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Enjoying the fruits of our labor on Labor Day

Most historians peg the beginning of modern global capitalism to 17th-century England. Cotton manufacturers in England’s great mills needed capital (in the form of money) to expand their operations, pay workers and import cotton in hopes of increasing market share and profits (see the book “Empire of Cotton” for a fuller treatment).

As you might imagine, working in cotton mills at the time was physically grueling and dangerous. Most positions were held by women and children, some as young as 8, who spun and wove cotton for 10-to-12 hours a day, six days a week. Salaries were minimal, whatever mill owners could get away with.

As it developed through the centuries, capitalism proved to be a mixed bag. While often neglectful of the health and lives of workers, modern capitalism has also been responsible for great innovations which raised the standard of living for peoples around the world. For that we should be thankful.

But we should never forget that global corporations have one goal: to make as much money as possible for their stockholders. Whatever interferes with that goal is considered a threat. Most corporations, therefore, have no interest in protecting the environment or treating workers fairly. Doing so might cut into the profits which go to the stockholders.

If not forced by strikes, protests and government regulations to treat workers and nature with dignity and respect, most international corporations would ignore them.

Due to the intransigence of the corporation’s single-minded focus on growth and profits, the rights enjoyed by workers today had to be earned rather than given. Reforms came not from the generosity of corporate boards but from the insistence of those who work for them. Higher wages and better working conditions were not voluntarily granted by Big Business but are the product of centuries of struggle from the bottom.

How workers are treated by their employers should also be of concern to those for whom morality and religious faith are important. The founding of my own tradition, for example, is based in an origin story about the liberation of slave-workers from the tyranny of economic and political exploitation at the hands of an ancient Empire. Seeing the conditions under which they were forced to work, their God took pity on them and called on their Chief Overlord, Pharaoh of Egypt, to let them go.

The Roman Catholic Church has supported workers’ rights for decades.

“It is right to struggle against an unjust economic system that does not uphold the priority of the human being over capital and land.”

Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year) No. 35, John Paul II, 1991

“Yet the workers’ rights cannot be doomed to be the mere result of economic systems aimed at maximum profits. The thing that must shape the whole economy is respect for the workers’ rights within each country and all through the world’s economy.”

Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) No. 17, John Paul II, 1981

The right of workers to be treated fairly is also discussed in the Jewish Bible and Talmud. Jewish traditions demand the prompt payment of wages, give the benefit of the doubt to workers in disputes over wages and grant workers the right to stop working at any time.

Other laws relate to the hours of work, including the requirement that workers have a day of rest and prohibit workers from accepting unsafe working conditions.

Finally, according to Islamic tradition, workers should be treated with dignity and honor. They should have a humane and safe environment for work. They should be compensated if they are injured on the job. They should have time for work and time for themselves and their families. And children or minors should not be used for labor.

The world’s greatest religious traditions are united in prioritizing the rights of workers over those of employers.

Without the persistence of courageous men and women demanding that their labor be respected and fairly compensated and the moral support of religious traditions, working conditions today would not be much better today than those in 17th-century cotton mills.

Monday is Labor Day. A day set aside each year to honor and give thanks for those who work so that we might enjoy the fruits of our labor. They deserve to be remembered and honored. May it be so.

Polk Culpepper is a retired Episcopalian priest, former lawyer and a resident of Washington.