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September 9, 2013

The origins of Labour Day in Canada can be traced to an 1872 strike in Toronto in which striking typographers sought a 58-hour work week. The issues facing workers have altered drastically since then. It's not that exploitation has disappeared; it hasn't. However, urban economies have changed from industrial ones to those based on the knowledge and service industries.

Today, as well, youth unemployment is widespread, something unheard of in Canada's resource-based economies of much of the 20th century. The inability of many educated young people to find meaningful careers or even work at all scars the souls of those who should be fonts of optimism and vigour.

Also feeling increasing dis-ease are those who have worked years or even decades in the same line of work only to find that loyalty to their employers means nothing when downsizing begins. Still other people continue to work yet find that their initiative and creativity are no longer valued by employers for whom the workforce exists simply to carry out centralized planning.

More and more, individuality is crushed by juggernauts that have theories and plans imported from elsewhere, but no feeling for the local community and local talents. The ideology of "progress" – at its height in the 19th century – continues to blind too many leaders who have schemes to implement and no ears to listen.

One hears sadness from creative people in many walks of life whose innovations once made small but beautiful contributions to local life but whose dreams have now been killed by those who mindlessly march to a drum that says, "Everything is changing and so must we."

Perhaps those experienced workers should buy into the new plan – to do otherwise only gets them labelled as stubborn and non-compliant – but to them the implementation seems draconian and they feel their voices are unheard. The result: disillusionment from many who have worked hard to contribute to the common good.

The Church's vision grows out of Blessed John Paul II's complaint that the human person too often "is treated as an instrument of production, whereas he - he alone, independently of the work he does – ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator" (Laborem Exercens, 7). Work exists for the human person, not the person for work, said the late pope.

Then there is the principle of subsidiarity – Church teaching that economic decisions ought to be made as close to the grassroots as possible.

Of course, certain tasks need to be performed, but foremost should be the Spirit working through the worker. Work is a sacred activity through which the worker creates, not only objective products, but also him or herself. Workers are not things, but rather persons called to share their gifts and, through their creativity, to help build God's reign. Today, that sounds like idealism from a bygone era.