Labor Day and the deeper meaning of work

Labor Day. Think for these few minutes about the place of work, the place of human labor, in our common life.

Yesterday I was having trouble connecting to the Internet on my computer, and had to call my Internet service provider. At the end of the call I asked him where he was. “The Philippines,” he said. Such is the dispersal of the workforce nowadays that we not only have low-wage garment workers in Bangladesh or China or American Samoa displacing low-wage immigrant workers here in America. Now, even high-tech workers in the Philippines, India and other far-off places are taking your calls about your credit card account, and a wide range of financial and other transactions that we used to make here within our borders.

But as you know, there are many more aspects to this new and extremely depressing situation in which our American workers find themselves today. Wages have not kept up with inflation; there has been net job loss in the last four years for the first time since the Great Depression. The number of poor persons in the U.S. rose in 2003, as they have every year since 2000. Workers work longer hours, with fewer protections and fewer options. But on the other side, company profits have recently soared, and corporate strategies to reduce labor costs have steadily increased.

This brings me to the here and now in Los Angeles, and to a hotel worker, a housekeeper named Victoria Vergara. Victoria works cleaning rooms at one of Los Angeles’ luxury hotels. I have a photograph, a striking picture of Victoria from the Los Angeles Times of a couple of weeks ago. She is in her maid’s uniform, and her hands are handcuffed behind her as the L.A. police tower over her in full riot gear. They have arrested her, and several dozen other hotel workers, for nonviolent civil disobedience, for refusal to move out of the middle of the street in a worker protest directed to nine of L.A.’s big hotels. In the photograph of Victoria by the Times, she appears at first glance to be a quite ordinary-looking woman — like many working women in our communities: a woman in her 40s, one easily imaginable as a mother as well as a hotel worker. But I kept being drawn back to the photo — to Victoria’s facial expression. Her head is tilted slightly up. The look on her face is serene, even expectant. Her mouth is slightly open.

How could that be? I asked myself. Here is a woman willing to be arrested, willingly placing herself at the mercy of the police (and a lot of Latin American women have an instinctive fear of police, for good historical reasons), but most of all, placing herself at risk of losing her job — of losing her livelihood, her health insurance, her union — and she has this look on her face.

As we speak, Victoria and about 2,800 other union hotel workers are at serious risk at any moment, of a lockout by the hotels. The long-term issues for the workers here, as you might guess, are living wages, health benefits, and just working conditions. With today’s economy going as it is for workers, how could we expect them to desire anything different? The immediate issue is the union’s push to move to a two-year contract with the hotels — a position opposed by the hotels. For the union, such a contract would put it in sync with the unions in 10 other major cities in the U.S., who could then negotiate collectively with the hotels in two years’ time. This is the only way, the union believes, that it can acquire something like a level playing field with the powerful multinational corporations who own the hotels.

Well, we are a long way historically and culturally from the three craft workers Ecclesiasticus told us about: the engraver, the smith, and the potter. Yet, is Victoria, the housekeeper, not kin to these three of over 2,000 years ago? She and her co-workers, many of them mothers and heads of family, come into our hotel rooms, strip the sheets, make the beds, clean the bathroom, vacuum the rug, empty the trash — and do as many as a back-breaking 15 rooms in a single 8-hour shift.

But the average monthly wage for hotel workers in Los Angeles is about $1,320. In L.A. the average rent nowadays of a two-bedroom apartment in the poorest sections of the city is about $1,000 a month. And this summer the hotels unilaterally raised the cost of health insurance to the hotel workers by $10 a week.

Well, you can see by now where I’m going with this!

The 2,800 hotel workers in Los Angeles need your help. They need you to stand with them once a week, to take a turn with them on the picket line, or just to be there, to give them courage to persevere, to not lose hope; and also to show the hotel owners and managers — who are also human beings capable of being moved in compassion — that we want them to reach a just settlement. We want to see justice done.

And so I want to leave you with two challenges. One, to respond to this immediate human need, to support Victoria Vergara and her fellow workers; and two, to begin to consider on this Labor Day holiday the deep meaning of work, and the insights the Judeo-Christian tradition brings to it. For in this tradition work has a dimension of holiness to it. The work we do, as the hands of God on this earth, is meant for the upbuilding of creation, the upbuilding of the human community. That is an insight that begins in the first book of the Bible, with God’s commission to Adam and Eve, and that continues in the Psalms and the prophets, and with Jesus, who through his parables ennobles workers and their work.

To examine the issue of work, and to see it as a spiritual issue, is a huge task! To really consider its connection to human betterment and human solidarity would, it is obvious, turn upside-down the whole purpose and assumptions of our present-day economy. It is a radical, “root” task — one of those that rattle cages and shake foundations. But that, of course, is precisely what Jesus did, and is why he got crucified. And why, in God’s great reversal, he rose again from the grave!

Canon Gillett is Minister for Social Justice of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and Priest Assisting at Trinity Church/Iglesia de la Trinidad, Los Angeles. This is an abridged version of a sermon delivered Sept. 5 at St. Augustine’s Church, Santa Monica, Calif.