Usually this three-day weekend is one of lakeside trips and BBQs. And while my weekend included those as well, I decided this year to celebrate Labor Day in a more nerdy way. I watched Chaplin’s Modern Times and read some of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Labor Day was created as an appeasement to union strikes in the late 1800s. We study how horrible working conditions were during the Industrial Revolution and how trust-busters and unions demanded workers' rights back then, but we seem to pretend that it's all in the past. But workers continue to be abused and exploited, and a three-day weekend does little to address that reality.
Modern Times is about a factory worker who has a nervous breakdown, loses his job, and accidently gets involved in (and subsequently arrested for) a communist parade. Jail is actually more pleasant than the world of unemployment, strikes, and riots. Meanwhile, an unemployed man is killed during a protest, and his daughters are taken in by the state. One of the girls runs away and, starving, steals some bread. She runs into the worker, who tries to takes the blame so he can go back to prison. They imagine life as a middle class couple, with a house and food. It is a simple but seemingly unattainable dream for them. The worker struggles to keep a job. He’s beaten up and arrested during a strike. The girl becomes a dancer and gets the worker a job at the club. Just as things are looking up, the cops come after her for vagrancy and escape from juvenile officers. In the end, the couple is jobless, homeless, and hungry. She asks, “What’s the point in trying?” But the worker tells her to keep going, and they walk off together. It’s a sliver of optimism tacked on to an ending that isn’t really happy.
The movie opens with sheep being herded through a gate and men being herded into the factory. A few times men literally get caught up and run through the mechanical gears of the factory. A lot of the Tramp’s movies focused on how the poor were mistreated. While labor rights have come a long way in some respects, I’m not convinced the attitude toward labor itself has changed all that much. The richer get richer at the expense of the poor. Workers have no choice but to participate and try to survive in a system stacked against them. Economic gain is worth more than worker health, environmental safety, or human dignity. Government regulations exist because unchecked capitalism has children working 14-hour days, women licking radium-tipped brushes, and families breathing toxic air and drinking from contaminated rivers. Places like coal company towns and the Pullman neighborhood made every facet of worker life dependent on their employer. But even when the employer, the landlord, and the banker are different people, the worker is still at their mercy. When one’s work consumes their life, when one’s work does not pay enough to survive, when one’s work is a daily health risk, then how does the worker ever get to enjoy life, to grow as a person, or to contribute to society beyond vocational skill?
As a society, we give lip service to the importance of spending time with family and not getting caught up in work, but we don’t practice it. The U.S. is the only industrialized country without paid annual leave. The U.S. is only one of three countries in the world (with Papua New Guinea and Lesotho) without paid parental leave. People are considered a success for becoming rich and being cutthroat in business, regardless of their ethical practices. Money buys elections and writes policy, subsequently protecting corporate entities from legal responsibilities while the working class suffers. Income stagnates or shrinks while costs increase. Modern Times is still modern after 80 years.
In 1891 Pope Leo XIII released Rerum Novarum, or Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor. It affirmed the Church’s stance on protecting the poor and resolving social conflicts. It criticized the ideologies that had arisen from industrialization (unchecked capitalism, socialism, communism, etc.) which turned people into capital, agitated class conflicts, and destroyed the family. The encyclical approved of the right to private property, the right to a livable wage (and that a family could live off a single income with some to save), and the formation of unions and collective bargaining.
In his 1981 Laborum Exercens, St. John Paul II writes, “It is always man who is the purpose of work, whatever work it is that is done by man—even if the common scale of values rates it as the merest ‘service,’ as the monotonous, even the most alienating work.” For work exists for the benefit of man; man does not exist for work. Man has a duty to work and contribute to society, but society also has a duty to not abuse a man’s labor.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says, “The relationship between labor and capital often shows traits of antagonism that take on new forms with the changing of social and economic contexts…In our present day, the conflict show aspects that are new and perhaps more disquieting: scientific and technological progress and the globalization of markets, of themselves a source of development and progress, expose workers to the risk of being exploited by the mechanisms of the economy and by the unrestrained quest for productivity (279).”
Jesus said that the poor would always be with us. I do not think we’ll ever find and implement a structure that will prevent workers from being exploited for economic gain. I do think laborers will always be at risk, but it is the Christian’s duty to demand better labor conditions. We are obligated to speak out for human dignity. Often I feel like the girl in Modern Times: “What’s the point in trying?” But hokey, Hollywood optimism has a point: you keep fighting anyway, because it’s the right thing to do.