Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day

Labor Day is that day every year where we celebrate the accomplishments and influence of workers in the U.S. Organized labor comes under assault frequently (witness the governor of Minnesota’s attack recently on unions and collective bargaining rights) and is often unfairly scapegoated for economic problems in the U.S. But in a broader sense, Labor Day is about honoring those that work. It’s a kind of collective national Sabbath day of rest for laborers. Jesus says, “the workers are worthy of their wages.” They are also worthy of a day to celebrate their contributions to our society.

But there is another brand of workers that never gets their day of recognition in the U.S. – the undocumented immigrant worker.

Yesterday, I ate with my family at an IHOP restaurant in Olathe. It was interesting to observe the social dynamic going on there. All of the table waiters were cheery, clean-cut young teenagers, probably either college or high school students. All of the workers cleaning and bussing tables were somewhat older (probably in their 20’s or early 30’s) Latinos who tried to move about their jobs as silently and inconspicuously as possible. I looked in the kitchen and all (and I mean all) of the cooks were Latino. The manager was also a middle aged Latino man who obviously spoke both English and Spanish. One of the ladies bussing the table next to us glanced over at me and I gave her a big smile. She smiled back, but no words were spoken. I figured she didn’t get a lot of smiles. The Latino workers spoke Spanish to each other, but very quietly, lest anyone should hear and be offended.

The restaurant was filled with middle-class white people, like myself, who seemed to have no problem that much of the staff waiting on them and cooking their meals were undocumented workers. How do I know they were undocumented? Because there is no visa to come to the U.S. to work at IHOP. There isn’t a legal way to do it. If they were born and raised in the U.S. and attended school here, they would be speaking English (and probably working at better jobs). And they are probably still working today – Labor Day.

This is what I have observed in the U.S. regarding undocumented immigrant workers. Privately, we enjoy the fruits of their labors, the good service, and the cheap prices. We enjoy the roofers, the landscapers, the cooks, the croppers, the slaughterhouse workers, who labor their hearts out at minimum wage or worse and struggle to feed their families. Even Lou Dobbs privately employed undocumented workers in his horse stables. But publicly, we demonize them and deny them the dignity that labor should enjoy. We declare they should all go home (wherever that is) and forfeit whatever their hard work has earned them here, often accompanied by the imposition of hard Sophie’s choices of family separation or hopeless poverty.

And then we celebrate in the U.S. those who enjoy fabulous wealth from little or no work at all – the Kardashians, the Hiltons, those idiot reality stars from shows like Jersey Shore, etc. This is not right. In what other context is hard work considered disrespectful, or even criminal, and lazy opulence considered a worthy goal to attain?

This is what the Preacher, Qoheleth, says:

“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. . . The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep.” (Ecclesiastes 5)

I’m looking for a better Labor Day, when those that work are able to enjoy and find satisfaction in their labors, and ultimately, to find a day of rest and celebration.