Remembering the Meaning of Labor Day

September 11, 2015


This past weekend we Americans celebrated Labor Day. For most of us this primarily means the last 3 day weekend and unofficial end of the summer season. That is, those of us lucky to have a 3 day weekend and as someone who spent many years in retail and service jobs (and direly hopes never to return to those fields) I realize how lucky to have that day off I am and was this year.

There are, by my count, at least 3 other holidays in the summer season Americans celebrate in some way tied to the military—Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Independence Day. Though Memorial Day is for those who lost their lives in military service, Veterans Day is for all who served and the 4th is our national holiday of independence all in practice run together in modern America as a sheer celebration of military service itself and those soldiers, living or dead, who served in the American military.
Labor Day is a celebration of other types of service and though I have seen some advertisers and citizens co-opt it as another celebration of a specific type of service (military and law enforcement) it is in fact a celebration of those brave women and men who have and continue to fight the Labor battle, a battle that is (or at least should be) nonviolent. Labor Day is a celebration of those—like Mother Jones, Baynard Rustin, Pete Seeger—that did so much to uphold American ideals by protecting the rights and dignities of the average US citizen. Their hard work, strength and courage resulted in the 8 hour work day, the weekend, child labor laws, safety standards and so much more.


Sadly you do not see much celebration and focus on Labor Day and its heroes in pop culture, advertising or general conversation. We have so many days in which we celebrate those who gave so much in a specific type of service (military) it seems odd  we can’t celebrate another equally important type of service. While WWII veterans certainly protected US citizens, the Labor movement did so equally—though instead of protecting us from an outside threat they most often protected us from home grown threats, countering those indignities and advantages taken on us by the robber barons and their modern descendants who would crunch the lives of the average worker under the boot of a larger profit margin. Why do we not celebrate these people, their work and their cause with as much fervor as we do our military veterans?

Because sadly “Labor movement”, along with “unions” and so many other terms and concepts have been titled controversial. Today in America if you say “union” (or “immigrant” and many other separate issue words) you are a traitor to “the free market” and “the real America”. Plus, it’s easier to celebrate heroes in the more traditional manner. America respects force; nonviolent organizing and advocacy is not as recognizably “heroic.”

Today the overwhelming majority of unionized workers are white-collar government employees and teachers. The blue-collar workers who established the unions in the first place to protect the rights of everyday coal miners, steel workers and factory employees have given birth to generations who benefit from that sacrifice so much so that they no longer recognize the need for that institution that got their field to a place of dignity. The vast amount of workers in the retail and service sector could benefit so much from an equally healthy and vocal union to raise their work and pay to the standards of those other blue-collar fields but many companies (ahem, “walmart”) will fire an employee for breathing the word “union”. Not to mention that the news and political punditry absorbed by so many who would benefit from that institution have been erroneously convinced that it would do them more harm than good and that when all is said and done their employer wants what’s best for them already.

We know where the Labor movement got us in the American workforce. If we take just a moment to look at the state of affairs today–the vast economic inequality, the shrinking middle class, the increasingly wealthy voracious 1%–we can clearly see the need to continue the effort, to stoke the Labor Movement’s passion once again. Perhaps this can start with truly celebrating the heroes of the movement’s past. That is afterall why it is a national holiday.


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