August 30, 2013
Labor Day is a complete rip-off. Labor isn't celebrated at all—instead, a single day's break from labor is celebrated. You might think this is a stupid thing to care about, because Labor Day is really just about getting drunk in your yard, again. But that's actually evidence of this very successful con job pulled on you, the American worker (or unemployed person, or discouraged worker, or "grad student"). You probably don't even believe in Labor Day.
America, as you've surely been told, is a very special country. One example of the superiority of the United States is that it managed to deport the global workers holiday called May Day. This was especially skillful because May Day began not in Russia or Finland or Middle Earth, but in Chicago, a major American city built specifically to exploit the labor of poor immigrants.
On May 4 of 1886, police opened fire on laborers demanding an eight-hour workday. The cops had been sent over by their bosses at the slaughterhouses and City Hall to break up the rally and smash skulls. The chance to open fire on the workers conveniently arrived when a crude bomb was tossed toward the coppers by persons unknown; eight local anarchists were rounded up and convicted—four of them were slowly strangled in an intentionally botched public hanging, while a fifth condemned man blew off a significant portion of his own head by chewing on a blasting cap he'd smuggled into prison.
The phony trial gave fuel to the new global labor movement, and it inspired the creation of International Workers' Day on May Day of 1889, meshing with the European spring festivals held on May 1.
Leaders of other countries would've loved to kill off May Day. But it was too wrapped up in the old pagan spring celebrations, now starring cheery mobs of laborers singing ancient songs about smashing the system and sawing off the head of the screaming king. After dancing around the maypole and drinking everything in sight, the festively clad young people would tear off their folk costumes and screw each other in the forest, like wood sprites.
But every now and then, the revelers would launch a real revolution, which is how we got the Soviet Union and leftists and all that.
Very crafty U.S. holiday planners within the federal government were told by bankers and industrialists to find a way to get rid of this phenomenon. They had watched with interest as the Catholic Church tried (and failed) to steal May Day from workers by renaming it Saint Joseph's Day—the mythological Joseph, the cuckold in the tale of Mary's supernatural pregnancy, was the patron saint of going along with the system even though you're utterly dead inside.
For Washington, the answer was to simply have a different kind of May Day—one that was more about sitting in the yard getting drunk, instead of storming the Bastille or seizing the means of production. After U.S. marshals and soldiers slaughtered railroad workers during the 1894 Pullman Strike, the federal government quickly whipped up a national workers' holiday. This "Labor Day," the first Monday in September, was preferable to the May Day agitations that called for worldwide socialist revolutions.
The American authorities re-christened May Day as "Law and Order Day," a deft bit of word magic that knocked the life out of U.S. celebrations of May 1. The commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre itself, on May 4, is now a fake Disney holiday—May the Fourth Be With You
celebrates the immense financial success of Star Wars products.
Labor Day worked all right during our brief mid-20th century era of a prosperous middle class and a less desperate working class and a fully marginalized poor with no access to Twitter. But as a salaried job went from the norm to a prize held by the fortunate, the hard-won eight-hour workday became something sadder and stranger.
One of every three workers is now part of the "contingent workforce"—the exact number is conveniently hidden, because "the Labor Department does not regularly collect data about this group
." When the Bureau of Labor Statistics stopped counting this contingent workforce in 2005, it was already at 30 percent of all workers. They're temps, contract workers, seasonal workers, and warehouse labor filling boxes for Amazon. They're generally in service, retail, food production and dead-end office jobs: stocking shelves, killing meat animals in a factory, doing telemarketing or data entry, cleaning bathrooms, working security, etc. And they're often deliberately kept from working 40 hours a week, because only then would they be entitled to benefits and legal protections reluctantly granted to full-time employees.
The modern Labor Day is one of the major retail sales weekends, right up there with the ominous Black Friday of Walmart riots and the unsatisfied mobs haunting Day After Christmas sales. With 70 percent of retail workers kept as part-timers and low-end retail increasingly being a round-the-clock operation, Labor Day is likely to be just another day of labor for the nation's worst-paid not-quite-employees.
Retail, along with "customer service representatives" and "fast food preparation," is one of the top five "largest job growth" occupations, according to the Labor Department. But don't get used to such horrible jobs, because even these are going away. The burger-flipping robot and the self-service checkout computer are killing off the crappy jobs just as machines killed all the jobs in agriculture and manufacturing.
This is the worst part of Labor Day, for those who want to think about it: Nearly all remaining jobs will be eliminated, probably in your own lifetime! The American-led destruction of the labor movement has been remarkably successful, and three decades of aggressive anti-union propaganda has made the few remaining trade unions with their pensions and vacations seem decadent and greedy to people struggling with a shift at the Del Taco followed by a shift at the Walmart, leaving children and elderly parents with whatever member of the casual family is without paid work of any kind.
But don't feel smug if you've got a law degree or work for an accounting firm or manage some department selling whatzits. The management massacre of 2008 and 2009 was just a way to get rid of dead-weight white-collar workers. Those jobs will never return. Most everything that anyone does can be done better and more cheaply by computers, and the price of robots is dropping just as the price of mainframes plummeted 20 years ago with the introduction of cheap but powerful PCs.
The next mass movement, if it ever happens, will not be about increasingly scarce laborers, but about people in general. Nationalism, oxycontin, despair, television, alcohol and slob propaganda have all done a very good job of keeping the 80 percent of Americans who are "financially insecure"
too worn down and miserable to realize they've got a common enemy. If they ever do figure this out, there will either be a long internal war—the "class war" that worries rich liberals and rich conservatives alike—or the Pentagon is just going to poison the whole country between Silicon Valley and Manhattan.
Enjoy the barbecue.
