The meaning of Labor Day has changed for me over the years. In my childhood, school always started on the Tuesday after Labor Day, so it very clearly marked the end of summer vacation and the beginning of another great year in public school, renewing friendships or making new ones and coming to terms with the quirks of a new teacher.
Labor Day itself always included a backyard cook-out, often multi-family since most of my parent’s friends were transplants too—part of that Greatest Generation’s post WWII migration to urban jobs. Like many other mid-century families, ours was scattered across the map with aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins strewn from coast to coast and from Central Florida to Canada.
I grew up in a decidedly anti-union household, so the reason for the holiday itself was dismissed as some sort of government pandering to labor leaders whose motives and political loyalties were highly suspect.
It was only later, after some years in college, that I began to appreciate the contribution of organized labor to our Constitutional mandate to “secure the general welfare” of the American people. I learned that all of our modern protections for workers—including elimination of child labor, the 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, workmen’s compensation, unemployment insurance and the idea that health benefits were essential—emerged from the labor movement. I came to understand that the very concept of widespread public education became possible because children were no longer considered to be part of the work force.
Of course the creation of the modern culture we live in today has not been without problems. The mid-century migration contributed to the breakdown of the multi-generational family which used to be the core unit of our communities. It moved elder-care from adult children to retirement homes and nursing facilities. Public education helped free women to participate in the work force, but when women entered the workforce in large numbers it, in turn, bid down the value of labor so that single-income families tended to move toward poverty. (Particularly single-mother households, since women’s wages continued to trail men’s.) And this in turn increased reliance on nursery care and bid down the monetary value of parenting. My point here is not to suggest that my analysis is exactly correct, but to illustrate the mixed effect of our transition to an industrial and post-industrial culture.
Most of my working life has been as a self-employed worker in the building trades, with a detour into reporting and editing. In both fields I soon came to understand that fair wages and protection for those injured on the job was an important contribution by unions to all American workers, even those who were self-employed like myself. That’s because small business owners benefit from the inability of major employers to lower the wage bar. Even in a state like North Carolina where laws are generally anti-union and anti-labor, the general uplifting of the worth of human work nationwide helps raise the bottom. (North Carolina is a so-called “right to work” state, which means that employers can fire employees without explanation, without cause, without repercussions.)
Today I feel a great deal of thanks is due to those who worked through the 20th century for the good of all working people. And it reminds me that the essential functions of government are to protect our basic rights, to protect our ability to earn a living, to protect our health from those who would pollute the commons, to protect us from the hazards of fire or natural disaster and the predation of the criminals on the street or in the board room. We need organized labor every bit as much as we need organized businesses and organized religion. They each fill essential roles in our community and those who categorically villify such organizations are missing the greater good.
Finally, in this Labor Day ramble, I’d note that I am recurringly fed up with Asheville and Buncombe County governments referring to us as “customers.” We are not customers of government, we are the owners. We are citizens and the government is by and of and for us. It is not a store. It is not a vending machine. It is us.
It is we, the workers, the citizens of Asheville, who have made this city the wonderful place it is today. I am proud to have made this community my home when my own “migration” ended 28 years ago. Through the odd workings of the world, WNC is now home to the largest part of my surviving family with my Mom in Spruce Pine, my brother in Bryson City and cousins in Buncombe, Mitchell and Mecklenburg counties. Wherever this Labor Day finds you and your family, I wish you and yours the very best.
Filed under: Economic policy |