I recently took a trip to Europe and arrived after May 1, 2015. For people from outside Europe, that date means nothing. But for Europeans it is a major holiday. May 1 is considered the Worker’s Holiday. This time it fell on a Friday and factories, schools, businesses, and governmental offices were closed. This was a three day holiday.
As I thought about the calendar, I realized that Memorial Day weekend will come early because the last day of May is on a Sunday. If someone from Europe comes to America who does not know the importance of the Memorial Day weekend, he will either be in for a great disappointment because his intended plans/business will not be done or greatly rejoice because he had a day to celebrate with the Americans.
The equivalent to the May 1 European celebration in the United States is Labor Day. I grew up on a farm, worked during my youth in many places such as a military tank factory, a meat preparation warehouse, and a furniture factory, and have had many custodial part-time jobs. After completing my degrees, I moved into office jobs as a pastor and seminary professor. When some of colleagues complain about the abundant work that we have in academic offices, I jokingly mention that one week of back-breaking work in the field harvesting whatever is in season will heal all of us of our complaining.
I was also thinking of some great celebrations which are no longer a part of the holiday calendar. In medieval history, one of the popes created himself a monument in Florence in celebration of his deeds. When he died, the Florentines melted the monument into cannon balls. The same fate has befallen the celebration of Lenin and his statutes that have been toppled in nations that have left communism.
In my childhood we celebrated the 25th of May, which was the birthday of Marshall Josip Tito. He kept the country of Yugoslavia together from 1945 until 1982 when he died. Once he died the whole country disintegrated in six countries. But during the 40 years that he was the president, he kept the country together and on his birthday, every village, town, and city had parades. We prepared the streets and houses and trees were painted, just in case he decided to come and join our parade. Throughout the country we ran birthday relays from one end of the country towards Belgrade to present the good wishes of the people. Then he died and no one is celebrating his birthday any more.
The significance of days is ephemeral. Some holidays are kept for a season and then the reason for their celebration is eclipsed or diminished. But I think that we still should celebrate the workers of the world. Although the back breaking pain of the field worker will not be experienced by an academician, these posts can be labor intensive in very different ways. While a surgeon in the operating room will work in rooms that are often freezing and the field workers endure the summer harvest heat, both of them are performing important jobs.
In some places we hear that robotics will take over the work currently done by humans within a couple of decades, but I think that this is slightly exaggerated. While it will be much more monumental than when workers were displaced by machines in the Industrial Revolution, I foresee that many of the jobs that are being done today will completely disappear. However, one also has to do a comparison with what jobs, office titles, academic positions people had in 1901 versus 2001 and we will see that we have created thousands of new jobs while eliminating hundreds from the previous century.
Whatever work we end up doing, we should do it with gladness. Having said that I am also aware that many jobs do not produce great gladness – they strictly provide the means for living. Regardless, we shall celebrate the working people and make sure that the biblical injunction ‘the worker is worth his hire/wages” will be carried out by those who have the opportunity and means to be employers.