Monday is Labor Day, and, like most American holidays, it comes with the usual prepackaged ad campaigns designed to get you out of the house and shopping on this long weekend. In this respect, the day that Americans set aside to celebrate the contributions and accomplishments of the working class is no different from many of our secular holidays. What’s different, though, is what’s missing from our national celebration of Labor Day, and that is any real notion of what it means to be a 21st-century American worker.
Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Presidents’ Day, Independence Day, and even Martin Luther King Jr. Day are now all used to sell us cars and shoes, mattresses and appliances, hot dogs and beer. While these holidays rely heavily on the iconography of their origins, on Labor Day there is precious little mention of the men and women who built this nation during times of war and peace. It is a holiday that exists without any mention of its reason for existing.
While some people today continue to insist that organized labor is a socialist threat, it is important to note that organized labor in America took steps early in the 20th century to distance itself from the more radical, and properly socialist, movements for workers’ rights elsewhere in the world. So successful was this distancing that we are left with a holiday without any real context and, more importantly, a working class with no real connection to themselves or each other.
We are constantly reminded in schools, in advertisements, and on bumper stickers to remember those who gave their lives in defense of our nation, but we are not taught about those who died fighting for better wages or better treatment in the workplace. We don’t even talk about those who were maimed or killed while going about their daily work. Scholastic Publishing, for instance, has “teaching themes” available for Constitution Day, President’s Day, and World War II, among other topics, but the topic of working people is nowhere mentioned. So even though we have a day set aside to celebrate “labor,” we still are not taught very much about it.
We are not taught about the deaths of women and children in Ludlow, Colo. in 1913. We are not taught about striking miners shot in the back by strikebreakers. We are not taught about the harassment, torture, and murder of labor activists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and we are certainly not taught about how much of this violence was state-sanctioned, either implicitly through nonexistent investigations and show trials or explicitly through the use of law enforcement and the National Guard.
Sadly, today we remain blind to our labor history in America. Just as millions of Americans will use the long Labor Day weekend to go shopping — those cashiers are not getting the day off — thousands of fast food workers across America are continuing to organize strikes against their perpetual low-wage and non-full time status. If you can say that you think it is OK for the CEO of a fast food company to make twice as much in a day as the average fast food worker does in a year, then you should reconsider what Labor Day means for you.
The net effect of this blindness both to history and to the modern struggle of workers is that it insulates most working people from feeling any sense of class consciousness. We take for granted the idea of the 8-hour workday and the 5-day work week — so much so that both of those ideas are more or less meaningless in an era when so many of us work multiple part-time jobs or we’re tied to our full-time jobs by our laptops and smart phones even when we are at home.
Increasingly, it seems, young people leave high school or college happy they won’t be stuck at a single job for their whole lives like their grandparents, but they ignore the fact that this so-called freedom means that there is no steady paycheck, no benefits, no paid time off, and no retirement fund outside of whatever money gets funneled away into a 401(k) plan used to prop up Wall Street’s continued economic insanities. We take so much for granted, in fact, that Newt Gingrich was not only allowed to insinuate that children should be put to work again, but he was actually applauded for saying it.
Labor Day, more than almost any other American holiday, is the one in which the largest number of Americans should feel deeply invested. However, until we decide to educate ourselves, and more importantly our children, about the history behind the holiday and the sad state of workers’ rights in our country today, it will just be another long shopping holiday designed to sell us not only useless consumer goods but a useless mythology.