America has been taking the first Monday in September off since the late 1800s. The holiday rose from the labor violence of that era as a reaction to the growth of the unionism and collective bargaining. It is a day whose purpose is to honor the efforts of those who fought so hard to attain better conditions for the nation’s working classes.
In the decades that followed, the day has come more to mark the end of summer rather than a day to acknowledge the reason for the holiday itself. Labor Day is a day for working people to take a break, pop a top, and relax. But while we’re working our way through that six-pack of Bud Light we also need to give some thought to the condition of labor in America today.
When the day began the vast number of Americans were engaged in heavy manufacturing and turning out most goods for the world’s consumption. Because of the efforts and successes of union organizers, the conditions of employment were becoming more profitable, safer, and dependable. The work week began to shorten, work place regulations were improving the conditions of work, pay was increasing, and fringe benefits were becoming a normal element of employment. The average American could begin to look forward and believe that tomorrow’s world would be better than today’s. The American of the late 1800s could foresee the coming of a giant middle-class and vision themselves being a part of it.
Contrast that with today’s reality. As we enter the Labor Day weekend of 2011 something between 9.0% and 20% of Americans don’t have jobs and possibly haven’t had for several years now. A much greater percentage, those who still are employed, have witnessed job security disappear, fringe benefits melt away, health insurance become impossible to afford, increased reliance on multiple family paychecks, and with everyday that passes it becomes more difficult to see their future getting any better.
All the statistics in America today indicate the super rich getting richer and the middle-class shrinking in wealth and declining in numbers.
At the same time this is occurring the very labor movement that made the middle-class a reality is under massive attack from those on the far right who increasingly control the government’s purse strings. One only has to recall the very recent anti-union battles of Wisconsin and Ohio to see the proof. Unions, and the working people they represent, have become the whipping boy of today’s conservative right. Unions have become the job killers while at the same time their accusers have been busily sending American jobs overseas in order to see their corporate profits shoot to the sky.
Take a few minutes as you lay around sipping on an adult beverage this weekend and give some thought to why you have Monday off, assuming you still have a job. You have this day not because government or management wanted you to have a paid vacation. You don’t continue to have this day because either wants you to still have it. This day was made possible by the efforts and suffering of millions of men and women, who decades ago fought many a battle on your behalf.
So, come Monday, when the sun is at its warmest, reach into that chest of ice, pull out a long neck, twist off the top, and raise one to all those who kept the dream of worker equality alive. And then ask yourself, are you going to be one of those who fight to keep it alive?