Happy Labor Day

Most Americans value and enjoy Labor Day as the final holiday of summer. It has come to denote the unofficial end of the vacation season: one last chance to parade, picnic, barbecue, and lounge carefree in the warmth of a high sun before youngsters head back to the rigors of school and all of us, young or old, grow ever more mindful, in the breeze of increasingly autumnal winds, that winter harshness waits impatiently as the year draws to a close. Hot-dogs, spare-ribs, the final day of the State Fair, Jerry Lewis still sweating up money for “his kids” and, this election year, the opening ceremonies of the Republican National Convention are all images that come to mind when considering the early September holiday.

It is altogether fitting to relax and enjoy the season’s last 3-day weekend in whatever way best readies you for cruelties that a Minnesota winter is almost certain to bring. However, it can be constructive to reflect on the fact that Labor Day exists not merely to provide an additional day off from work before summer’s end; Labor Day was created to honor and commemorate the contributions that workers and organized labor have made to the strength and health of our nation.
An eight hour workday, a forty-hour work week, mandatory time and a half for overtime, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining rights, are but a few of the practices, now standard, that were once distant goals fought and longed for by earlier generations of laborers. In the words of Phillip Taft and Phillip Ross, the authors of American Labor Violence: Its Cause, Character and Outcome, “(t)he United States has had the bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world.” American Labor, through its often violent struggles, has greatly contributed to the nation’s health, wealth, and freedom. This contribution consists of not only the goods produced and services performed through the dedicated efforts of workers in the work place. American labor has also served to expand political and economic rights especially among those near or at the poverty level.

The current popular conception of the blue-collar worker as an ardent adherent to the status-quo, who actively supports only apparently self-serving political positions such as protectionist tariffs or stricter immigration laws, disguises the pivotal role ordinary working people and their leaders have played in advancing political and economic justice in our country. From its inception, in the United States, the organized labor movement, as Taft and Ross point out, has not only been bloody and violent, it has also been consistently at the forefront in advancing the same principles of fairness, humanity, and empowerment that Voices for Change seeks to advance.

As far back as 1886, when workers rioted in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, those workers, who had initially demanded only a shorter work week and higher pay, eventually, as their protest intensified, spoke and demonstrated against police mistreatment and what could rightly be called ethnic profiling. The Pullman uprising that followed a few years later in 1893 occurred when the employees who produced George Pullman’s railroad dining cars went on strike and eventually took control of the city founded by their employer. These laborers where not voicing merely selfish demands. They sought a living wage, decent housing, and a genuine voice in the political process, and, they sought these things not only for themselves but also as rights for all workers.

Carroll O’Connor’s characterization of Archie Bunker, to some degree, epitomizes what has become the prevailing stereotype of the American worker. As entertaining as O’Connor’s characterization may be, the image of the “loveable bigot,” represents a gross misreading of the role that workers, organized or not, have played in the expansion of rights for all citizens in our country. From Eugene Debs through Walter Ruther to Cesar Chavez, labor’s leaders have pressed not only for better pay and improved working conditions for their followers; they have often been the vanguard in the struggle for greater civil rights, better living conditions and greater political power for all of us who do not live lives of economic privilege.

Next Labor Day and perhaps for all Labor Days to come, in addition to enjoying the hot-dogs, barbeque and other familiar trappings of the holiday, consider spending a moment or two reflecting on the role ordinary, common laborers have played in bringing about improved conditions and increased opportunities that are now open to all. Reflect also that labor’s struggle, which has not always been a peaceful or a popular one, serves as a model for the diligence and courage necessary as we pursue our own struggles. So, as you toss another burger on the grill, contemplate that Uriah Stephens defied the prevailing racial and gender prejudice of his age by actively recruiting women and African-American workers for full membership in the Knights of Labor as long ago as 1883.

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