Laboring

I can remember when Labor Day was about honoring workers.  I suppose it still is, in some circles.  At the top, however, the strategy is to give all the breaks to the wealthy and convince those they exploit that it’s for their own good.  In as far as Trump has a playbook, this is on page 1.  All around the community I see poor, exploited people with Trump signs on their houses.  And they’re big.  Great.  Never been bigger signs.  The policies he’s enacted, however, have taken money from their pockets and lined those of the wealthy.  Why do you think he refuses to share his tax records?  Tax fraud is a crime.  If you’re a laborer, anyway.

I grew up working class and I still think that way.  I’m skeptical, though.  I don’t take anyone’s word for it.  That’s what happens when you become a professional researcher.  Looking at actions instead of words is most instructive.  As my step-father used to tell us, “Do as I say, not as I do.”  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.  Just let him pick your pocket and tell you he’s been on your side all along.  Can Labor Day be anything other than a lie under such circumstances?  The American aristocracy has both a firm grip and tax incentives not to improve the lot of those who are barely getting by.  And yet we take a day off and pretend that everything’s fine.

Polls repeatedly show that those in power have no idea of the realities of the lives of the working class.  They can’t name the price of a loaf of bread and, especially in the present day, don’t care to.  Many people in the United States fear socialism.  Ironically, many of them are “Christians” who completely ignore the socialism of the book of Acts.  Early believers, the Good Book says, pooled their resources and shared everything out equally.  It’s a pity it didn’t last.  Nations with socialized medicine—the only humane way to live—have handled the pandemic better than those that rely on health insurance at the same time its own government is trying to dismantle the only plan that would cover everyone.  Why do we find it so hard to care for the workers?  Maybe this Labor Day we can stop and think for a little while where we’d be without those who actually keep things going.  And maybe in November we’ll vote to help them out.

What Labor Day used to be; courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Day Labor

It’s difficult to believe in Labor Day. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad for the day off. It’s just that I don’t think people really believe in the idea any more. It’s hard to take professed goodwill for workers seriously in a plutocracy. Especially when money’s a fiction. When pay was in coin, although abstracted, you were literally handed something of value for your work. Now technicalities and loopholes and utter abstractions make some—including would be and actual politicians—wealthy. These are all tricks on paper, affirmed by accountants, and we watch like the audience of a magic show as the improbable is made out to be actual fact. And these who hold this imaginary wealth control the lion’s share of the waking hours of the rest of us. We’re given Labor Day off with a pat on the head and we’re told to go enjoy ourselves before summer is up and we really have to get back down to work.

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Many of us—I know because I can see the cars—use the holiday to travel. It’s not really so much a day of rest as it is a day of trying to get back home so we can be to work bright and early tomorrow. Since it’s the last break before Thanksgiving you’d better enjoy it. If there were really money in that pay envelope—not even real envelopes are used any more—it might be easier to buy the illusion. Like Amazon I take a small cut of the transactions between employer and debts I owe just to live near where I work, which isn’t really so near but as close as I can afford. At least today I can not go into the office. I can spend the day getting home instead.

I often wonder why we’ve let ourselves be fooled by a system that will only ever allow the very few to truly find financial independence. Like lemmings we run right after them, thinking that just beyond that cliff true prosperity lies. A chicken in every pot. A car in every garage. Right now all those cars are actually out on the road—I can see them—and they’re not really paid for because they cost too much to buy outright. Most of us need them to get us to and from work. Or to and from vacation. Summer’s winding down. Hurricanes are already spinning away in the Atlantic. I’ve grateful for the day off. I really am. I only wish I could believe that it meant something deeper about human nature.

The Day After

I don’t mean to be insensitive. Sometimes I get so busy that I don’t even look at the date for days at a time. This can’t be good, but I was surprised when the anniversary of 9/11 caught me completely unawares this year. That’s the kind of summer it’s been. Not acknowledging 9/11 to New Yorkers is like making ethnic jokes—it’s inherently offensive. The City is always subdued on this date of infamy. Coming the same week as Labor Day this year, I think my timing was just off. In my family, September was always the month of birthdays. My present to my brother of the 12th was late in 2001. I wanted to find something old. Something solid. Something time-honored. I wanted a sense of stability to return to a chaotic world. Being an inveterate fossil collector, I went to a local rock shop and bought him a fossilized cepholapod shell. It wasn’t much, but it was a message and a metaphor.

Today, being a birthday and a day after, feels a little like an apology to me. At the time of 9/11 I knew a few colleagues teaching in New York, but in 2001 I’d not really known the city. I’d visited a few times. I was still employed, although my personal career trauma was, unknown to me, already underway. And looking at the state of the world some fourteen years later, I wonder how much better things are. We haven’t suddenly improved, and as a nation we seem more deeply divided than ever. Candidates who resemble their caractitures more than actual people frighten me. The rhetoric is a sermon of doom. Have we all forgotten how that morning felt?

