What does ‘Labor Day’ mean to the modern worker?

hainesAbraham Lincoln long ago proposed that “labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. 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.”

Precious little in American history supports such a principled stand. The foundation for our national wealth was poured from the blood, sweat and tears of human chattel and indentured servitude. Centuries of uncompensated labor have resulted in a heritage of economic disadvantage for the descendants of those who were denied a share of the profits generated by their labor.

The legacy of an undercompensated proletariat continues to this day. So, the false homage paid to labor by an extra three-day weekend each year means little when the remaining 364 days are dedicated to unraveling a century of progress on the rights of workers to bargain for livable wages and better working conditions.

Rest assured that somewhere in those corporate towers of jealously-guarded privilege, Scroogian taskmasters grouse about having their pockets picked for an extra day’s wages every first Monday in September.

Might “Labor Day” better be devoted to memorializing the hundreds of workers that have laid down their lives in the struggle to establish collective bargaining rights? To name but a few of this nation’s most egregious attempts to terrorize its own citizens: 40 dead in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877; 50-100 dead in the Battle of Blair Mountain of 1921; 37 or more dead during the Thibodeaux Massacre of 1887; nearly 50 deaths in the Paint Creek Mine War of 1912-1913; nearly 50 deaths during the Ludlow Massacre.

How about “Labor Day” becoming a day of solidarity with exploited workers worldwide instead of just another day to market our wares at discount prices? Whether it means visas for migrant workers or more realistic minimum wages for food-service workers, all who labor deserve, as the old labor motto exclaims “Eight hours for work! Eight hours for rest! Eight hours for what you will!”

Social justice demands wages that allow workers to raise families and improve the lives of their children. Henry Ford was sufficiently wise to understand that paying his workers enough to afford his product created a market. However, today’s world witnesses forced labor in open pit mines to harvest rare earths, the raw materials required in our affordable cell phones.

An individual’s right to acquire wealth does not extend so far as to dehumanize a neighbor. Real respect for labor begins with internalizing the noble sentiment of our 23rd President, Benjamin Harrison, who observed, “I pity the man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth will starve in the process.”

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