By R.L. Washington and Team NIA
It’s the first Monday in September again, and another free day off from work. Hooray!
This free day we call Labor Day. The end of summer and the start of the school year and that calendar mark where some people feel we should stop wearing white. Others think above the shallow of us, enough to reflect on something significant about the day. In the least, in reverence, parade or recreation around the barbeque pit, some acknowledge that the greatness of community and country was realized on the backs of people who vested their bodies in the sacrifice of hard work.
Then others in their sincere retreat for the American worker only see certain peer groups and forget the exploited labor of the child, the immigrant farmer, the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the reformers, the sharecropper and the slave. Some would dare to engage inflamed conversation in disdain for labor unions while making a bee line to the golf course or the boat launch or that favorite chair facing the big screen to take full advantage of the union laborer’s holiday.
The laborer’s holiday started as a set of protests by union workers who found common ground among themselves. They celebrated their common aims and coordinated their resources and marked the moment to reoccur in history. It all started with union workers in New York and spread as a holiday across other states. In 1894 President Grover Cleveland signed a senate bill into law declaring the celebration a national holiday giving a paid day of respite from work for federal employees. Eventually realizing that as workers earned more they spent more, other states followed with state laws, officially declaring a day to consume (or relax).
But the socially conscious of us cannot and must not forget the interconnection between all American struggles for freedom and justice and the plight and sacrifice of the American worker. The struggle of the mid-west farmer who wanted his children to learn how to read and write. The struggle of the southern sanitation worker who wanted humanity and freedom from domestic terror. The struggle of the janitor, the pressman, the tailor, the waiter, the miner, the longshoreman, the doorman, and the veteran in the wheelchair, and the unsighted and the aging who wanted and still just want to be fully American, willing and able to work. That first gathered group of unionized Labor Day initiators celebrated their struggles and sacrifices that gave us all an eight-hour work day, a five-day work week, laws against working children as adults behind walls of abuse, and laws protecting the growing generation of women needing to work, despite having no voice, no refuge and no vote.
Today’s celebration of the American worker should continue to call us to reflect on the freedoms due every worker – the opportunity to work and the dignity that comes with sustaining work at livable wages. More than 65 million Americans are still suffering the collateral consequences of arrest and conviction records that mark their past. Too many are disallowed the promise of America: self-determination and the validation of self through viable work. The current struggle against the thousands of active, myopic and unfair reasons to keep more than a third of our American family disenfranchised from the freedom and dignity of substantive work is not the work of labor unions today as much as it should be a movement by all the people, for all the people. A true and meaningful worker’s appreciation movement that promotes the ideals and decrees that pronounce our distinction in the world – with liberty and justice and work for all.