What does Labor Day mean?

by Eric Ginsburg

Labor Day has always confused me. Don’t get me wrong — I’ll always welcome a day off, but like many of our holidays, it feels like an empty, token gesture. If I had my way, we’d appreciate labor every day of the year, and our parents, and Martin Luther King Jr. and my birthday while we’re at it.

Sure, it makes sense to stop and give acknowledgment to workers, but the origins and current implications of the holiday are troublesome at best. Growing up celebrating Columbus Day (a far more disturbing national holiday), at least I knew about the man in question. But who was taught about where Labor Day came from, or anything about labor history?

The US has a long history of class struggle. Last week marked the 90 th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain, an armed insurrection of 15,000 miners who fought the state and coal company thugs for the right to organize. The battle raged for days until the president sent in the army, squashing the resis tance and even dropping a bomb on them.

During the fight for the eight-hour workday in Chicago in 1886, four anarchists were executed for a crime they didn’t commit. In part because of the death of the “Haymarket martyrs,” May 1 became an international workers’ holiday celebrated almost everywhere in the world.

After the Pullman railway strike a few years later in 1894, when the army and federal agents killed 13 striking workers and injured many more, President Grover Cleveland tried to calm tensions by pushing Labor Day through Congress. Fearing the strength of the labor movement and the connections to the Haymarket martyrs, Labor Day was strategically placed in September.

May 1 continued to be feared by government officials long after the creation of Labor Day, with Congress declaring it “Loyalty Day” in 1958 and President Dwight D. Eisenhower adding insult to injury, dubbing it “Law Day.”

Further confusing the matter, the labor movement and the “working class” look very different now than when Labor Day became a national holiday. Greensboro still has unions, many of them connected to Jobs with Justice. On Sept. 1, a picket outside of the Verizon store on Lawndale called by the Communication Workers of America drew roughly 30 people on short notice.

Labor made its way into the spotlight numerous times this year, often around budget battles threatening public employees, especially in Wisconsin. Nevertheless, organized labor has been crippled by companies moving first south and then abroad, and in some cases repeatedly sold out by union leadership.

North Carolina has the lowest unionization rate in the country. just a hair over 3 percent. But not only have union jobs disappeared, people who would have worked in the mills now work in the service industry. This too, is ending.

Nearly 11 percent of people in Greensboro are unemployed, as far as the official numbers go, and 25 percent live in poverty. Labor is precarious: it seems more and more of us are working part time, scraping together multiple odd jobs and working below our skill level.

Many friends my age — recent college grads — are working the same types of jobs we worked in high school. Two friends spent every day from Thanksgiving until Christmas taking shifts selling Christmas trees in Manhattan. Others resign themselves to medical studies. We move back in with our parents, we settle for Americorps wages or work under the table.

Because of our precariousness and assumption that we can’t find work elsewhere, many of us put up with treatment we wouldn’t otherwise tolerate. Our paychecks bounce, or come late if they come at all. Hours are cut, shifts moved without warning, unemployment denied because of bureaucratic confusion and the idea of a raise is automatically off the table.

Since graduating I’ve completed two internships, both valuable and important experiences, but also both unpaid. My employers in the past few years, of which there have been many, are rarely financially stable, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear tomorrow that any given one had closed.

In this context, it’s hard to know what to make of Labor Day, and I’m more confused about it than ever. It didn’t stop me from making plans to meet up with friends, or day-trip to Charlotte or go swimming, but what exactly am I celebrating?

When there’s no full-time work or no work at all, who’s even getting a day off?