How did you spend Labor Day? It probably involved sleeping in and being a bit lazy, because that’s the point of Labor Day; we’ve worked hard the rest of the year, so we take a day off to experience a little freedom and indulgence.

Actually, our American Labor Day holiday came out of a lot of struggle and conflict. Relationships between employers and workers have always had a built-in tension because, in a sense, they’re fighting over the same dollar. The employer says he needs it to turn a profit so he can feed his family. The employee says he needs it so he can feed his family. In an ideal society, who gets that dollar would be decided by principles of equity and justice. But there are no ideal societies on earth, so who gets that dollar is usually decided by power. In the history of the United States, Big Business and Big Labor Unions have often squared off to duke it out.

After the Civil War, the American economy really got rolling. The Industrial Revolution totally changed traditional labor practices. Urban factories attracted workers from rural communities, and cities mushroomed in size. The new work force was also bolstered by an influx of new immigrants, mostly from Europe. As the new realities settled in, there was an inevitable, and increasingly intense, struggle over that last dollar. Attempts to organize labor ranged from modest homegrown efforts to more radical models, such as Communism and Anarchism, imported from Europe.

Things came to a head on May 1, 1886, in the Haymarket Square incident in Chicago, where workers gathered to ask for an eight-hour work day. The prevailing pattern was that a typical worker was paid $1.50 a day and was required to work six ten-hour days per week. The slogan of the demonstrators gathered in the Square was “An eight hour day, with no cut in pay”! Employers thought that was like stealing their last dollar in profit. In what started as a peaceful demonstration, speeches became more and more heated. Heavily armed police were nearby, and when someone threw a homemade bomb, the police started firing. The incident ended in chaos, with eleven people dead. Ultimately, eight men were convicted of capital offenses, six of them immigrant Germans.

This incident gave impetus to the labor organizing movement. There was an effort to create an annual holiday on May 1, and this actually has become International Workers Day in many countries. But President Grover Cleveland tried to head this off in America by proclaiming in 1894 that the first Monday in September would be Labor Day in the United States. By doing this, he hoped to give American workers a day to celebrate that would not be connected in their minds with all the conflict of labor-management struggles.

There has been more than a century of economic history in the United States since then, and many formulas for equity have been attempted or advocated. Since the 2008 Recession, however, America’s “working classes” have clearly slid backward in their relative strength. Increasing numbers have fallen beneath the poverty line and have a sense of hopelessness. This is not a good time for labor.

I had a debate last week with someone who was advocating for a free capitalistic economy, with no controls or safety nets. This would surely widen the gap between rich and poor even further. He said he didn’t think his position was incompatible with his Christian faith. My answer is from the New Testament Book of James:

Now, you rich people, weep and cry aloud. There are terrible troubles that will soon be coming to you. Your riches have lost their value. Your beautiful clothes are as if moths had eaten them. Your gold and your silver have become dirty and stained. The dirt and stains will be evidence against you in the judgment. They are like poison that will eat up your bodies as with fire. That is because you have heaped up a lot of riches in these last days. Listen! You have not paid the wages of those who worked in your fields. The money you kept from them cries out to God against you. The Lord of all power has heard the cries of the workers. You have lived on earth in luxury. And you have had all that you wanted. You lived to please yourselves. You have made yourselves fat, like animals ready for men to kill. You have accused. And you have caused the death of those who were innocent. (James 5:1-6)

James wasn’t subtle.

— Pastor George Van Alstine