Category Archives: Labor

Labor Day Celebrates Workers, Not Work

BIRMINGHAM, Ala., Sept. 4, 2006 – Waking up early to a cooler morning on Labor Day 2006, and with some important labor tasks out of the way that have kept me busy and distracted from the journal in recent days, I decided to entertain you, dear intelligent readers, by finding some idiocy in some anti-labor Southern newspapers to make fun of this morning.

It didn’t take long.

Turning to the Montgomery Advertiser editorial page from the Alabama news links page, in a matter of seconds I was laughing at the ignorance that passes for understanding. Is it any wonder newspapers are having such a hard time keeping enough readers interested in their clap trap these days?

Get this for a lede.

Reflecting on the ancient words of Sophocles may not be the way you’d planned to spend your Labor Day holiday, but the old fellow did have a way with words and some serious insights to offer. As the nation celebrates Labor Day, it’s worth noting a pithy observation of his:

“Without labor nothing prospers.”

The point of the editorial came down to this: Celebrate (the) Value of Work Today

A quick search online for quotations from Sophocles turned up that misused jewel, but also this one:

“Ignorant men don’t know what good they hold in their hands until they’ve flung it away.”

For a history on this famous Greek philosopher who knew absolutely nothing about modern labor, you could turn to the online encyclopedia the business editor of the New York Times has declared off limits for that newspaper’s reporters to quote, Wikipedia.Org.

For a better search to understand the U.S. Labor Day holiday, try this in Google: “History of Labor Day.”

Right away you can read a page that somehow survives on the Bush Labor Department’s Web site: The History of Labor Day.

Skipping down to one important part on the first Labor Day, you learn that it was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, planned by the Central Labor Union. In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, first named “workingmen’s holiday.”

“Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country,” said Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor. “All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers, according to the site. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.

As it was first proposed, Labor Day involved a street parade to exhibit “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families.

Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday. Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

The character of the Labor Day celebration has undergone a change in recent years, especially in large industrial centers where mass displays and huge parades are not as common as the labor movement has shrunk significantly and lost much of its political clout. Newspapers, radio and television news stations inevitably cover the speeches and the barbecues, although quite obviously, the anti-union newspapers of the American South only misguide their readers on what the holiday is supposed to be all about.

“The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy,” the labor site claims. “It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership – the American worker.”

So the holiday is not a celebration of work. Nothing much is made in the U.S. today anyway, since most of the jobs have been “outsourced” oversees to places such as China and Central America.

But the holiday is a tribute to the workers themselves, who in 1882 did not have the benefit of a Fair Labor Standards Act which said they only had to work 40 hours a week. There was nothing to prevent factory owners from working women and children six days a week, 12 hours a day, and paying them a nickel a day.

That changed in the late 1930s, when Sen. Hugo Black of Alabama, a Democrat, teamed up with President Franklin Roosevelt, also a Democrat, to try and save America from the Great Depression by forcing business owners to pay a living wage to American workers. They passed the first minimum wage law, which of course hasn’t been raised in a decade.

Since at least one politician in Alabama seems to have a sense of what this holiday is about, I will show up at Birmingham’s Sloss Furnace today to see what Lucy Baxley has to say about raising the minimum wage in Alabama, a plan to go around the do-nothing Republican Congress and do the right thing at the state and local level.

We may not make much of anything in America, although we do make a few cars in Alabama and we raise chickens and grow pine trees. Most people here work to keep those cars running, maintain the roads they run on, and count the money of those who control all the capital. Many work in the hospitals to keep those workers alive, if not healthy.

One of the quotes used in the Advertiser editorial did make some sense and it is worth remembering.

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital,” Abraham Lincoln said in his first message to Congress in 1861. “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Of course that rarely happens in Bush’s America. So let’s pay tribute to that – at least for this one day of the year.

And while we think about it, we could quote another philosopher who knew far more about capitalism and the industrial worker. Remember what Karl Marx said? “Workers of the world unite.”

Unfortunately, the undereducated American worker has been brain-washed into thinking that Marx was a bad old Socialist-Communist. So his dream of seeing an egalitarian world rise from the ashes of run amok corporate capitalism has yet to be achieved.

If Bush and company continue to have their way, all aspects of government will be privatized and handed over to the Haliburton’s of the world. And we may yet see wages go back to the inflationary equivalent of a nickle a day.

Originally published in The Locust Fork Journal.