Today is Labor Day in the United States. A national holiday meant to celebrate the effective activism of workers, blue-collar workers, and labor unions who advocated for reasonable working conditions (5 day work week and weekends, the concept of shifts and 8 hour work days, restrictions on child labor, worker safety and protection laws, etc.). It’s come to be the unofficial end of summer, the end of wearing white shoes, pants, skirts, shorts (if you care about such things), and in some parts of the country Labor Day signals the beginning of another school year.
As I reflect on this Labor Day – on which I’ve done quite a little bit of work so far – I’d like to return to the original meaning and honoring those who stood picket lines, voted, went on strike, and in countless other ways brought me the opportunities that I and many other workers in the U.S. now enjoy. No, I didn’t build this. I didn’t make possible the existence of the career I have, nor did I create the infrastructures that will provide for my economic security once I retire. I am grateful for those whose blood, sweat, and tears (and that’s no hyperbole) did build it. To those who made it possible for me to grieve the loss of a weekend to work, who put the idea in my head that there’s something amiss when I’ve worked through vacation periods and holidays, who have taught me to aspire to working more effectively within a reasonable timeframe during the day – to all of my ancestors and elders who did build this, I say thank you.
All of these accomplishments are good and worth sustaining and protecting. They are also worth extending to the millions of workers in this country who do not have the privilege of these rights and gains. There are countless “pink”-collar workers (mostly service and retail industry employees) who are working on this Labor Day and who work almost every holiday and weekend throughout the year, so that the rest of us can “rest” and have “leisure” time. And then there are those who comprise our emergency workers (police, fire, hospital staff) whose hours are long, unpredictable, and sometimes full of danger to themselves and others. Utility workers who race to climb above the trees to make sure we don’t miss “the big game” but have schedules that blow their Circadian rhythms out of the water and may be jeopardizing their long-term health. There are millions who work without health insurance, who are hired with hours that are just below the cut-off for employers to provide mandatory insurance coverage. Most of those same millions are also working without any retirement benefits, who are solely hoping that politicians will figure out how to protect Social Security.
Side Note: You should listen to my mom talk about Social Security. She’s adamant that it’s not an “entitlement” program, but an earned benefit wrought through her decades of employment. I’m inclined to think she’s right – and not just because she’s my mom and she has an amazing way of usually being right about most things.
We have continued to have an entire labor sector that is “off-the-books,” folks who are working in dangerous, dirty, exhausting, and/or thankless jobs in our nation’s agriculture, construction, and textile industries who are invisible to the worker safety protocols offered by OSHA. Yes, many of those laborers are undocumented immigrants, but a whole lot of them are not. In my opinion, capitalism’s engines run based on the “invisible” work of these millions who work without protections, without holidays, without a consistent shift (12 hours might be nice, let alone 8).
We have legions of unemployed workers who don’t show up in the official stats because they’ve stopped looking for work – one can only take so much rejection for so long – or because they’re back in school trying to retool their skills so that they can qualify for a job. These aren’t people who are looking just to get a paycheck off the government dole, not mostly. These are folks who want to work – Americans who have been socialized to be autonomous, independent, and fiercely proud of remaining so. They would work if they could. And the full picture of our nation’s unemployment isn’t revealed until we break it down by industry and race and gender and then see that unemployment hits certain communities harder than others, including those who are transgendered, racially minoritized, and had previously worked in low-tech/high-labor industries.
Yes, let’s remember and honor those workers who brought us the leisure time we call Labor Day. And let’s remember and honor those workers who supply the means of our leisure, whose work remains unprotected, who fall outside the bounds of visible labor. We honor and remember them best by making sure that the workers’ rights won in the 20th century don’t become obsolete or another means of differentiating the haves from the have-nots in the 21st.