Thursday, September 10, 2009

Work and Labor

Labor Day is an under appreciated holiday. Yes, there are picnics and good food. At its heart, Labor Day is recognition of work, and the price our ancestors paid to form unions. The first Labor Day celebration was a Tuesday in 1882. It was started either by Peter McGuire, co-founder of the AFL, or Matthew Maguire of the International Association of Machinists. Workers at that time were struggling to get the eight hour day. In 1884, the holiday was changed to the first Monday in September.

The rest of the world celebrates labor on May 1st. In 1886, Chicago’s Commercial Club open fired on strikers. The next day, the Haymarket riot began when someone threw a bomb at police who were trying to break the worker’s strike. At least four were killed, and many more wounded. America, run by big business and terrified by social reform, has never celebrated May Day in a meaningful way, although the holiday celebrated around the globe commemorates an event in this country.

In 1945, 1/3 of American workers were union members. By 1979, that number dwindled to 24.1 per cent of workers. In 1998, only 13.9 per cent of workers in this country belonged to a union. There are many reasons for the downward trend, but, needless to say, the stagnation of wages and benefits in this country might be due to the decreased power of unions. In 1935, American workers got a boost from the Wagner Act. In 1947, protection of unions was altered by the Taft- Hartley bill, which was vetoed by President Truman. Congress overruled this veto, and this act was passed. One of the central problems with Taft Hartley was that it forbade members of the Communist party from being union officers. This was the first nail in the coffin of the American Left, which was later persecuted by Senator McCarthy.

Labor can be distinguished, perhaps, from work. Work is what we do if we are lucky enough to have a job. Labor is the struggle, the good fight we engage in. Labor is the cause, work is the means to an end. As this country once again engages in health care debate, it’s all too easy to get discouraged by the circus clowns who fight reform. But, as Ed Schultz says, health care reform is a generational struggle. The cause began a hundred years ago with Theodore Roosevelt. Conservatives opposed to reform are a symptom of what Freud called the “death wish.” Those who want reform are examples of the life force. While American psychologists disregard Freud, these two directional pulls are clearly at work here.

We don’t know how our struggle for progress will end. We can’t jump ahead to the end of the book and see the final chapter. It seems like we never achieve lasting change, either in our own hearts or in the world. Maybe our existence is random and meaningless, and we are here by chance. But maybe, just maybe, there is cultural evolution. Progress is slow, but the overarching direction of history is positive. George Eliot once wrote “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts. The fact that things are not so ill with you and me as they might be is due to the number of people who have faithfully led hidden lives, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Well said. May it be true of us all.

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