Today is Labor Day. It can be a challenge to remember today’s purpose, because the accomplishments of the labor movement are marked by what doesn’t happen. But it’s important to reflect on the contours of your life to remember the historical importance of this day and the people who sacrificed their lives to make it possible. You owe a debt to the labor movement if you have not:
- had to work in a mine or a factory as a young child
- been forced to work more than a 40-hour week without overtime pay
- been paid in pennies
- been forced to work on the weekend
- lost your job because you or a family member became sick or injured
- lost your job because you were becoming a parent
- lost your job for questioning the fairness of your compensation
- been beaten, arrested, tried and jailed or even executed or murdered for joining co-workers in questioning the fairness of your compensation
- been injured because of unsafe work conditions and then lost your job because of the injury
- starved in the streets after becoming unemployed
- worried that you would never be able to retire
- been unable to find a job because of your race, color, religion, national origin or gender
These kinds of economic calamities don’t generally befall most Americans. And they don’t because, for well over a century, average Americans have struggled for the guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the industrial and post-industrial economies. Many Americans made the ultimate sacrifice to demand that corporate management treat We The People as human beings.
Today the GOP, the Guys-Only Plutocracy, would like the labor movement not only to become history, but to disappear from history. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor today tweeted
“Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.”
No, no we don’t, Eric. Today we celebrate average Americans who earned their daily bread from the sweat of their brow every day of their lives, who organized and defended themselves and their descendants, who stood up to owners who ‘earned’ far greater money by riding piggy-back on those same people who toiled every day.
On one level, Cantor’s suggestion that Labor Day is a celebration of management is merely a tick of this election cycle. Like the Republican National Circus in Tampa, Eric is trying to highlight Obama’s quote, taken out of context, that owners didn’t build their businesses alone, but had help from society. And like Clint Eastwood, he’s speaking to an Obama who doesn’t exist. He is reinforcing the Romney/Ryan contention that business owners exist in a vacuum and receive no help whatsoever from society or the government. Like Romney, all business owners are born into great wealth because they worked hard in the womb and earned their pedigree. They taught themselves how to be teachers and then taught themselves everything they know. They built their first car and paved the roads they drove on to the first business they worked at. Then they chopped down trees, mixed cement and smelted steel girders and built their own offices with their bare hands. They worked late at night maintaining and guarding the building. They answered the phones and they worked as accountant, salesman, secretary, researcher, analyst, marketer and every other position all at once. They fought America’s enemies overseas single-handedly like Rambo to make America safe for big business. All alone they arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced and imprisoned anyone who tried to defraud or rob their business. They truly are America’s heroes. They built this!
On another level, though, Cantor’s tweet is the tip of the iceberg of a generational effort by the far right and the unconstitutional corporate/government nexus it represents to gut unions and turn the clock back to the mid 19th century. They don’t care that we would work inhuman hours for less and less money. They don’t care if we get mangled by machines at work and then tossed into the streets. They fight for ideological purity of a worldview that says all regulation is bad, all government expenditure on anything other than the military is bad, all workers’ rights are bad. Only corporate profit is good. The purveyors of this worldview include Romney and Ryan, WI governor Scott Walker, and massive Republican bundlers like the Koch brothers.
History demonstrates how myopic this worldview is. The labor movement secured workers’ rights. Along with the New Deal, the labor movement enriched the middle class. In turn, the middle class enriched all of America. In the long-term, not only are the poor and middle class protected and enriched by labor rights, but the rich are also protected and enriched by labor rights. When the middle class has more money to buy what the rich are selling, the rich make more money, their businesses are more profitable and stable and less corrupt, and they can draw on a larger pool of more skilled, healthy and productive workers. Gutting labor protections only benefits the extremely wealthy class in the extreme short term. The owners who seek to reduce costs with ever cheaper labor may benefit in the short term but, as history shows, they will suffer in the long term.
Rather than confront this history and adapt their philosophy to economic reality, the far right wants American history to disappear. Their Orwellian impulse belies the morally and intellectually hollow nature of their movement. We will not allow the GOP to toss the labor movement down the memory hole. Today we celebrate the American worker. Today we celebrate the American people. Today we celebrate Labor Day.