labor day

September 10, 2001

Have you noticed how wonderfully we have stripped most holidays of their meaning?

For example, a week ago Monday was Labor Day. Now, for most of us, Labor Day does have meaning — it means a three-day weekend, the end of the summer and, of course, another national shop-’til-you-drop day. For me, it means more traffic in my little neighborhood, and it also means an acknowledgement of something bigger, grander and certainly more important.
I wonder how many young people even see the word “labor” in “Labor Day.”

How many of you know who John Lewis was? What the IWW was? Who Walter Reuther was? What the Great Flint Sit-Down Strike was and why is it so important to our history? What happened when they tried to organize the Colorado miners? What the Centralia Washington Massacre was? Who Joe Hill was and why Joan Baez sang about him? Who Sacco and Vanzetti were?

Does Labor Day have anything to do with the fact that workers fought for and finally, in 1886, won an eight-hour workday?

Labor Day began as a celebration of the work of working folks. May 1st — May Day — is actually the traditional international celebration of the workingman and -woman, but we hold ours in September.

To me, it is a recognition and acknowledgement of the men and women who really created, built and sustain the wealthiest, most productive country the world has ever known.
Have you ever wondered where wealth comes from? What creates value?

What gives an automobile a certain value or, for that matter, what gives a diamond value?
Come on now, think about it.

You might say that a diamond has more value than a piece of granite because diamonds are more rare. And you would be half right. What gives that diamond value is that it takes more human labor to find and extract it from the ground.

What gives that car value is the human labor that goes into everything from finding and extracting metal ores for its parts to assembling the thing.
It’s the work and sweat of regular folks.

Who built this country? J.P. Morgan? John Rockefeller? Carnegie, Mellon, Steve Jobs, Hewlett and Packard? No. It was the pioneers and immigrants who came here to work and make better lives for themselves and their families. Bu so much of what they built, we take for granted. The amazing thing is how the history of labor and the struggles of working people are just omitted from the history books.

We now take our relative affluence for granted and tend to credit the individuals with great ideas for it, not the folks who actually made these things a reality. We assume that so-called job benefits like health insurance and paid vacation days just happened because employers are so innately benevolent that they just like to give stuff away.

How many of you were ever taught of the great labor struggles that won the rights we enjoy now? Much blood was shed during these battles — the blood of working men and women.

Labor Day is about what really makes the world go round. It sure ain’t love; it is work, the work of ordinary people. It’s not tax breaks for the rich; it’s that gal handing you the burger, the guy toiling in the box factory, the couple who run that small gas station, the folks at the convenience store, that gal up there repairing the electric line, the nurse, the carpenter, the sales clerk, etc. These are the folks who perform the labor that makes the world go round.

So next Labor Day when you are out there, busily getting in debt, try to acknowledge and remember those whose struggles got us to where we are today. And try to recognize the valor it takes just to be an ordinary working person.

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