The significance of Labor Day

SHAREPHIL INVESTORS VIEWPOINT - Mercedes B. Suleik - The Philippine Star

The first of May is significant for two reasons: it is both a secular and a religious holiday. The secular observation is the annual celebration of Labor Day, which is celebrated in many countries of the world. The religious significance is that it is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker.

As a secular holiday, it was the result of the labor union movement to celebrate the economic and social significance of workers. Most countries celebrate Labor Day on May 1, and it is sometimes known as May Day and also as International Workers Day. Some countries, however such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada celebrate it on the first Monday of September. The celebration of Labor Day originated with the eight-hour work day movement.

In the Philippines, the first May 1st celebration was held in 1903, under the Union Obrero Democratica de Filipinas (UODF). Thousands of workers marched from Plaza Moriones in Tondo to Malacanang Palace, then the seat of the governor general of the Philippines, to demand complete independence. On April 8, 1908, the Philippine Assembly passed a bill making the first day of May as a national holiday. On May 1, 1974, former president Ferdinand E. Marcos, signed Presidential Decree No. 442 known as the Labor Code of the Philippines.

The decree emphasized that the employer and the employee are on the same workbench, with different functions, but united by their common purpose of efficient production to meet the needs of their fellow citizens. Thus, it is through private initiative that the increase in wealth, which would satisfy the needs of man, could be created. Labor and capital are not opposed, and should cooperate. Further, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum  attempted to respond to the conflict between capital and labor. In it he articulated that wage earners, in contrast to the richer class should specially be cared for and protected by government.

It was in 1991 when Pope John Paul II issued his encyclical Centisimus Annus which further expounded on issues of social and economic justice. Throughout the encyclical the Pope also called on the State to be the agent of justice for the poor and to protect human rights of all the citizens. In addition, Pope John Paul II also defended private property, markets, and honorable business as necessary elements of a system of political economy that respects the dignity of the individual and allows the individual to express his full humanity by using his intelligence and freedom. By means of his work, man commits himself, not only for his own sake, but also for and with others. Each person collaborates in the work of others and for their good, and works in order to provide for the needs of his family, his community, his nation, and ultimately all humanity. Centisimus Annus emphasizes the social purpose of capital and private ownership (a principle enshrined in the Philippine constitution) – capital is a key resource for the common good, but as a resource is inert and depends on the creative effort of labor to produce valuable products and services. So there is an essential partnership, not adversarial, of the relation between shareholders or capitalists and labor.

At this point, we may also interject that shareholders and stakeholders (who include minority shareholders) have also intertwined interests, in that through good corporate governance the long-term viability of the corporation is ensured. Good governance provides the template for making sure that the ownership structure of corporations (sometimes characterized by significant family control, interlocking shareholdings among affiliated firms) do not impinge on the interests and rights of its stakeholders such as minority shareholders, its creditors and employees or laborers, among others.

Beyond understanding that labor and capital are important elements in the production of goods and services, and in realizing the importance of good corporate governance in the long-term viability of the corporation and taking care of its stakeholders, we have to go further than these secular considerations. I refer to the Catholic social teaching on the deeper foundation of our celebration of  labor as enshrined in encyclicals since Rerum Novarum and Centisimus Annus. For work is considered to have a spiritual as well as social significance. Work has been given the dignity of man’s sharing in the creative activity of God, and significantly, by the example of Jesus Christ who spent 30 years of his life on earth working with his hands as a carpenter, for a living.

Therefore, let me quote the late St. Pope John Paul II: “Just as human activity proceeds from man, so it is ordered towards man. For when a man works, he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well. He learns much, he cultivates his resources, he goes outside of himself and beyond himself. Rightly understood, this kind of growth is of greater value than any external riches which can be garnered…hence, the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it should harmonize with the genuine good of the human race and allow people as individuals and as members of society to pursue their  total vocation and fulfill it.”

And so the significance of Labor Day likewise is seen in the memorial of St. Joseph the Worker, a feast that has been celebrated liturgically since 1955. On this day, the Church – inspired by the example of St. Joseph who taught Jesus his craft – commemorates in a special way the human and supernatural value of work.

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Mercedes B. Suleik is a Fellow at the Institute of Corporate Directors and is a columnist for various newspaper publications. Ms. Suleik previously served as deputy director of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), vice president of the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), and executive director of the Capital Markets Development Center.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SharePHIL, nor purport to reflect the opinions or views of SharePHIL or its members. Learn more at http://sharephil.org

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