It isn’t about a big sale, or what to barbeque for friends and family or even that after today some of us will not wear, or will feel distinctly uncomfortable wearing, white shoes, slacks or skirts and carrying a white purse. All day I have wanted to shout: It’s about workers.
I haven’t seen an historical reference to the origin of the day on any of the news programs or baseball games I watched today. At shul this morning, there was a passing reference to veterans, and I’m not sure where that came from. On Facebook, unlike Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day, there has been no commentary about the day, why it is a National holiday, who is being honored. There are no parades that I have seen scheduled for today.
This year is not unlike other years. But this year, I seem much more sensitive to the meaning of the day than ever before.
I have spent my entire professional career as a labor law neutral. For 34 years, I have heard and decided cases or defended decisions involving public sector employees. Teachers, fire fighters, police officers, prison guards, lawyers, heavy motor equipment operators, corrections officers, secretaries, metal health therapy aides, custodians, bus drivers and laborers, their unions and their employers have found their way before me. Today is about them.
It is also about coal miners, textile workers, automobile assemblers, farm workers, retail sales associates, nurses and teamsters, longshoremen and railway employees. There are millions of employees in this country and this holiday is about them. And the ones who came before them.
And this year it seems important to remember that. In the midst of all the campaign rhetoric about business and how America needs to support its businesses to create more jobs, I keep thinking about the days when our government was all about business. When the business of America was business. The time when the workweek was six or seven days long (depending on how Christian your boss was and whether he would dare the wrath of his fellow believers to keep his factory open on the Sabbath) and the workday was 10 or 12 hours. When the average worker made pennies a day. When the average worker was a woman, or young girl or little boy, as well as men of any age, but not any color, at least not in the North. When the workplace was a tenement, or a basement, or a shack or a factory with boarded up windows so you wouldn’t be distracted by sunlight or fresh air. Or a mine with no ventilation and no light except the candles held by little boys. When there were no coffee breaks, lunch breaks, dinner breaks or bathroom breaks. And when you were sick or injured because of the job, you were fired. When you lived in your employer’s housing, shopped at his store and your wages were never quite enough to pay what you owed him at the end of the week or month or year.
I look at the places that now have American jobs: Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Mexico and Haiti. And I see the same thing: children being sold into slavery to pay debts, women and men working in filthy, crowded conditions for a small fraction of what their work is worth, grateful for few cents or dollars they make because it will mean some food or some shelter for their families. And they work for American companies, producing goods sold in America, goods that used to be made here. American companies who don’t invest the profits in America any more. They dismantle American plants and businesses, in the name of profit, and invest the money in Switzerland or the Grand Caymans. And they don’t pay taxes on those investments either.
This is not about the farm stand on the corner, although the plight of the migrant farm worker is little better now than it was a century ago. It is not about the independent bookstore or the local builder or the mom and pop ice cream stand. Those businesses use local materials, hire local workers and invest their profits back into the community. It isn’t even about the huge American corporations that have kept their business in America and who employ thousands of Americans, unionized Americans.
Labor Day is about paying employees a living wage. It’s about safe working conditions. It’s about a reasonable workday and work week. It’s about making a profit but not at the expense of employees’ health or lives. It’s about children being in school and not in mines or lettuce fields. It’s about the people who died in the Haymarket Riots, the Pullman Strike and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It’s about men and women who came together to say “we shouldn’t have to starve or die to get a job.”
And if you think that would not still be the case without organized labor, then look at the working conditions in South America, Africa and the Far East. I wonder if companies would ship jobs overseas if they could have the work performed here in America for the same price. And what is keeping them from doing so? Fair labor laws enacted at a time when the government realized that continuing laissez faire business practices at the cost of human lives was inhuman. And who made that argument? Organized labor.
So, today, while you are eating barbeque with friends and family or shopping a Labor Day sale (being waited on by someone who makes minimum wage with no benefits and doesn’t have this national holiday off), think of what the holiday means. And think about what your job or the jobs of your family or friends might be like if there were no labor laws in America and companies were not regulated and employers could act with impunity towards employees. And say thank you to the American worker.