Friday, September 2, 2011

Remembering the Labor Movement

In Ketchum, with the fun and excitement of Wagon Days, Labor Day weekend is the last big summer event. The city dusts off the glorious Big Hitch and horse and mule teams pull wagons of every sort through town. Fine horsemanship is the order of the day.

Banks and government offices are closed. Barbecues heat up. The president and governors will issue proclamations.

Yet, for many in service industries, it will be one more day at work. Lip service will be given to "working men and women," but there most certainly will be no celebration of the labor movement.

In the abstract, being a hard worker is a good thing. Our grandparents or great grandparents might have said, "an honest day's work for an honest day's pay." The easy homily belies the perennial conflict over how much work for how much pay. Thus, it's not surprising that Labor Day is a great excuse for a three-day weekend, but is one of our minor holidays.

A big part of the problem is the name. Maybe we would do better if we renamed it "Speculators Day" or "Management Day" or "Wall Street Investor Day." Those names reflect an American buy-in to the idea that money earned on investments is more valuable, more moral even, than money earned by laboring.

Then there's the pernicious belief now commonly spewed in political rhetoric that anything that benefits workers is automatically bad for business. The problem with the belief is that while success in commerce does require invested capital and effective management, it all starts with labor.

The real purpose of Labor Day is too often ignored or even disliked because it was started by labor unions to highlight the rights of workers. It was intended to celebrate not just workers, but the benefits achieved by organized workers that actually benefit our whole society: fair wages, medical care and retirement benefits, laws preventing child labor, safety rules and the five-day work week.

It's easy in today's society to take such benefits for granted.

When the wagons roll by, we should consider not only the hard work done by laborers who mined and processed the ore carried in those wagons, but those who lost their lives when there were no laws to protect them. And we should also thank those willing to work hard, and sometimes die, to organize the labor movement so that we all have the right to spend this weekend on vacation.

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