Labor Day is here once again and we ought to know why we celebrate this day

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Labor Day, the end to a long weekend that is itself the end to a short summer. That’s really the extent of our understanding of the holiday, such as it is. It’s another day to party, another day to hit the beach and take advantage of another federal holiday.

  • Spend the day at the beach
    (Tim Forkes)

    Summer doesn’t actually end until September 22. I’ll be going to the beach for weeks to come, dudes.

Labor Day used to be a much bigger holiday, one with more purpose than just hanging out with family and friends having barbecues.

Labor Day used to celebrate “LABOR.” As in the Labor Movement, when men and women actually fought — physically fought — for their right to collective bargaining. They fought for a 40-hour work week, fought to be paid overtime when they exceeded those 40 hours. They fought for health benefits and pensions, they fought to end the exploitation of children in factories and other industrial plants. They fought to have vacations, paid time off for sickness, or just personal time to tend to the needs of family — or to just attend Opening Day at the ball park. The fought for a better life for themselves and their families.

Peter J. McGuire,one of the co-founders of the AFL, said we should honor the working people, “… who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

When I was a kid in the 1960s it was just accepted that our generation would have it so much better than our parents’ generation. Our grass would be greener, our work weeks would be shorter, our paychecks and pensions would be bigger. For a while it was going that way. And it was all due to collective bargaining — unions. Then something peculiar began to happen in the late 1970s: The right, i.e. the Republicans, began a campaign to convince workers that the unions were the problem and were pricing their labor out of the world labor market! If it wasn’t for those damn unions demanding a better life at the bargaining tables, why those workers wouldn’t be getting laid off. Japanese steel was cheaper, Japanese cars were better.

1976 Cadillac El Dorado (Wikipedia)

To be fair, everyone in the auto industry got complacent when Japan began under cutting their American competitors with better built, more reliable cars that were cheaper. We fell in love with big cars that looked like sleek boats. Man, who can deny the majesty of a 1970 Chrysler Newport Custom, or a 1976 Cadillac El Dorado or a 1974 Lincoln Mark IV?

And the muscle cars! Hot damn! They still make Corvettes at Chevrolet and Mustangs at Ford, plus Mopar brought back the Dodge Challenger and Charger. If they could bring back the Plymouth Barracuda … they discontinued the Plymouth name ten years ago as part of their restructuring to get the bailout, which, I might point out, they repaid.

American steel was too expensive because of the unions, not because we let Japan and other countries bring their steel into this country at uncompetitive prices. We’re Americans, we want cheap.

Slowly unions lost their place in American culture and became the bad guys. As unions began to fall away, with the jobs being shipped overseas or down below the border, pensions began to disappear or get raided until nothing was left, including the employee contributions to those pensions.

The 401k’s, which were meant to be supplements to pensions, were forced on employees as “retirement accounts.” Which could be lost in the speculative stock market. Years ago when I worked for a huge multinational communications conglomerate we were all told to invest heavily into our conglomerate, based on a very sketchy deal with an up and coming internet communications company. I opted for some other choices in my 401k because if it sounds too good to be true … When the prices fell on our employer’s stock, many of my fellow employees lost their retirement accounts completely, including a husband and wife who were just weeks away from retirement. The publishers don’t like to read F-bombs on this site, but my co-workers were fucked. Of course there wasn’t a union to watch out for the workers — who needs unions!

On August 1, 1981 President Ronald Reagan fired over 11,000 air traffic controllers after they had gone on strike. This began the assault on workers and the Middle Class. (Wikipedia)

All throughout the Reagan years jobs moved off shore, unions declined, wages stagnated and the American worker took it on the chin and up the ass. Michael Moore scored his first hit documentary in 1989, Roger and Me, which chronicled the collapse of Flint, Michigan (and elsewhere) due to General Motors moving most of its production out of the Wolverine State.

