwhile, has forgotten the religious roots that propelled the movement that won a national holiday.

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, that is not likely to change as the result of any liberalization of immigration laws. What’s happening here is also happening across Latin America.

The most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that barely more than one in ten (14.4 million) of the 127.5 million working Americans belonged to unions in 2012, down half a percentage point from 2011. In 1983, that figure was more than 20 percent.

Many factors are cited by experts to explain the decline of unions, including globalization, the loss of manufacturing jobs, lackluster union recruiting and slow structural changes in the unions to accommodate a growing number of women and young people in the workforce.

Overlooked, according to a piece last year in Canada’s Cardus Daily, is what religion-and-economics expert Lew Daly calls “arguably the deepest, most serious problem” in unions today: “the corrosion wrought by secularism” in both unions and society at large.

Union leaders have forgotten the religious roots of organized labor in this country. Terence Vincent Powderly, who led the Knights’ outreach across the nation, was a devout Catholic influenced 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 wasn’t 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.

Powderly became a lawyer, the U.S. commissioner of immigration and later was inducted into the Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor. The preamble to his union’s Declaration of Principles quoted Scripture, and union rules precluded Sunday meetings, banned cursing or smoking during meetings, and denied membership to anyone involved in the liquor business.

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.” 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.”

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:

Adon Taft was the religion editor for The Miami Herald 37 years. In September he will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Religion Newswriters Association. He lives in Brooksville, Fla. Photo by Patrick Skipper

Adon Taft was the religion editor for The Miami Herald 37 years. In September he will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Religion Newswriters Association. He lives in Brooksville, Fla. Photo by Patrick Skipper


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“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 was the religion editor for The Miami Herald for 37 years. In September he will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Religion Newswriters Association. He lives in Brooksville, Fla.)

KRE/AMB END TAFT

5 Comments

  1. With such a name, Uriah Stephens sounds like an American Baptist, not Southern Baptists. American Baptists wer ealways liberal, and anti-slavery. The Knights welcomed black members, an advanced stance for its time.

    Mainstream Protestantism (including American Baptists) have always had a Gospel theology, focused on the words of Christ which clearly preach a combination of love and justice and do not favor the wealthy or mean spirited attitudes to the weak or poor (example: The Parable of the Prodigal Son). Catholic theology, at least, specifies that good works are required as a mark of faith, or that anyone with true faith will do good works, especially on the part of the less fortunate.

    But what of Southern Baptists, the ruling religion in the areas where Labor is constantly under attack? Their emphasis on faith alone, the Rapture (just around the corner), hatred of science (the Bible as science text book) and other self-centered concerns seems to make them enemies of labor unions. But is this impression I have accurate?

    The alliance of the Catholic church with the Republican Party has also helped to weaken the labor movement. All the Catholics I am familiar with whose parents or grandparents benefited from unions now hate unions. Those whom I know were raised raised Catholic but have left that church favor unions even though they are on the quite prosperous side (and are aware of how their parents or grandparents benefited from unions and want minority workers to enjoy the same benefits).

    • Your opinion of Southern Baptists does not seem accurate: I don’t think of Southern Baptists as anti science or self centered.

      As far as enemies of labor unions, so what? Most Americans support right to work laws: voluntary Union membership: and resent Union Mob tactics as seen in Wisconsin and Michigan.

  1. […] COMMENTARY: Labor Day and the unions' forgotten religious roots (RNS) Of the 10 holidays recognized by the federal government, 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 … Read more on Religion News Service […]

  2. […] COMMENTARY: Labor Day and the unions' forgotten religious roots (RNS) Of the 10 holidays recognized by the federal government, 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 … Read more on Religion News Service […]

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