Labor Day is the day when we don’t have to work. Instead, we have picnics and barbecues and sit on our lawn chairs drinking beer. There might be a parade with classic cars for the grown-ups and clowns for the kids. Some businesses close their doors for the holiday. Others run special Labor Day sales and back-to-school specials and deck their stores and commercials with red, white, and blue. It’s a national holiday, so someone must have once thought it was a good idea to give everyone a day off to mark the end of summer. In fact, it was such a great idea that someone made a whole weekend of it.
All of that may be true now, but it wasn’t how Labor Day started. It began as a holiday to celebrate the labor movement, trade unions, and the ways workers have contributed to building the United States. Take a closer look at that. It means the little guys—workers—who dared to pit themselves against Big Business—the bosses—and march, protest, and yes, sometimes riot in pursuit of ideals such as a living wage, weekends off, the eight-hour day, pensions, the ability to strike, and other changes.
(May 1 was also a candidate for “International Workers’ Day,” but conservative president Grover Cleveland felt that May 1 would celebrate a bloody confrontation in Chicago called the Haymarket Affair, socialism, and anarchy. In the fashion industry, Labor Day is considered the date past which one should not wear white or seersucker. But I digress.)
The labor movement and trade unions have fallen on hard times, what with politicians trying to gut their effectiveness, minimal concessions from bosses regarding rights, and the prevailing sentiment that “unions were useful once, but now have gone too far or been taken over by the mob.”
One of the heroes of the labor movement in the 1960s and ‘70s was César Chavez, a leader of the United Farm Workers’ trade union, which used nonviolent tactics such as strikes, pickets, and boycotts to advocate for better conditions for agricultural workers. He was posthumously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Other people have been associated with the labor movement and conditions of workers, nearly all of them leftists in their politics. In 1974, U.S. author “Studs” Terkel wrote Working, subtitled People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. And Barbara Ehrenreich’s gritty 2001 book Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America chronicled her three-month journalistic experiment of working at minimum-wage jobs like waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Walmart clerk.
This year’s COVID crisis has caused us to focus on who really are the essential workers in our society. To many people’s surprise, it turned out to be manufacturing workers, truck drivers, shelf stockers, and nursing home workers. Whole industries suffered from the lack of waitstaff, bartenders, cleaners, and cooks. Mom and pop shops took a bad hit. And of course, police, doctors, nurses, EMTs, and other hospital workers were deemed the most essential of all. Some workers were offered “hazard pay” if they continued to stay at their posts during the first months of the pandemic. Many, if not most, workers, unless they were working from home, wore masks and were abused by those who did not. Masks and other personal protective equipment were in short supply in many hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes.
This year’s Labor Day celebrations should be a celebration of these essential workers, not just an end-of-summer opportunity for beer, parades, and speeches about how workers are the backbone of the country and, oh yeah, what a great country it is, with the stock market (i.e., the bosses) doing so well.
At the very least, we should thank the people who keep society rolling in good times and bad, who manufacture and provide us with the necessities of daily living, and who remain largely unsung until a crisis forces us to pay attention to them—the workers. The laborers for whom this holiday is named.