Monday, September 03, 2012

Don't Forget Labor Day

This is an op-ed piece I wrote for the Deming Headlight in 2009, reprinted here on the occasion of Labor Day.


Labor Day is always in danger of being forgotten in the midst of a busy three-day weekend. The NFL season is kicking off and there is time for one last barbecue, perhaps one last chance to take the kids to Lake Roberts, before we furrow our brows and set to the long march through autumn and our major holidays.

Veterans Day suffers a similar problem, hovering right in front of Thanksgiving, and yet the sacrifice made by soldiers on behalf of our country still grabs our attention. While political fashions come and go, the service a soldier offers to our country is faithful and unassailed. We do not easily forget them.

Labor Day is more vulnerable because the working joe does not occupy such a sacred place as the G.I. You or I might offer our seat to a serviceman, but what about the nurse who worked mandatory overtime last night? Less likely.

Even so, the history of labor in America reminds us that civilians have also been called to serve their country with valor and sacrifice. Many have even made the ultimate sacrifice. Working stiffs, without military training or equipment, have died to establish and defend some of the basic freedoms we hold dear. They died not on faraway battlefields like our champions in the armed forces, but on home soil and often in their own workplaces. Many were called to action by witnessing the death or injury of their friends and family members in sweat shops with locked fire escapes or buried in badly shored mines.

The custom of a working day limited to eight hours was won, lost, and won again through years of political struggle, years of labor strikes that were often answered with deadly violence. The concept of a weekend was enough to get you labeled unpatriotic and run out of town.

Labor Day recalls a time when organizing our peers and bargaining with our employers was illegal. Anyone involved with a union or speaking of workers’ rights could be denounced as a Communist and a traitor to their country. Those who worked in mines or produced iron and steel, those who made our clothing, those who laid the rails and conducted our trains, those who loaded and unloaded cargo at our ports, those who built our automobiles and airplanes, and many more, were collectively punished with lockouts, blacklists, and “yellow-dog contracts” that forced them to promise never to join a union. When these measures failed to squash demands for living wages and time off, and employees continued to demand safe workplaces and other simple justices, some of our largest employers unleashed Pinkerton guards or even opened fire on them.

In today’s politics, it is common to speak of labor unions with cynicism. Unions are not always perfect or upright, but they came into being out of human necessity. In 1882, President Grover Cleveland warned the nation that “corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.” Has this concern been laid to rest yet? Do Presidents of our time dare speak as frankly as President Cleveland did? Profit rarely yields to human need, and so the brave will continue to be called to defend the interests of people against monopoly.

Labor Day deserves an honored place, alongside Veterans Day, as a patriotic day of remembrance of those who put themselves on the line for our benefit. May we honor the Americans who asked for justice and were fired, called foul names, and were physically assaulted or sent to prison. May we solemnly remember events such as the massacre in the Reading valley, the Haymarket affair, and the Ford Massacre at Dearborn.

Let us take note, also, that those who promote reform on behalf of working people have always been called traitors, Communists, fascists, and even Nazis. It is a predictable tactic designed to confuse and divide us. We can do better than that.

If history and politics don’t interest you, it is also a day to appreciate our neighbors and their labors. Our rough hands, broken nails, and worn shoes are works of art.

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