Ken Layne writes his American Almanac to mark the nation's important holidays and traditions. Next up: Halloween! (UPDATE: The original version of this post mixed up the 1884 and 1894 railroad strikes; thanks to commenter sjk333 for the correction.)
How Labor Day was Hijacked: 5 Reminders of the Day’s Real Purpose
September 2, 2013
Though national holidays are too often treated as cheap rationales for carefree days off, most still involve some sort of salute — however superficial — to the particular occasion’s ostensible purpose. Sure, Memorial Day is treated as the launch of summer and yeah, July 4 is seen primarily as an excuse to light off colorful explosives. But most of us — including most of officialdom and corporate America — spend at least a few moments of those days paying tribute to fallen soldiers and thinking about the founding of the country, respectively. Heck, even when it comes to less widely celebrated national holidays like Columbus Day and President’s Day, most of us at least know what those days are fundamentally about.
Unfortunately, there remains one particular national holiday that gets no such respect. I’m talking, of course, about today, Labor Day.
Though we all know when this holiday is and often use it to structure our yearly calendars, the modern version of this occasion has been almost completely divorced from its official meaning. Indeed, the most prominent and pervasive Labor Day iconography usually has nothing to do with the holiday’s actual point and everything to do with discount sales events, the beginning of big-time sports seasons and the last hurrah of summer. Even in the political sphere, much of the rhetoric around this day ends up being generalized platitudes about the economy and jobs, not specific discussions about the importance of organized labor. This, despite the fact that, as the Los Angeles Times notes, “The holiday is the creation of the labor movement, which wanted a holiday to honor workers — and highlight the need for labor reform laws.”
Quite obviously, the transformation of Labor Day from a highly political occasion to specifically honor worker solidarity into an apolitical vacation day has much to do with the larger attack on the labor movement.
Today, from Wal-Mart to Amazon to fast food chains, the largest and most famous American brands are often the most hostile to unions. That has created a society in which it is standard operating procedure for corporations to regularly engage in the most intense union busting tactics. Meanwhile, from the Democratic president to Republican Party leaders, many of the most influential politicians proudly position themselves as opponents of the labor movement.
To say the least, these moneyed interests, the media outlets they sponsor and the political puppets they own have no interest in venerating a labor movement that challenges plutocracy. And so just like the modern celebration of Martin Luther King Day often ignores Dr. King’s economic justice campaigns, so too does Labor Day typically circumvent a celebration of organized labor.
But that doesn’t mean it has to, or that we have to just accept that reality. There are ways to take back this holiday — especially considering public sentiment.
Yes, despite the withering rhetorical and public policy assault on unions, polls show that organized labor retains high approval ratings among Americans and that most citizens do not support the highest-profile efforts to undermine and demonize the labor movement. That public opinion suggests if more people are simply reminded of what Labor Day is really all about, there’s a decent chance we can restore its real significance. Here are just a few of those reminders:
Legislation creating Labor Day did not pass the Congress in response to Americans’ demand for yet one more reason to sleep in, fire up the grill, drink beer and watch football. It passed the Congress as an outraged response to the U.S. government helping a rapacious corporation violently crush striking unionists who dared to fight for their economic rights.
Labor Day was not designed to give you a day off to commemorate the end of your summer nor to give parents a special day to hit the chain stores for back-to-school sales. It was designed to give us all a chance to honor and commemorate the American labor movement and all of its achievements for millions of workers — union and non-union alike. These achievements include (among other things) higher wages, healthcare benefits, child labor laws, the eight-hour workday and the weekend.
Labor Day was not created to give you one last day to work on your tan or to get drunk in the park at an annual picnic. Labor Day was created to give you a day to attend or participate in some sort of public event showing your solidarity with the American labor movement. As AFL leader Samuel Gompers said in the years after the holiday was created, it is a day when workers’ “rights and their wrongs would be discussed … (when they) 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.”
Labor Day was not designed to be cast as an apolitical holiday that everyone should pretend they honor because they simply support the apolitical notion of work. The “labor” in Labor Day refers not to generic “work” but to organized labor — as in unions. That makes it a deeply political occasion celebrating the ideas of worker solidarity against corporate power and organizing for collective economic rights. It is a day, in other words, to honor what even President Ronald Reagan recognized: namely, that “the right to belong to a free trade union” is “one of the most elemental human rights” and that “where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.”
Labor Day is not designed to be a day for anti-union politicians and corporations to say “Happy Labor Day” and momentarily pretend they support the rights of American workers. It is a day for Americans to speak out against union-busting activity and vitriolic anti-union rhetoric, whether that abhorrent activity and ugly rhetoric pops up in big box stores, in state legislatures in plutocrats’ campaign ads or in schoolhouses. It is also a day for us to consider new and simple ways to better protect the rights of workers to form unions.
Take a moment today to email one of these five reminders around, post them to your Facebook page, tweet them out and/or simply riff on them with friends. Alternately, come up with your own reminders. Better yet, attend one of the few civic events that commemorates the real spirit of Labor Day.
At the very minimum, just do something — anything — at some point today to respect what this day is supposed to be all about. The unionists who died fighting for our economic rights deserve at least that much. So do today’s workers who are now bravely continuing that same battle.
David Sirota is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.
Where the Papers At? CWA Workers Versus Cablevision
Communication Workers of America
Brooklyn workers have been negotiating with Cablevision now for over 18 months. They have endured illegal terminations, threats, illegal surveillance, bad faith bargaining, and lower wages than all the other technicians at Cablevision. Despite all the harassment, the workers refuse to give up on the vision of a fair contract.
Tell Cablevision CEO James Dolan: It's time to sign a contract that pays Cablevision techs in Brooklyn fairly.
Click on the iink
to see the video and to sign a letter of support.