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September 02, 2002

Happy Labor Day! Solidarity!

Today the majority of us don't have to go to work thanks to the efforts of labor unions and trade organizations in the late 19th century. This simple fact is more significant than it seems—it stands as a vivid reminder of the power the labor movement once had in our country. Today, most of us just think of this as the last great three-day-weekend of summer, and so it is. But it's also a time to stop and think about your job and what it means to you and to society and the world. And just as important, it should be a time to think about what we all could do to make the world a better place through our labors, whatever they may be, and one long-proven way to do just that is to support unions and the labor movement. Unions won us this day off, the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, OSHA, and countless other social structures we all benefit from every day. These days, as part of its mandate to improve the lives of workers everywhere, the labor movement is working on social justice issues such as Living Wage campaigns, domestic partner benefits (so those you love can have medical insurance), and trying to save the few worker protections that remain after 20 years of pro-business and anti-labor politics. Now, in this slight depression and amid the ongoing corporate scandals of Enron, et. al., there has never been a better time to support the labor movement. As the New York Times reports today, workers in the U.S. are angry and worried, which helps explain why "half of workers who don't already have a union say they would join a union tomorrow if given a chance." Sounds like great Labor Day news to me.

As part of their Online Labor Day Festival 2002, the AFL-CIO provides a great Timeline of Labor History for a quick overview of where we've been, and a list of links to more specialized sites on the history of labor in the U.S. For an interesting contrast, read the brief history of Labor Day from the U.S. Dept. of Labor (DOL), then read this brief history from the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour on PBS. In what has become the classic way to blur and obscure important historical events, the DOL focuses on the individuals responsible for starting Labor Day, while the Newshour site puts the birth of this holiday in its real context—the massive labor unrest of the late 19th century, and specifically the Pullman strike. As the Newshour history reports, Labor Day was seen as a way to appease the nation's angry workers:

In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland's desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike.

Did the DOL consciously omit all mention of strikes and violent government repression of the labor movement from their history of Labor Day, or was this an innocent omission? You tell me.*

I'll leave this topic for now with parting words from Billy Bragg, who (following a long tradition) sings:

There is power in the factory, power in the land, Power in the hand of the worker. But it all amounts to nothing if together we don't stand. There is power in a union.

Now the lessons of the past were all learned with worker's blood,
The mistakes of the bosses we must pay for.
From the cities and the farmlands, to the trenches full of mud,
War has always been the bosses' way, sir.

The Union forever, defending our rights,
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite.
With our brothers and our sisters from many far-off lands,
There is power in a Union.

Now I long for the morning that they realize
Brutality and unjust laws cannot defeat us.
But who'll defend the workers who cannot organize
When the bosses send their lackeys out to cheat us?

Money speaks for money, the Devi for his own,
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?
What a comfort to the widow, a light to the child:
There is power in a Union.

The Union forever, defending our rights,
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite.
With our brothers and our sisters from many far-off lands,
There is power in a Union.
— from "Talking with the Taxman About Poetry"

* The DOL's focus on the individuals involved in the creation of Labor Day demonstrates one of the reasons Americans have such a poor sense of history. If everything that has happened in the past is reduced to accounts of individual achievement, history becomes atomized and fragmented, leaving us with no continuous or coherent sense of development or our place in the social and cultural fabric of our world. Such ways of telling history also imply that individual achievement is all that's important, when the truth is more often that the great events of history have been the result of collective action. Regardless of how it came about, the tendency for historians (especially popular histories) to focus on individuals rather than big-pictures and collectivities, has paved the way for the politics of personality that we see today where we have a few individuals on our global radar—George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Arafat and Sharon, etc.—who seem to be responsible for everything that happens in our world. Of course these individuals have certain amounts of individual power, but the actions connected with their names are less the result of their individual actions than the actions of massive numbers of people (including you and me as voters and tax payers) who support them in various ways. Yet, so long as we remain in the thrall of the individual, we can continue to ignore that bigger picture of our own participation in local, national, and global events, and we can conveniently forget the role of regular people like us in the history of what made the world as it is today.

Posted September 2, 2002 11:27 AM | general politics

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