WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE: Reclaiming the Purpose of Labor Day

Labor Day meant something to them...what does it mean to you?

Monday is Labor Day.  It’s a day set aside for sun and surf, picnics and parties and plenty of burgers, brats and beer.  We gather with friends and family, fight the endless stream of holiday traffic and blow a final kiss good-bye to summer.  But how many of us give even a passing thought to the original purpose and meaning of Labor Day?  On Memorial Day we salute veterans, on Independence Day we hear patriotic music, on Thanksgiving we say prayers for our blessings and on Christmas we exchange gifts.  No matter how much any one of those holidays may stray from their original intent, there are always a few remaining traditions which continue to honor the grander purpose.  The same really can’t be said for Labor Day.  We all appreciate the break from work and a long weekend, but none of the frivolities we engage in on the first Monday of September do a thing to celebrate our brotherhood as workers or magnify the common dreams and struggles which unite us.

The very first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882 in New York City.  Congress officially made Labor Day a National Holiday in 1894, six days after the end of the Pullman Railroad Strike.  The Pullman Railroad Strike was a conflict over wage reductions and other exploitative treatment inflicted on members of the American Railway Union at the hands of the Pullman Palace Car Company.  The New York Times described the conflict as “a struggle between the greatest and most important labor organization and the entire railroad capital”, it involved some 250,000 workers in 27 states at its peak.  The strike launched labor organizer and activist Eugene Debs to national prominence.  Debs was a persistent agitator for the rights of all workers and made his life work to bring about the end of the inequality that exists between the ruling and working classes.  Of this conflict, Debs said, “Those who produce should have, but we know that those who produce the most–that is, those who work the hardest, and at the most difficult and menial tasks, have the least”.

It may be tempting and easy for us to dismiss this significant historical event as the relic of a past age.  We may think of it as merely the product of a time long gone during America’s early industrial beginnings.  After all, the workers have won, right?  American children no longer labor in sweatshops, we secured the eight-hour workday and the forty-hour work week, all workers must be paid a minimum wage…what have we got to complain about?  That was then and this is now.  But as the old adage quite adeptly puts it, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.  Regardless of whatever concessions have been won over the years through the tireless efforts of true patriots like Eugene Debs, American workers still toil under the oppressive fist and watchful eye of a callous and profit-thirsty ruling class.

How many of you are out of work?  How many of you know someone who can’t find work?  How many have had their benefits cut, or have been asked to take furlough days, or have been asked to work extra hours without overtime compensation?  How many of you have not seen their wages increase in correlation to the actual cost-of-living?  We’ve been brainwashed as a population to believe that these are just the unlucky factors that we are forced to accept during troubling economic times.  We’re in a recession, everyone needs to suck it up, right?  That seems like a reasonable enough notion until you’re forced to reconcile it with the fact that the profits of Fortune 500 companies have already rebounded back to historical levels.  In 2009, the earnings of Fortune 500 companies were up 335% from just a year before.  The $391 billion that these companies earned in 2009 is the second largest amount in the 56 year history of the Fortune 500 list.  Exactly how much ‘sucking it up’ do you and I have to do before we’re allowed to ask for a raise?

Those obscene profits exist because you and I have been saddled with the burden.  We’re slowly being conditioned to believe that a 10% unemployment rate is just the new paradigm that our society is going to have to learn to accept.  “Recession” is merely an excuse by the top economic class to skin a few more hides off of the very workers that labor to produce the wealth they enjoy.  Sure, we’re not being forced to work 16 hour days in a textile factory making 25 cents per hour like they were in 1894, but the exploitation continues nonetheless.  The sacrifices that we make in the form of furlough days, salary cuts, and benefits reductions are fueling the profits of the largest corporations that run our country.  We sacrifice, they benefit.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So Monday’s Labor Day festivities will come and go without much of a thought from large swaths of our country’s workers.  For millions who are still out of work, Labor Day will be truly meaningless, just another Monday passing by in which they are bereft of the opportunity to provide for their family.  But the saddest part of this is not that another Labor Day will pass without recognition, it is the fact that deep undertones of anger and frustration exist within our culture but they are not being directed toward those who are the real cause of the pain.  The economic misfortune being felt by millions across this country is indeed causing great protest and stirring up deep feelings of resentment, but instead of that emotion being channeled into grand worker demonstrations and protests as it was in 1894, it’s being misplaced on various sideshows and other nefarious boogeymen.  Instead of blaming Wall Street, we blame minorities who did nothing more than seek to become homeowners.  Instead of lashing out against corporate crime and malfeasance, we cower over the impending crimes of dangerous terrorists.  Instead of questioning the ethics of a government run by lobbyists, we question our President’s birth certificate.

