As another Labor Day comes and goes, most of us will spend it cooking out with family and enjoying the last few moments of summer before the kids return to school. And while it’s certainly important to enjoy free time with our families, I think it’s also critical to reflect on the reason Labor Day exists.
As Labor Day moves further from its roots as a working-class holiday honoring those who have given their lives to create better working conditions for Americans, I believe we’re becoming dangerously close to forgetting such an integral part of our country’s history. Labor laws in this country did not develop in a vacuum; it took decades of united workers pounding against oppressive employers who were far more focused on the bottom line than providing a decent life for their employees. Labor Day should serve as a celebration of the progress of the working class and encouragement for the fights to come.
One major reason that we’re slowly forgetting about labor history in America is so simple that it hurts; we simply aren’t being taught labor history in schools. We are sending our children through years of school without ever doing so much as glossing over events like the Flint Sit-Down Strike or the Battle of Blair Mountain, two events among many that have set the table for how we view the middle class in the United States.
And while I think that it’s vital to talk about these hugely important historical events, what really scares me is that we are raising a generation of students who don’t realize that they too can come together and fight against unfairness in the workforce. By ignoring the blood, sweat and tears shed in hope of a more fair economy, our educational system is setting up an entire generation entering the workforce under the impression that they can’t make change — and that is not what so many brave workers lost their lives for.
Monumental advancements in labor law (such as ending child labor, establishing the weekend, providing workers with living wages) are not simply vocab words in a textbook — they’re part of a much larger discussion about how we as prospective workers see ourselves within the grand scheme of the American economy.
The struggle of the worker is an absolutely integral part of the fabric of America. But when it goes ignored, it creates a generation that takes for granted so many of the wonderful advancements we’ve made. After all, the labor movement is made up of: our teachers, our construction workers, our plumbers, our postal workers, etc. coming together to make change. It has never been about people who were born into million dollar trust funds; instead it is about people who look like us coming together to make history. Perhaps the grittiness of the labor movement scares some folks away. But these are people that are nobly fighting for our paychecks in a political system that is designed to take. The only people who benefit from a working class unaware of its own history are those who control large companies that are far more focused on squeezing every last cent out of their employees, and have remained far less focused on the quality of life for the same employees who made them their great wealth.
By all means, enjoy your Labor Day weekend — after all, getting time off work to enjoy family was a huge tenet of the labor movement. But as many of you enjoy a free Monday, all I ask of you is that you spend some time remembering the struggles that have led to this day and think about how you see yourself within the context of the American economy. And please avoid doing your Labor Day shopping at Walmart under any circumstance, for the bitter irony of that pill is too much for me to swallow.