In 1989-90 Mopar — the Chrysler Corporation — was looking to buy American Motors, which was situated in Kenosha, Wisconsin. They also had plants in Janesville, home to outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Lee Iacocca, then head of Chrysler, promised — PROMISED! — they would not close any plants in the Dairy State. Within hours of the sale in 1990 Old Lee began announcing plant closures. Fucked again (sorry publishers). Iacocca was considered a genius, don’t’cha know, for his work with the Ford Mustang and Pinto. He was going to save the Chrysler Corporation, and in the process screw every American Motors employee in the state of Wisconsin.

He had dinner at the Clinton White House for being such a genius. Yay!

Years ago I had a labor-related conversation with a friend: he extolled the virtues of Wal•Mart over the evils of a grocery competitor that has union employees. Some of my friends shop at Wal•Mart for most everything, including groceries. I’ll pay a few cents extra for my celery at the grocery chains that have union workers. They are generally cleaner than Wal•Mart and the employees generally know what they are talking about.

My only complaint is they don’t know who I am, so I end up waiting at the deli and meat counters. Bastards.

But I digress …

Peter J. McGuire (Wikipedia)

Labor Day was created over 130 years ago by the men and women who started the labor movement in the country. Guys with names like Samuel Gompers and Peter J. McGuire. Labor Day wasn’t intended just for honoring the American worker, it was to honor the unions that created the Middle Class in this country as well.

Unions are why we celebrate Labor Day. That has been lost in the last 38 years because Labor Unions have been so trampled upon they constitute only seven percent of the work force.

The salary of the average American worker has remained flat while salaries of the wealthiest have skyrocketed over 270 percent. It’s not because American workers are working less, quite the contrary. Americans are working longer and harder than they ever had in the past 100 years; they’re just getting paid less for their efforts. Productivity by average American workers has risen over 300 percent, far more than their wages.

And forget about taking that vacation time each year. Workers are no longer guaranteed a job when they come back. How many people talk about how much vacation time they have at the end of which fiscal year?

But to hear Republicans tell the story, it’s the unions that are the problem, even though their representation has dropped from well over 50 percent of the work force down to seven percent.

The real case is unions no longer represent and protect American workers. There are states in the union that boast of their anti-union legislation. The Japanese and European car companies love to talk about their assembly plants in the union-free states in the South. The workers actually get paid less than their European counterparts and get far fewer benefits and much less time off. The workers in the U.S. plants don’t have nearly the standard of living as the workers in Germany. Yay for unbridled capitalism over democratic socialism!

Of course the people in some of those factories like their jobs. They come with pretty good pay, compared to the rest of the local economy, and decent benefits. Star employees get to be in commercials extolling the virtues of their employers. Who really wants to argue with workers who are making over $15 an hour and receiving benefits?

One of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals (Wikipedia)

You want to make America as great as our European allies? Then we should become more like those democratic socialist nations and embrace unions, higher wages, better benefits and fewer work hours. Spend less on the military and more on infrastructure, science and innovation, along with universal health care and centralized education so every student in every state and territory learns the same math, the same facts about things like science and history. The Book of Genesis is not science, it’s mythology. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and declared there is a wall of separation between church and state and that ideal is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

He also owned slaves, who were not living a great life in Virginia because of it. He fathered children by his slaves, he showed no interest in actually extending the freedoms in the Constitution to slaves (and others), or freeing his slaves until he was dead — when he no longer needed them. Thomas Jefferson was a flawed man.

Just because they teach the mythology of Adam and Eve in science class doesn’t make it science; and just because they write Thomas Jefferson out of the history books doesn’t make him any less vital to the story of the United States.

Just because unions have been decimated and written out of the speeches of right wing, Republican politics on Labor Day, doesn’t make unions and the workers that fought for their right to collective bargaining any less responsible for the creation of this national holiday.

Now go have your fucking barbeques (sorry publishers).

Top photo of a Detroit auto plant will its workers in the 1930s from Wikipedia