Even if you recognize that Labor Day wasn’t always just a day off from work to spend on cookouts and watching sports on TV, you may think of it as another bland holiday dedicated to celebrating something people don’t care much about. Namely, work.
A little history reminds us that labor leaders pushed through the holiday to further their cause and pressured President Grover Cleveland to sign it into law as part of an election-year compromise in 1894, only six days after federal troops broke a bloody strike in the Pullman railroad sleeping car company town outside of Chicago.
In 1898, Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, called Labor Day
The day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed…that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it.
A century later, even as unions get weaker and weaker, each year the labor movement tries to remind the public of the spirit of the day, to recognize the many benefits that organized labor has brought to all Americans — from the eight-hour day and 40-hour week to overtime pay, workplace safety regulations, and even paid weekends and holidays off to spend barbecuing.
Now, about 12% of American workers belong to unions, down from a high in the 1950’s of nearly 50%, a decline due largely to big employers offshoring US manufacturing jobs to China and other cheap-labor markets along with a new wave of union busting by plutocrats and their lackey politicians back at home.
Nonetheless, even today, about 60% of Americans approve of labor unions.
As the Occupy Wall Street movement has shown — please, dear Lord, bring Occupy back soon — the 99% is not as stupid as our corporate overlords seem to think. Even though most of us are deprived of the chance to join a labor union, ordinary Americans still recognize that we need to band together to protect our interests.
From the workplace to the streets
Given that many lost manufacturing jobs will never return to US shores, traditional labor unions focused on factories and other workplaces may need to evolve into something else. With its natural habitat being the public space of both city streets and the Internet, Occupy may be the best model for the 99% to unite.
Meantime, if the global economy is permanently exiting the era of economic growth, it could mean the end of jobs as we know them.
But the end of nine-to-five work for a corporate employer certainly won’t mean the end of work. Quite the opposite — an economy beyond growth and after peak oil will need humans to step back in as fossil fuels deplete and machines shut down.
As you flip burgers this Labor Day — whether in your backyard or, if you’re not so lucky, at work — it’s right to pay tribute to the great labor leaders and brave workers alike who stood up for themselves and for America’s middle class against physical violence and all sorts of intimidation.
And it’s prudent to think ahead to a different kind of future where we’ll have to stand up for ourselves in new ways against an entrenched plutocracy that doesn’t need our labor anymore but that still counts on our compliance.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice