Labor Day has an interesting history – a dramatic and colorful history when checked out. From its Canadian origins in the 1870’s as an informal but determined labor celebration, it inspired interest within the US labor union movement. First celebrated in New York in 1882, US Labor Day was unanimously passed as a national holiday by the US Congress in 1894. (As in a dance with questions of who ‘leads’, Canadian legislature then followed, passing similar recognition, also declaring the first Monday of September as Labor Day!)*
Of course, politics were involved – both in enthusiasm for Labor Day, and in its eventual passage as “official”. In the United States, Labor Day was declared a national holiday for at least two reasons.
There was significant labor unrest, and it seemed advantageous, if not downright honorable, to intend, or at least appear to intend, appreciation for the value of labor’s contribution to individual and national prosperity.
An additional reason for Labor Day’s official holiday status was to side-step May Day’s already international status as one that focused on both value of, and issues of, labor’s contribution. May Day as a commemorative day, sprang from very real unrest. In 1886, May 1, a massive worker strike involving both Canadian and US labor turned quite violent. In Chicago, a bomb was thrown, shots were fired, and five were hung. Furthermore, the May event inspired international response, including from emerging socialist workers’ movements, who used the day as a “worker strike day” (a strike for demonstration purpose – to remind industry of the essential role played by labor in bringing about prosperity.)**
As May Day evoked confrontation between labor and industry, and as it developed growing enthusiasm from socialist perspectives, it seemed wise to Congress to adopt the September Labor Day practice as a national holiday.
So here we are! Today – Labor Day. Over time, the day has been transformed in our minds. We do celebrate, but our focus is “end of summer, back to school and home from vacation”.
Fair enough! Such a time of transition is worthy of a pause. A time to call upon ourselves to shift focus.
But we still call it “Labor Day”. I suggest recognition and appreciation of the value of labor is a practice in need of emphasis. It is honest to ask: “What does ‘labor’ (our own, or that of another) bring to “prosperity”?)
It has always been crystal clear to me that anyone’s “prosperity” includes a portion, a significant portion, of labor input. My definition of ‘laborer’ is anyone who has little choice in wages received, but without whom my (or broad society’s) lives would be less pleasant, less prosperous.***
My definition of ‘laborer’, the recognition that plays through my mind when I consider value of ‘laborer effort’, includes the day-laborer who has no ties to any employer except on a daily basis. It also includes the individual who works steadily, part or full time, for an employer – be it a small company operated by an individual, or a large, corporate enterprise. I deeply value, I deeply recognize, the contributions of all laborers.
Whether a laborer works by hand (shovel, pick, trowel, along a row of crops or fruit trees) or operates machinery and computers. Whether a laborer works in a messy, construction or outdoor environment, or inside the comfort of a retail store. Whether a laborer runs a vacuum and uses a toilet brush inside someone’s home, inside an office, or in the rooms of a hotel or motel. Even, for me, there is knowing of distant laborers – working anywhere in the world, on farms and in factories, with the result that I have affordable products to purchase. Each of these individuals boosts both comfort , and potential or real prosperity, to those who pay them or purchase products based on their labor.
I do not know their numbers. But these workers exist. Many are very poorly paid and may hold down more than one (even full time) jobs.
It is galling to me that we so easily dismiss, overlook, this contribution. We like to suggest that “everyone” can, “if they choose”, move “up” to a “better” life. We like to insist that there is a “ladder” that can be climbed. All “these people” need to do is develop a “work ethic”, take training in more marketable skills, or develop a positive attitude, a belief in a future that will remove them from an economic misery they may presently experience.
And some do. Some try and may eventually succeed. Some try and are knocked down, (for example a single mother who developed pneumonia; her body demanded a break from her effort to manage multiple jobs, home and children, and nursing coursework.)****
Let’s be honest for a moment. We do not, as a culture, honor worker contribution to our comfort and prosperity.
Rather, we like to believe, and say aloud, that what we enjoy is a result of our own hard work and effort, our own intelligent and shrewd management of personal resources. We believe we did not ‘happen’ to receive better education, that we did not ‘happen’ to have adult influence along the way that knew how to encourage us, that gave us a ‘leg up’ in tangible or intangible legacy from time to time. Our shrewdness usually includes willingness to pay “going rates” for purchase of labor contribution whether or not the ‘going rate’, when examined, is ‘honorable’.
Our thought might be:”How fortunate that by gaining from a laborer’s work without having to pay too much, I have dollars freed up for other investment – plus – I gain the actual enhancement to office or home from the laborer’s work!” Such might be our thought – if we gave ‘the value of labor’ any thought at all, which, for the most part, we are disinclined to do.
For me at least, today is a day to give thought to the contribution of labor.
I do this quite regularly throughout day to day life. Sometimes when I am at work with shovel and wheelbarrow for my own landscaping, I am mindful that somewhere are any number of individuals doing similar work on behalf of someone who has hired them to do so.
As an individual, I have the choice, when I hire labor, to pay above the going rate. When I can afford it, this is what I do. I ask myself: “What real and true value do I receive from this work; how much can I share from my financial resources and still pay costs of modest living, still finish someday a properly working plumbing system in my 1-bathroom house?” I say to myself: “Never mind that paying more may slow down my own efforts to achieve greater comfort and prosperity – the point is to demonstrate tangible respect for the gift of this person’s work on my project.”
I try to pay at least some above the going rate.
It has been observed before, that I may not be “properly socialized”. In matters of recognizing value of labor contributions, I am sometimes willing to “waste” dollars when I could get by spending less.
There is “socialized” to believe I am complete originator of all prosperity and comfort that may accrue to me; and there is “socialized” as in “knows each brings gift to the table and believes all must share the meal.” *****
Properly or not, I seem socialized to the latter definition.
To Workers – To Labor! THANK YOU!! -MaggieAnn
also: Leo Panitch, “What … about May Day” http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/3952
**”The Worker’s Festival … “, Bob Davis: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0MKY/is_16_29/ai_n15779349/
***(The relationship of what is meant by ‘prosperity’ and by ‘pleasant’ is a separate discussion. For me they are intertwined. At any moment when I feel “life is pleasant”, I am simultaneously feeling, at least momentarily, comfortable, “prosperous”.)
**** “Barely Getting By … America’s Working Poor” http://www.humanmedia.org/catalog/program.php?products_id=280
***** (Dare I, yet again, direct attention to the American group least likely to have health care?)