“A man, honest, just, high-minded, would scorn to live out of the sweat and sorrow of his fellowman – by preying upon his weaker brother.”
- Eugene V Debs
Today is Labor Day, as celebrated in the US. But one might find that this most celebrated holiday is not shared by any other nation in the world. Why might that be? Historically speaking, nothing of great significance - worthy of celebration, that is - ever happened on Labor Day in the US. So why do we celebrate it today, and what (if anything) is this holiday all about?
On labor day last year, I began my service year with AmeriCorps and fell headlong into a study of the labor movements in the US, popular uprisings and peasant revolts in Central and South American countries, socialism and communism in the US and worldwide, free-market capitalism, and even Labor Day itself. This was a day that I had sheepishly celebrated (or rather just enjoyed as a day off from school) for twenty years, but had never taken the time to understand. Why do we celebrate labor? And what does that even mean? I invite you to follow me as we take a tour through American history, that we might understand why we celebrate labor today and that we might draw conclusions that could help us find practical applications for our lives in the US and abroad, for our still-new century.
Labor. This seemingly innocuous word may not mean much to us today, but it certainly would have about a hundred years ago, when there were no government regulations on human labor. At that time, there were no laws providing a minimum wage or age, a maximum work load, or financial security for work-related injury and/or illness.
Consider a possible scenario: a twelve-year-old factory worker labors for an average of 16 hours per day, making pennies on the hour, at the risk of injuring or poisoning him/herself without the nominal security of worker's compensation or health insurance. It seems inconceivable today, what with all of the government restrictions in place, but these conditions were common little more than a century ago in our very country. It was for this reason that certain visionary leaders (the likes of Eugene Debs, Cesar Chavez, Woody Guthrie, and Dorothy Day) and entire movements of people made stands against this corrupt and exploitative system to bring justice and an ethical treatment of labor to the workplace. They had witnessed grave injustices in their world, so they worked to bring peace and reconciliation to the American worker. They petitioned the government for an 8-hour work day, a minimum age requirement and a minimum living wage. They fought for benefits packages that would ensure worker's compensation and health insurance for workers who toiled under often dangerous and even lethal conditions.
This, then, is also the reason that we celebrate labor, to stand in solidarity with the same people and movements that have struggled to bring these workers' rights issues to the forefront of American discourse and consciousness.
Still, the question is not answered: why today? In truth, there is no good reason. Perhaps the better question would be: why not celebrate labor on May 1st, when nearly every other country around the world recognizes the same people and movements? The answer to this question is arguable and speculative at best; and to be quite honest, my own answer could be added to the canon of American conspiracy theory, so I will not bother indoctrinating anyone in those regards. However, if anyone is interested in learning more about this other holiday and its relation to the US Labor Day, you are encouraged to look up “May Day” or “First May” for more info.
As important as it is to recognize and remember the people who have fought for workers' rights over the years (have you thanked a farm worker today?), I believe it is also crucial that we take a critical look at other issues that we face in the US still today: racial and gender inequality, discrimination, what to do about illegal immigrants and how we treat migrant workers (“illegal” or otherwise), the outsourcing of jobs to third-world nations, the destructive effects of global capitalism and corporatism on world development; and most especially, our own individual roles in either crushing or perpetuating these oppressive, exploitative, and developmentally inhibitory systems that affect our fellow humans both here in the US and worldwide.
At the end of the day, it is imperative that we take responsibility for ourselves and for the part we have in any or all of these systems. We certainly wouldn't want our great-grand-children looking back on us as evil-doers. Take the US founding fathers as an example, for they are very easy to villainize. After all, they stated in the Declaration of Independence with supposed conviction, that “all men are created equal,” yet their praxis shouted in Orwellian paradox that “some are more equal than others”; they claimed that all people are “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” yet they treated the Africans, white women and poor farmers with contempt and condescension, and in reality the only people who had rights were property-owning white males. We can see them as devils, liars, two-faced phonies. What justification could our country's founders possibly conjure up for their treatment of an entire race of people, a group that had been stolen from their continent and transported in abhorrent conditions to be co opted into service to white plantation owners? Did they actually believe that Africans were sub-human or not human at all? Did they recognize Africans as human but ignore that truth for their own selfish economic gain? How could Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson condemn slavery yet still own slaves themselves? What hypocrisy! What villainy!
Before we get up on our moral high-horses, however, let us first consider the context in which these people were living. They lived in a society that depended on the cheap labor of Africans. How else were they to eat, to be clothed? If not the Africans, who would take on these roles in society that were vital to the subsistence of the American population? Would land-owning white males take to the fields to support themselves? Could they really be expected to do this?
The questions sound ridiculous, if not blasphemous, today. You'd think I was a gun-totin', hood-wearin' master Klansman just for asking them! But before we pass judgment, we must first take a critical look at ourselves, to remove the plank in our own eyes before pointing out the speck in our brothers' (be they past or present).
We might very well ask what the difference is between the way the Africans were treated during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the US and how the Chinese and Indian sweat shop workers are treated today. During the slavery years in the US, African slave labor was seen by many as a necessary evil – yes, it was morally wrong and unjustifiable; but it was still necessary, for without it, everyone would starve and go cold. Comparably, you would be hard-pressed to find a decent American today who believes that sweatshops are a good, positive thing; you may even be hard-pressed to find someone that would admit to their necessity; and yet you'd also be hard-pressed to find Americans who refuse to buy from companies that use sweatshops or outsource their jobs to third-world countries for cheap labor. After all, that IS what slavery has been all about for the past few hundred years: the subjugation and exploitation of the powerless and desperate for the acquisition of cheap labor.
In our consumption-based culture, cheap labor has been used primarily to provide products and services for lower prices (and with the economy in the shape that it's in, who ISN'T looking for a deal?), that the commercially powerful might continue to prosper. We are at such a distance from the time and place that our products are manufactured that we are oblivious to the conditions under which this happens and we don't even particularly care, as long as we can acquire those products for a price we can afford – a price that, although low, still supports the companies that are engaged in these destructive business practices and are ultimately responsible for perpetuating exploitative systems.
The moment we make “low prices” (to borrow from Wal-Mart's slogan) a priority, at the expense of human dignity, we do ourselves and our brothers and sisters worldwide an enormous injustice. Our founding fathers made the tradeoff for the exploitation of African slave labor and today we continue to make the tradeoff for the exploitation of third-world labor abroad.
This Labor Day, I hope we would recognize and remember the people who have fought for the rights of laborers, African Americans, women, homosexuals, etc, but that we would also look at our spending habits very critically. Some questions to consider:
Are we supporting a global capitalism that exploits cheap labor in the third world?
Are we supporting ogopolistic corporatism that chokes out free enterprise in the US and beyond?
Are we supporting the outsourcing of jobs to the third world that could be offered to jobless and homeless Americans at a livable and decent wage here at home?
Are there ways that we could be supporting fair trade, encouraging livable wages worldwide, and ending the master-slave dynamic and dependency that we have on third-world labor?
Are we excessively consumeristic?
Is there any way that our strangle-hold on the third world can be loosened?
If not, will they ever be able to breathe again?
Do you even care?
Do you even care?
Do you even care?
If so, then what are you going to do about it?