Labor Day

Labor Day has become the weirdest of American holidays. We have relegated our citizen soldiery to a tiny portion of our population. The military experience is now far removed from most of our lives. And yet, we manage on Memorial Day, and Independence Day and Veterans Day, and Flag Day—and Valentines Day and Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the start of every NASCAR race, Indy Car race and football game—to remember the sacrifices made by those brave men and women. That’s fitting, of course, not only because of how those sacrifices benefit us, but because we who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.

Which brings me to weird little Labor Day. Most of us have no idea of the sacrifices made by laborers on our behalf. And I’m not sure we care. And by sacrifice, I don’t mean just the policemen and firemen putting their lives on the line for our safety. Or the farmers who mortgage their future on that roll of the dice called weather. Or the fruit pickers who die just a little bit every day so that we can have peaches for $2 a pound. I mean the men and women who were beaten up, killed, jailed, and blacklisted for taking risks to bring us better working conditions. We have forgotten how we got here. Or the role of the labor movement, not just in bringing about better working condition, but in changing history.

My father-in-law was a mill worker and a member of the USW. He worked at the Homestead mill. Yes, that Homestead mill. And yet, when Lech Walesa was organizing the Lenin Shipyard in defiance of Soviet authority he watched, on the news, the clubs being wielded on the heads of those workers and said, “You see! Nobody ever got their heads busted starting a union in this country.” When the head-busting stopped, American television turned its eye elsewhere. And so when Grandpa Reagan took credit for bringing down the Soviet Union we all nodded in agreement. The reality is that its authoritarianism was hollowed out within by people like Lech Walesa and organizations like Solidarity. And, yes, thousands of people got their skulls cracked organizing in this country.

But the weirdest part about this little holiday is that you are labor. It is your future that is harmed by not remembering. You work your ass off. But to many companies, you are just an expense, a negative number on a monthly ledger. People with money to burn, who can throw it into the fevered betting on Wall Street, are called shareholders and stakeholders. But you who throw a piece of your life in the pot every day just to pay your mortgage, you are simply a resource or a commodity. If you don’t believe me, go down the hall to Gretchen’s office. The sign on the door doesn’t read Local Stakeholders. It reads Human Resources. And so slowly, from the bottom up, because we need to be commoditized for the good of the “investors,” all the tiny bricks are being laid to block any ability of labor to organize and hold its own. In fact, we’re already there.

Witness the plight of female labor in this country. Women work for far less money than men. A national strike would fix that in short order. Could you imagine a month in which all the women in this country refused to go to work? But I’m not sure we know these days that we can strike. And so much rolls in favor of the company that I believe there is a deep-seated suspicion that a strike would not succeed. And they may be right. Rick Snyder the union-busting, robber baron of Michigan was visible in his efforts. And he hoped to ride to the presidency based on devaluing your work. He probably still does. But the same shifts, usually more subtle, take place everywhere.

Not much has changed from the days of Henry Clay Frick. He said, of the Homestead workers: “The mills have never been able to turn out the product they should, owing to being held back by the Amalgamated men.” You hear those same words echoed to this day. Regardless of their level of truth. It is never a lack of vision, or investment, or practicality that holds back these great scions of commerce. It is always, somehow, the union. Always, says management, it must be broken for us to achieve greatness. Well, I think that is a freakish kind of greatness.

Granted, the unions have been far from perfect–their own worst enemy sometimes. I grew up not far from the Homestead mill. But I also grew up closer to the home where Jock Yablonski and his family were gunned down. So I know the evil that union power can degenerate into. But, read the history of organized labor in this country. Then, after a few breaths, decide which is better: the imperfections of organized labor; or the unfettered machinations of greed.

If you are into putting the true meaning back into holidays, put Labor Day on your list. Or forget about it. And now we are two generations into not remembering. So, I’ll end with the words of Utah Phillips speaking about today’s children who have all but forgotten these things, this rich history. He said:

“These kids don’t have a little brother working in the coal mine, they don’t have a little sister coughing her lungs out in the looms of the big mill towns of the Northeast. Why? Because we organized; we broke the back of the sweatshops in this country; we have child labor laws. Those were not benevolent gifts from enlightened management. They were fought for, they were bled for, they were died for by working people, by people like us. Kids ought to know that.”

(And if you don’t have time for a lot of heavy reading this weekend, take a listen to the gorgeous album by Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco titled Fellow Workers. It is a brief, wonderful history of what was wrought on our behalf.)

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