Some of you are working today. Some of you have the day off from work.
It’s time to reflect on what Labor Day was intended to be and what is has become–and where we can take it, what we can make it.
Through the years the nation gave increasing emphasis to Labor Day. The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. From these, a movement developed to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During the year four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.
This movement shortened the hours per day worked (from up to 16!! to 8), mandatory breaks, promoted safety legislation, and–as the bumper sticker brags–gave us the weekend (or days off).
But it seems we’ve lost some steam as a country making our labor better. More work doesn’t equal efficiency. Other countries take better care of their workers and are more effective in production and that fleeting thing known as “quality of life” and “happiness.” The bottom line is once again the most important in many industries, and there are deadly accidents in the workplace. Yes, the bottom line is no doubt important, but it shouldn’t come at a severe human cost, physically and emotionally draining and killing us.
Other Labor Day thoughts:
I’ve spent the last few years studying medieval Europe, and in part, reading about feudalism and the class based systems. The serfs, or peasants had almost no hope of rising above their station and were bound to the same land for the majority of their lives. Six days a week, sun up to sun down, no sick days, no weekends. It would take hundreds of years before people would begin to rise up and change the system. Because of these people, the Labour movement, we now have the rights to fair working conditions, days off, benefits, et al. Because handfuls of brave people stood up and fought for these rights which we take for granted. However, our labour system today is far from perfect today. Groups of people are bent on rolling back some of these rights in the name “capitalism” and the “fair market”. I’m far from an expert on economics, but I believe that keeping these rights will not kill our nations economy, as it hasn’t for the last 200 years. As a matter of fact, these rights should be expanded. Why is the US the only developed country without universal healthcare? Or paid maternity leave? These benefits have not killed the economy of Europe and they will not kill ours. So while we’ve come a long way from the days of serfdom, we still have quite a ways to go.
Edit: While the medieval peasant had an extremely hard life, it seems thanks to the mandated church holidays and feast days, they had *more* time off every year than the American worker. Read more here.
And still, neither have decent healthcare.
What is labor? And what is its relationship to capital? I believe President Lincoln spoke for me when he said…
“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not existed. Labor is superior to capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
The simple truth is that labor has provided us with all the rights we enjoy today. Children are no longer gainfully employed before hitting puberty. Nor are we working 6 or 7 days a week for pennies. We enjoy a regular work week, holidays, FMLA, a minimum wage.
Now, that is not to say that the war has been won. No, no, no. A minimum wage is not equivalent to a decent minimum wage. College graduates working low wage jobs is not acceptable. Only hiring part-time workers to avoid paying for health insurance is not winning. The way handicapped/mentally ill persons are treated is not winning. Unemployed veterans..also, not a win. Equal pay for equal work is not yet a reality.
I could go on and on. So, the fight must go on. In today’s economy, the fight is more important than ever. Corporate entities seem determined to return us to a feudal society. We need to remain equally determined to stop them.
Why do we need a strong labor movement?
“Capital organizes and therefore labor must organize.” ~Theodore Roosevelt
As I sit here contemplating whether to fire up the grill or just bake some fish, I realize that Labor Day, like almost every other holiday we celebrate, has pretty much lost its meaning. Anymore, it is just an extra day off – hopefully with pay – or if you have to work, a day with extra pay. For most, it’s a good excuse to sleep late, drink a few extra adult beverages, and add to our arterial plaque collection.
But we need to think about what this day means. It is about the people who worked hard, often under dangerous conditions and for obscenely low pay, to build this country we now enjoy. The ones who worked from “can see to can’t” yet never seemed to be able to get ahead.
Too many of us think that was in the “old days” and doesn’t happen anymore. Unfortunately, that’s incorrect. The ranks of the working poor are growing, not shrinking. People who perform functions that continue to be the backbone of this country (surprise! information workers do not form the backbone of this country!!!). Service workers who don’t make minimum wage because their wages are to be off-set by tips…which they sometimes have to share with management. Agricultural workers with unclear immigration status who work and live in deplorable conditions, getting bottom dollar for their labor but paying top dollar for pretty much everything else, especially their substandard housing. Minimum wage workers who struggle to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads as their labor further enriches the super-rich corporate moguls. And even though we don’t like to think about it, all those off-shore workers who have absolutely no protections, but whose labor keeps us looking spiffy and bargain prices.
For many, every day is Labor Day. Hard Labor Day. Maybe we need to change the name to Workers’ Day. Have marches and speeches instead of naps and backyard barbecues. Because we are all brothers and sisters. And when one suffers, we all do, whether we feel it or not.