Labor, Dignity, and the Democratic Process

Labor day is a very secular holiday, but it should hold a special place for Unitarian Universalists as part of the ongoing development of our faith. Labor day is fundamentally tied to our values and the Principles of the UUA.

Labor day is about the power of a worker to stand up for their own worth and dignity against companies that see them as “human resources”. We celebrate that people fought, bled, and died fighting for safer working conditions, time with their families, and a living wage for a week’s worth of effort. It is a memorial to those who made that all possible, and it is a celebration of the messy part of the democratic process, where people argue and fight over the details so that new laws and regulations can be passed that promote the general welfare in an ever-changing world.

As it is put in the workshop “There is Power in Union“, by Rev. Aaron McEmrys:

“Without the ability to speak up and act up; to advocate for themselves and their co-workers, not only is the inherent dignity of workers denied, but even the expression or assertion of that dignity can result in discipline, demotion or termination.”

That power most often comes from workers uniting, putting their collective value to the company against the company itself, and saying with one voice (more or less) “We are people of worth, deserving of dignity.” That is one of the principal functions of a union. Like all democratic apparatus, it is led by a few who speak for the many, and it is guided by those who participate. Much like government, the people who show up to discussion, the people who hold debate, and the people who turn out to vote choose what the priorities are and how they are to be achieved. It isn’t much different from a health congregation, or sadly, an unhealthy one.

When the number of participants drops, not only does the power of the entity diminish, but it is far more likely to be swayed by personal agendas and prejudices. The more people who are involved, especially those willing to pay attention and keep their leaders honest and on task, the more effective an organization is.

So, organized labor is inherently good from the Unitarian Universalist perspective. The ills come from a failure of the workers to participate and the frustration of the organizations in the face of powerful lobbies and corporations. It is only by empowering unions and promoting active membership that we can stem both the failing power and the corruption, perceived or real, that plagues labor today. Companies know and embrace the power of trade unions and organized business lobbies; real human beings deserve no less protection or fewer rights. Our Principles call on us to support and actively promote “right of conscience and… the democratic process… in society at large”. With that in mind, we should embrace Labor Day as a spiritual commemoration of those values being given form in the world.

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