It was a sunny Tuesday in New York City, on September 5, 1882, when 10,000 workers from all walks of life gathered to march in a parade from City Hall to Union Square. This first Labor Day celebration, which featured a picnic, concert, and speeches, was created to celebrate the achievements of American workers and the unions which represented them.
Before the advent of labor unions, workers were often exploited by their employers, forced to work seven days a week in unsafe conditions for poverty-level wages. An injury meant slipping from poverty into starvation – even if that injury was the company’s fault. Children often worked hours as long as their parents, dropping out of formal education in order to help pay the bills.
A single voice, however eloquent, however powerful, could never have changed the face of labor. It required thousands of workers speaking as one to gain basic rights and safety in the workplace. The fact that you have a weekend is thanks to the labor movement. The fact that your children aren’t working in a carpet factory 14 hours a day is thanks to the labor movement. Health benefits, disability benefits, occupational health and safety – all of these things are due to people rising together to demand fairness.
This isn’t the first, or close to the only, example of people coming together for a common cause. In Great Britain in the 1860s, only landowners were allowed the right to vote – the working class wasn’t allowed at the polls. In 1867, a massive demonstration in Hyde Park in favor of greater economic suffrage, took place – and it quickly overcame any attempt to contain or disperse it. Two weeks after the demonstration, a proposed electoral bill was amended, quadrupling the number of people allowed to vote.
Mass resistance to British rule in India, under Gandhi’s leadership, ended colonialism. Mass resistance to segregation in the United States saw the rights of minorities to vote encoded in law.
The simple truth is this: we are stronger together.
This message is just as crucial and life-affirming today as it was 150 years ago. When we come together, speak together, and WORK together, magic happens. Lives are changed, doors are opened, hope revived. Yes, many movements had charismatic and catalyzing leaders, but these leaders would have been wholly ineffective without thousands of people purposefully and intentionally working toward the same dream.
Today, as we look to Labor Day, I ask you this: what are you spending your precious days on this planet working toward? To what great work could you be contributing your time and effort? Can you join forces with others to help shift the tide of time, to leave the world better than when you found it?
Matt Kahn, a spiritual teacher, noted, “Any kind of spiritual understanding that isn’t love in action is just another thing that you’re going to wake up out of, or it’s another prison.”
I see pictures of 93-year-old former President Jimmy Carter building houses with Habitat for Humanity; I see Emma Watson using her voice to advocate for the rights of women everywhere. These are people who could be resting on their laurels, but instead they are showing that anyone can make a difference for good in the world, if they choose to.
I believe that we are called to do good in the world. But this will not be the work of a single person, or even of a single spiritual community. This will be the work of all of us, as the hands and heart the city of Birmingham, the state of Alabama, and the world. We can only do this if we work in concert, giving of our time, talent, and treasure. We can only do this collectively, because we are stronger together.
Let this Labor Day be a time of renewed commitment to moving toward the things that truly count, to lifting each other up, and to working tirelessly and fearlessly for the truth and beauty we see in the world.