Thursday, September 8, 2011

Labor Day was no picnic for many

Labor Day came and went the same as most holidays that have lost their meaning. Some people may have gone to a picnic, parade or barbeque over the three-day weekend, but the “reason for the season” was mostly overshadowed by consumerism (taking advantage of back-to-school sales or going to see The Help … again). And since consumption is now the reason for holidays, lots of today’s laborers don’t get Labor Day off at all!

Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, but the first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City in 1882 when the Central Labor Union organized a march of more than 20,000 union members and their families. Over the next few years, the nation’s unions spread the tradition to other cities and built a movement to get states and the federal government to honor the social and economic contributions made by the regular workers who kept the economy running.

Monday’s day off is part of the enduring legacy of the courageous and aggressive union organizing of the previous century that created the basics of modern life, like: the weekend, the middle-class, and the principle that kids should be in schools not factories. Today those things are taken for granted, but in 1882 – less than 20 years after slavery was abolished – society was organized around a few business owners and robber-barons squeezing everything they could out of millions of laborers working 12-hour shifts in inhumane conditions, but still left struggling to put food on the table.

Labor Day was initially about the struggle for economic and worker justice. But a century later, Labor Day has been so trivialized as to just dictate fashion choices. But today’s economy needs a Labor Day much more like the original march of “workingmen of all trades united in one organization.”

Today, there’s plenty for working people to unite around. Even though workers don’t routinely lose life and limb on the job anymore (though immigrants still face the worst working conditions), our society has sadly returned to many of the worst features of a century ago. Inequality is back at Great Depression levels, and the richest 400 people control more wealth than half of the country. The latest statistics are that 14 million people are officially unemployed (almost half have been unemployed for longer than 6 months). And many millions more are out of work or stringing together part-time jobs that don’t pay enough.

So for today’s laborers – especially people working in the service industry – Labor Day wasn’t a day off. And for the millions unemployed it was just another day spent worrying about how to get bills paid. Let’s all hope that next Labor Day’s headlines focus more on the movement for jobs and economic justice.

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