As Labor Day was earlier this month, it is worth considering that American Conservatism (not to mention strands of conservatism all over the world) has had varied views on the dignity of work and the place of workers in markets, throughout its intellectual history.


The emergence of that very holiday, on which most of us Americans enjoy a respite from work or school, demonstrates that very phenomenon. 


Many of us hold a misperception that this holiday was created by socialists, for socialist workers.  In a modern discourse where progressives and socialists the likes of Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn and America’s (I’m so, so sorry) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, claim to be the champions of workers, with few working to rebuke them, this seems entirely natural.  


In reality, they materialize work and try to make policy counter to the idea that the temporal should be subordinated to the spiritual.  One need only look to China’s one-child policy which has been upheld in the name of Socialist Revolution, where law restricts family size to three, and putrid slogans such as “Implement family planning, allow the next generation to have a little more space to live” emblazon large signs from the countryside to booming metropolises.  

Or, to see a disturbing foretaste of what could transpire in the Western world,  turn attention to a particular candidate for President who is disturbingly polling well with the American Democratic Party’s increasingly radical primary electorate: Bernard Sanders, a self-avowed socialist.  In promoting his Climate Change policy proposal, he stated that reducing the global population, and promoting population control, was an important part of this plan. Unsurprisingly, such policies have been in vogue among leftists, from the vociferously racist Margaret Sanger, to Sanders today.  While the Trump administration and others have nobly fought unscientific population-control initiatives at the United Nations, the left still upholds population-control as an unassailable doctrine.


It is clear that leftist parties and figures have monopolized the debate on the ‘dignity of work,’ pulling a secular crusading religion of intersectionality out of thin air to angrily force working people to support any array of social causes, even if they are in conflict with their consciences


These people, incidentally, also claim a total ownership of the interests of the working class.  As a result, good people who recognize that socialism is deeply evil unfortunately cast aside the holiday as a mere day off, as if it has ideological roots that, if honored, would contribute to the total decline of Western Civilization– a presumption that would be correct if Labor Day matched its socialist branding. 

However, if anything, the holiday was a reaction against socialism: shortly before the  law was passed, the Haymarket Affair transpired. Consequently socialists had proposed the first day of May, which was only days before the tragic events at Haymarket had transpired, as an “International Worker’s Day” or May Day.  The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which was led by Samuel Gompers, the pioneer of anti-socialist ‘New Unionism,’ proposed the first Monday of September as an alternative. This proposal gained substantial traction, and though FOTLU would collapse, its Labor Day proposal would have a far greater deal of permanence.


In 1894 the proposed Labor Day was declared a Federal Holiday by a President, who in recent years, has been assessed by scholars such as Garland S Tucker III as a great conservative leader. Though not Catholic, Cleveland believed that it was firstly the role of social institutions and citizens to care for and uphold the dignity of the suffering, rather than that of the government: “I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.” (First Inaugural Address)  

Indeed, it can be argued, that coupled with his support for pro-dignity policies in work, Cleveland was something of a believer in subsidiarity– a principle integral to Catholic, and many other Conservative Christian social theologies.


It is  also important to keep in mind that Irish immigration was beginning to slow by the end of the century.  The Irish were beginning to no longer be maligned ‘Papist’ immigrants. A good number were no longer menial laborers who saw long hours in unsafe work sites in America as a lesser evil to starvation and religious persecution in British-controlled Ireland.  Many who had been in the United States for a long time had even established themselves in business, government service, and even elected office. 

Yet, it’s likely that Irish who had gone through the ranks in political machines after working in labor to support their families saw that workers at certain levels weren’t always treated with the dignity, or given the recognition they deserved.  The Famous Encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, made America’s new, and increasingly Catholic working-class particularly conscious of the necessity of dignified work to the realization of life’s temporal– and spiritual goals.  

That Pope of Blessed Memory condemned in that groundbreaking document the socialist opposition to property, God, and Country.  The Encyclical realized that both the worker and the employer are highly necessary to the functioning of a just and healthy economy.  Yet, it made no illusions about working conditions at the time. Nor, did it make any allusions about the longstanding teachings of the Church, which has always recognized the scriptural truth that defrauding workers of wages is a “sin which cries to heaven for vengeance.”


It’s clear that those Catholic immigrants who organized some of the early, anti-socialist unions which brought Labor Day to fore were awakened that in their society, work was not justly ordered, and that neither the Industrial Barons nor the wicked socialists offered any prospect of making things right.  With Rerum Novarum published only three years earlier, it is clear that the Church, in its condemnation of socialism and its desire for morality in markets, had an immeasurable social role in promoting the dignity of work and the realignment of social and economic priorities. Even if only for a short time.

To Be Continued