The University of Chicago Divinity School

On Labor and Workers: the Silence of the Religions
by Martin E. Marty
Monday | Sept 02 2013
Flickr image by John Perivolaris
After a month of non-labor, the Marty Center’s staff returns and publishes on Labor Day. Given the choice of dramatic, horrendous, headline-grabbing topics (e.g. Syria), to return to the scene with the topic of “Labor,” especially as in “Organized Labor,” is to risk inducing yawns. Read the religious press, as we must and do, and you will also find that “Labor” is almost a non-topic there.

My direct experience with the labor movement is limited. The last summer of World War II, as a 17-year old, I counter-punched eighteen holes in the brake shoes of Sherman Tanks, up to ten hours per day, six days a week. During the next two years, I iced railroad refrigerator-cars alongside fellow workers who were in the UPWA. Later, for two years, I was a Sunday-supply pastor to (usually) African-American or (often) blue-collar white congregations. In these cases I could see up close how workers without union representation were powerless, fearful, almost enslaved. Many still are.

Upon joining the academy in 1963, I did what church historians do with respect to “Labor;” I wrote about it, never lacking subject matter. The Vatican, the World and National Council of Churches, denominational agencies, voluntary organizations, and their worker-members and other-members kept chroniclers like me busy. Yet, last week, during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I noted that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last days and cause, which were not explicitly “Race,” but “Labor,” failed to get any mention. Who remembers?

Now, collapsing all religious concern for Labor into talk and writing about Labor Unions does not do justice to the whole cause. We all know about the corruption in many unions, the issues of “Right to Work” laws, economic inequality, and more, but an hour with your favorite internet search-engine will show how infrequently these issues are discussed. Was Labor pushed aside as we deal (or pretend to deal) in Congress and in the public sphere with race-relations, church-and-state, immigration, war-and-peace, the climate and environment, and other worthy causes? Have we come up with better agencies and ideas for fighting inequality and for securing justice to and among workers?

I will append some sources and links for further reading to show that some things, instead of no things, are going on. There are agencies which deal with religious ways of finding meaning in work, and who’s to slight them? They often reach spiritual depths that organized labor, and organized almost-anything, cannot touch. There are agencies that listen, including listening to the voice of working people. The Public Religion Research Institute regularly conducts opinion polls that help identify areas of concern often overlooked by other polls. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an annual Labor Day Statement, faithfully staying on this subject, though it is generally ignored by the press and by the public based on the assumption that official Catholicism is interested only in sex. Pope Francis is shaking up this assumption by sending out all the right signals.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report (see references below) provides a statistical glimpse of the pain workers feel: 40% say their job is “very or extremely stressful.” Job stress is more regularly associated with health complaints than are financial or family problems.

Yesterday’s “Labor Sunday” was noted perfunctorily, if our sources are accurate. There are reminders that the voice of workers needs to be heard, and the church and other religious communities have, or should have, something to say. It’s too late for this year, but now religious groups have 364 days to rethink, regroup, reconsider, and reorder priorities.  


The American Institute of Stress. “Workplace Stress.” Accessed Aug. 31, 2013.
Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University. “About the Center for Faith & Work.” Accessed Aug. 31, 2013.
Kiley, Clete. “Labor Day Reflection: Income Inequality, Labor Unions and a Call to Vigilance,” Aug. 16, 2013. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Blog. Accessed Aug 31, 2013.
Blaire, Stephen. “Labor Day Statement 2013,” Sept. 2, 2013. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Blog. Accessed Aug. 31, 2013.
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “National Council of Churches (Representing 33 million Protestants).” Accessed Aug. 31, 2013.

Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Marty Center Junior Fellow.

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