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Guest column | Adon Taft

Labor Day's fate tied to religion

The future status of two federally recognized holidays — Labor Day and Christmas — may be short lived. And, perhaps surprisingly, for the same reason: religion.

Already, officials in many school districts and municipalities have decided references to Christmas celebrations, events or holidays are politically incorrect, deeming them to be offensive to those of religions other than Christianity or of no religion at all. In the case of Labor Day, a holiday that originated in 1892 by the efforts of the New York chapter of the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, this country's first nationwide labor union, the reasons for the possible demise are less distinguishable.

What is obvious is that membership in unions continues a nearly steady 30-year decline. And since there have been similar declines in other countries that is not likely to change as the result of any liberalization of immigration laws.

The most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that barely more than one in 10 (14.4 million) of the 127.5 million working Americans belonged to unions in 2012.

Many factors — globalization, loss of manufacturing jobs, failure of union recruiting to keep up with population growth, slow structural changes in the unions to accommodate a growing number of women and young people in the work force — are cited by the experts to explain the decline.

Overlooked, according to a piece last year in Canada's Cardus Daily, is what Lew Daly, prolific author of books and articles on religion, called "arguably the deepest, most serious problem in unions today: the corrosion wrought by secularism."

Apparently union leaders as well as observers forget the beginnings of effective organized labor in this country when Terence Vincent Powderly led the Knights' outreach across the nation. A devout Catholic influenced very much by his Baptist lay preacher predecessor, Uriah Stephens, Powderly attributed the roots of the labor movement to Christianity. The preamble of his union's Declaration of Principles quotes Scripture and union rules precluded Sunday meetings, banned cursing or smoking during meetings, and denied membership to anyone involved in the liquor business.

As Daly sees it, unions and religious institutions used to find common ground in the "struggle for rights of association and a legitimate, protected place in public law." But, he and others see that influence waning. The annual Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center indicates a decline in the percentage of the American population strongly committed to their faith.

If the strength of labor unions and the continued existence of their holiday depend on a relationship with a religious population, perhaps all parties should pay attention to what Powderly advised:

"If Labor Day is observed as it ought to be, the gospel of humanity will be understood by all men and women.'' Love thy neighbor as thyself and do unto your neighbor as you would have your neighbor do unto you "will have a meaning not now understood as they should be this side of the portals where eternity begins and God rules in the presence of those He calls from the Earth."

Adon Taft of Brooksville is the former religion editor for the Miami Herald. He can be reached at adontaft@yahoo.com.

Labor Day's fate tied to religion 08/29/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 29, 2013 6:08pm]

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