Each year i walk in the Labour Day parade. The reason is simple. It protects me from amnesia. This annual pilgrimage from downtown Toronto to the Dufferin Gates is a gentle reminder of the Story which gives me meaning. It reminds me that I owe solidarity to workers struggling today for a decent life
This age old story reminds me that i am part of creation, that my labour is an essential part of building God’s reign. It reminds me that the work I did and do, that of teaching is holy work. It reminds me that much of labour today is exploited and devalued. It reminds me that labour unions which fought and are fighting still for worker dignity are in full retreat today and need our support. This past week I saw American workers at fast food outlets demanding a living wage. The Walmartization of workers occurs in the wealthiest country in the world which is also deemed “the most religious.” What kind of religion is this?
This is why i walk on Labour Day
I was invited awhile back to speak at city council about the need for a living wage not a minimum wage. Forces at City Hall were attempting to cut the wages of those largely female municipal cleaners from $19.00 an hour to $13,00.
“God love them, they’re nice people but they don’t deserve $19.00” said councillor Doug Ford, he born with a silver spoon in his mouth
I was enraged at this lack of respect for these workers.
I was haunted by the women who preceded me, one Irish and one Jamaican who spoke so movingly about the pride they had in their work. They both said they could not survive on $13,00 an hour.
I came as an adult educator who has taught thousands of Catholic teachers about Social Ethics, the extraordinary teaching of the Roman Catholic Church as it relates to the Common Good of the broader community. This teaching began with Pope Leo Xlll in 1891 and is built on the inherent dignity of each human person. It broadly resembles the call to compassion and justice at the heart of all religions.
The right to unionize and collectively bargain was vigorously promoted by the Church and this created stable communities and secure families based on living wages. Sadly the last 30 years has seen the advent of market fundamentalism, the neoliberal nightmare which has shredded organic communities and facilitated a race to the bottom.
The wonderful Toronto Labour Council mounted an effective challenge and the motion to cut was defeated. Decency, common sense and justice prevailed.
When Catholics moved out of the economic straightjacket of poverty in the post-war years, something was lost. The rush to the suburb and the middle class life played havoc with our call to solidarity with the poor. We substituted charity for justice. We began to vote for parties which defended our economic interests. This embrace of “a life of pitiable comfort” of course was not unprecedented.
Philosophers had warned us of the consequences.
Mang tzu (370-286 BCE), known to the West as Mencius, was probably the greatest interpreter of Confucius. He reminded his countrymen and us that we must pity “the man who has lost his path and does not follow it and who has lost his heart and does not know how to recover it. …The principle of self-cultivation consists in nothing but trying to look for the lost heart.”
Jesus of course in his crucified cry for the kingdom reminded us of “the Way” of “the heart”—radical solidarity with all of creation.
Organized religion, Catholicism included, seems to have lost “the Way” The real social justice tradition of the prophets has been muted. Bishops are decidedly absent from the front line struggles for justice today.
In March of 1965 on the historic march from Selma to Montgomery the great rabbi Abraham Heschel was seen walking arm in arm with Dr.King. He knew that this march was not simply a political occasion. It was a religious event.
Heschel shook the Jewish establishment’s ‘comfortable pew”. he challenged his co-religionists to “re-member”, to knit the body scarred by segregation, back together again. “For many of us,” he said,” the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
There will be no religious leaders walking hand in hand with with unionists in the Labour Day parade. That is the sad reality. Our religion is still searching for its lost heart.
For many of us, like Heschel, this is not merely a secular parade and Labour Day is not simply a holiday. It is indeed a holy day. It is a sacred pilgrimage. Our goal is not a modern Canterbury but a simple act of solidarity with brothers and sisters, workers all, whose dignity is under attack.
It is always inspiring to see many Catholic educators flying the flag of solidarity this day. I am happy to join them.