Happy Labor Day

This weekend Americans celebrate Labor Day, but sadly for many it is a weekend synonymous with back to school sales, barbecues, and a last outdoor party before the end of summer. Many of us have forgotten the struggle that existed and still exists for the rights of working people everywhere.

We forget that even the “short weekend” to which we have become accustomed was a hard won victory, the result of numerous strikes and protests by early labor organizations including the Knights of Labor. The battle for an 8 hour day began in the 1860’s and was not realized until decades later. Laborers nationwide planned a strike on May 1st 1886 calling for a shorter workday and week. Laborers demonstrated peacefully but tensions between  authorities and laborers rose culminating in violence. The strike went on for days and at one point police opened fire on a crowd of laborers after a confrontation with scabs attempting to cross the picket line. Police opened fire again when a bomb went off in the crowd near officers. No doubt if the struggle for a shorter workday and week were occurring today, the agitators for the cause would be called “terrorists” and “communists”. Although the notion of an 8 hour day was first posed by a self proclaimed socialist, so at least part of the labels would be close to reality.

We forget that were it not for the difficult and continued demand for change, an often risky and violent demand, children would not be in school. They would be in factories.

We forget that the most basic rights of working people which we take for granted- lunch breaks, safe working conditions, the right to organize, were the result of ongoing struggles which at times involved sacrifice. These changes, from wages, to benefits, to the implementation of fire escapes and safety equipment, were not the end result of casual chats over coffee and pastries. These were victories won and along the turbulent path many paid the ultimate price.

We forget that the battle for workers’ rights and standard of living was and remains a battle that also encompasses civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights. We forget that the road to rights working people enjoy today, is paved in bloody massacres occurring over the course of decades. That company police (Pinkertons) were given permission to open fire on not only workers but at times their children and families. One such example, the Ludlow Massacre on April 20 1914,  was sanctioned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in charge of the mine at the time.

So we celebrate labor’s successes and forget the struggle from which these successes emerged.

While some things haven’t changed, a major change in attitude has me particularly concerned.

Recently, groups of Fast Food workers won a major and long fought for victory in the form of wage increases. In the past, a victory for one was a victory for all. One group of laborers would support another, and follow the lead from their brothers and sisters, we have now begun to look on each other with resentment.

Many responded to this victory by insisting that those in the food industry were not as “deserving” as those in the (insert paraprofessional group not represented by a union here) field. Rather than questioning why members of these underpaid professions aren’t taking to the streets and demanding a liveable wage for themselves, we have instead begun pointing fingers and judging.

We have forgotten how to stand together and demand the rights we deserve. If this was the way our ancestors in the labor movement had behaved, the widespread gains for laborers worldwide would never have been accomplished. If you are enjoying your Labor Day weekend, and excited that your children will be able to go back to school this week, don’t forget to thank the “terrorist”, “communist”, “agitators” who fought for these victories.