The strong undercurrents of anger and resentment that exist throughout our society could be channeled into meaningful causes if we were able to see that we all share a common predicament.  But just as the powers that be convince us that sacrifice is a necessity, they also are skillful at obscuring from our eyes the ties that bind us together.  Our media and our culture give no credence to the lines that exist between classes, instead they convince us to focus on fabricated divisions such as the imaginary gap between Democrats and Republicans.  The growth of the tea-parties is a perfect example of this phenomenon.  These angry rubes are led to believe that they have more in common with billionaire CEO’s who share their anti-tax ethos than with the left-leaning Obama-voter who stands next to them in the unemployment line.  Millions of these tea-baggers, who are rightfully frustrated by the economic circumstances that are thrust upon them, are led like lemmings to the cliff by nincompoop mouthpieces like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.  They see their world crumbling and are made to think that the proper recipients of the blame are some gay men in California and some Muslims in New York who want a new community center.  Some zealots on the left aren’t much better.  They seek to position all right-leaning citizens as aberrant curiosities meant to be gawked at and mocked instead of seeking to bridge their ideological gaps with a common shared purpose.  They would rather defend a President who lied and sold them out for the interests of corporate donors than join the chorus of those who are justifiably leveling criticism his way.

Everywhere you look, a new and totally misplaced scapegoat takes the spot where a CEO or a Wall Street jackass should stand.  Illegal immigrants, welfare queens, abortion doctors, Hollywood actors, radio talk-show hosts, gays, Muslims, blacks, terrorists…everyone has someone to blame.  But no matter our race or religious beliefs, we all have something in common.  We are all members of the same class.  We are all part of the group that produces the goods and the services on which our society and the profits of ruling class depend.  We need to see past the fabricated issues of division that prevent us, the laboring class, from truly recognizing our full potential.  Our beef is not with each other, but with those who stand behind the curtains of power manipulating us and exploiting us to their heart’s content.  Eugene Debs understood this concept when he said, “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal class, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free”.

On the surface, this may appear to be nothing more than silly idealism.  It would be easy for a well-employed, middle-aged person living in suburbia while making a comfortable 80K a year to look at a desperate Walmart employee scraping by on minimum wage and not recognize that person as a member of their same class.  But its not a question of how much you make, how many cars you have or how big your home may be, the question revolves around the level of control that you have over your own life.  That person making 80K a year could just as easily find themselves as another victim of downsizing, and depending on their levels of debt and savings, could very quickly find out what it’s like to be at the mercy of creditors and collectors.  It is not just the poor who are forced to face the harsh realities of oppression.  A consumer culture driven by easy credit and materialism has sunk their tentacles into all rungs of society.  Families that like to consider themselves as firmly middle-class can be just as close to the precipice of bankruptcy and despair as anyone else already struggling to get by.  It does not matter who you are, if there is a way for someone to make more money at your expense, you could be a victim too.

So our allegiances should not lie strictly with those to whom we can identify.  Our allegiances should transcend the boundaries of age and race and creed.  Our friends and allies are not merely those who make a similar salary or those who vote along the same political lines.  Our desire to categorize and stratify ourselves only serves to strengthen the chains that hold us down.  The decision-makers in Washington and on Wall Street and in the boardrooms want us to fight amongst ourselves.  They want their selfish and unsustainable actions to remain obscured from our eyes.  They want Labor Day to be just another day where you head out and spend more of your money on more of their junk.  They want your anger to continue to be directed anywhere but where it rightly belongs.

Labor Day in America needs to be redefined.  It should not just exist as an ‘extra day off’ on the first weekend in September.  The way we celebrate and commemorate Labor Day should be more significant than firing up the grill or dragging the family off to the beach.  Labor Day should be a day that reminds us of everything we have in common with the entire population of workers.  Just as we all feel compelled to act a little bit nicer on Christmas, we should all feel compelled on Labor Day to look past our differences and join as one to fight the injustices that we all experience.  Just as Independence Day ignites feelings of patriotism, Labor Day should ignite feelings of brotherhood and of renewal of purpose in a struggle against a mutual enemy.  The most dire problems our society faces are all class-related.  Poverty, foreclosures, unemployment, personal debt, illegal wars, imprisonment; these are all the consequences of a ruling class that has taken advantage of our inaction for far too long.  If we want to live in a just and civil society where those problems are a thing of the past, then we need to recapture the unified sense of purpose that propelled the epic labor struggles of the past.

So this Monday, while you’re out enjoying yourself, remember that this day off was secured for a reason.  Look past the colors and creeds and political affiliations of your fellow beach-goers and raise a glass to them and to the common predicament that you both share.  And if you look out on the water and see a huge yacht racing across the horizon, get everyone on the beach to raise a middle finger and reclaim Labor Day as your own.

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