Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Labor Day 2013: We Have a Dream

September 1, 2013

Celebrating Labor Day this year coincides with marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke movingly of a personal dream destined to become a national dream and a worldwide dream. That men and women of every race should be recognized as brothers and sisters before God, that all people should live in peace and freedom was for Dr. King a vision rooted in God’s Word in Sacred Scripture.

This vision can transform not only relations between the races but also change the relationship between labor and capital, employees and owners. In 1993, when I was only a few years a bishop, while I was pastor of the Diocese of Yakima in Washington State, a group of farm workers came to see me one day and asked me to help them form a union.

The workers were from Mexico; many of them had come years previously to Washington State to harvest asparagus, to pick cherries and pears and apples, to cut small hops from gigantic vines. It was hard work, demanding a lot of personal discipline and dedication to the task. They lived throughout the winter with their wives and children in uninsulated shacks built for summer laborers. The conditions of work were simply given and the wages not negotiated. There were many reasons for them to be aggrieved, but when I asked them why they wanted to start a union, they said simply: “Bishop, they don’t respect us.”

The employers were not evil; they believed, when I spoke with them, that they were good to their workers whose skills limited them to gathering crops on other people’s farms and orchards. But they mostly saw them as workers looking for a job; the workers saw themselves first as persons deserving of respect, and people demand respect more than they demand wages. When questions of the relationship between labor and capital begin not with economic issues but with a sense of shared humanity, the deeper nature of human work begins to surface.

In working, people imitate God, who created the world, redeemed it and sanctified it. Human beings work in cooperation with God and also with other workers. Through work, a community is formed. People are brought together, forming a type of community that creates something for the service of society through efficiently using capital and labor and by enabling all to be better stewards of God’s creation, which has been given to our care. Economic initiative and a sense of industriousness help create wealth that can be shared for the common good of all.

If people are treated only as functionaries, valued for what they can produce, a workplace will probably not have a “good” spirit. If people are respected as people, a workplace will have a sense of common purpose. If each worker can contribute responsibly to the task, then work becomes a form of self-expression in which the worker discovers himself as an intelligent and loving and active person. Workers can even come to understand how what they are doing contributes to shaping human history, having an influence far beyond a particular workplace.

Work can also be destructive, when it totally defines a person’s sense of self. Work should not remove from human workers the time needed for family and for play, for the practice of religion and the cultivation of culture and friendship. It is more important to ask a child, “Who do you want to be?” than to stop at asking, “What do you want to do?”

Dr. King wanted us to be people who looked at others’ character before noticing the color of their skin. Catholic social teaching would have us look at workers as persons before judging their skills and their ability to produce. The two visions complement and reinforce each other. The challenge this Labor Day is to live both visions, both dreams, to the full. God bless you.


  • rev. martin luther king jr