Television reception was poor, or it may have been the tears falling from my eyes as I watched, at the safe distance of Wisconsin. We’d just sent our daughter off on the school bus and now wanted her back home. I called my brother in Pittsburgh in a panic. The news had said a plane had crashed in southern Pennsylvania somewhere. It seemed the the possibilities of horror were endless that day. And yet. I awoke yesterday fretting over work. My mourning routine was harried and frantic. I didn’t even know what day it was. I glanced a paper headline on the way to work and realized that I’d overslept a tragedy. Some scars never heal. Those wounds cut by religion are the deepest. So we find ourselves on the nexus of a tragedy, a birthday, and a new year. How we respond is entirely up to us.

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Sentence

Labor Day marks the end of summer. Originally a day to commemorate all that the common laborer has contributed to society, it is now always a slightly melancholy day with the equinox fast approaching and the mighty rays of the sun growing enfeebled. Although the vast majority of us don’t have summers off any more, our employers sometimes devise summer hours to make the monotony of a commuting life a little less onerous. My academic colleagues have all switched their minds back to full engagement as students, lamenting the shortness of summer, stumble resentfully into classrooms to find out what they don’t know. To learn how to be laborers, increasingly. Once upon a time, children, higher education opened doors for you. You would climb that ladder. As an adjunct teaching night classes, I would often pass the janitor cleaning up and I would know s/he was making better money than I was. Labor Day must be upon us again.

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Unashamedly a populist, I still think of myself as a laborer. In fact, the longer I work in Manhattan the more like my blue-collar upbringing I become. Yes, I have stood in the presence of Lords of the realm, knights in academic armor, and even a Coptic pope. I can mind my p’s and q’s. If you keep your mouth shut, you’ll appear wise even before those who are truly smart. That’s not my wisdom—I paraphrased it from the Bible. I read the Bible daily when my jobs were labor jobs. My first opportunities were heavy work—moving, pulling, brushing, and occasionally smashing. The sun was so hot that I would find a vending machine and down three Mello Yellos in a row. Summer had no time for beaches, but it offered warmer working conditions and a sense of identity.

Labor Day brings us back to work. Summer’s bright grasp has begun to slip, and already the trees have started to yawn. Like the migrating birds I feel the draw to return. Even an animal knows the place s/he belongs. Perhaps we’ve wandered a little too far from the path that should’ve been evident before us. We paid the costs and went to college and found ourselves back where we started. Labor Day is one of those holidays with no religious connections. It is purely secular. Moved from May because of the Haymarket Massacre, we put it at not the beginning of sunnier times, but at the end. I would jealously watch the sun set, but there clouds forecasted to be in the way. Besides, I have to turn in early because tomorrow is just another work day. We only have to hold out to Memorial Day, so let’s enjoy our last taste of summer and wait for its eventual return.

Happy Labors

Labor Day Parade

Just as Memorial Day has become the unofficial start of summer, Labor Day has become its unofficial end. Unlike holidays that commemorate an event, Labor Day was a planned holiday dating from the 1880s. To get a sense for this, think about the past. Just try to imagine yourself as a worker in the 1880s. There were long hours, a workday did not go from 9 to 5, there were no regular vacations, no protection from injury on the job, often hard labor. This was daily life for many people since the Industrial Revolution began. Labor Unions were the result of exploited (overworked and underpaid) workers banding together. If one guy quits, work goes on. If everyone quits, somebody’s got to listen! So groups of workers formed unions to get organized and to begin to bargain for more appropriate working conditions.

Credit for Labor Day goes to either Peter McGuire or Matthew Maquire. Both men were laborers associated with unions: McGuire with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Maquire with the Central Labor Union (CLU). Whoever actually first suggested it, Maguire’s CLU was behind the first Labor Day in 1882.

It may seem hard to imagine now, what with all the free time people have to sit in front of the computer or television, that there was a time when a day off work could become a national holiday. But on September 5, 1882, the Central Labor Union held its holiday in New York City – the home of many unions. Less than 10 years later, in 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed in the first Monday in September as a legal holiday. Public support ran high for Labor Day, but some favored a May 1 celebration.

As an observance, Labor Day was simply for the enjoyment of a day off. The holiday has a special poignancy given the persistence of unemployment over the past several years. Although Labor Day has no religious basis, the fact is that many of us have been taught that our self-worth lies in our work, our contribution to the good of the whole. For those of us who have been forced into stints of unemployment, Labor Day seems less a holiday than a reminder of what we lack. Have we evolved a society that has outlived the need for a Labor Day?