Is it time to rethink and rename our annual September holiday?
Many American holidays have a rich tradition of being roundly ignored. For most among us, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Labor Day amount to little more than a welcome Monday off: a day to sleep late and maybe clean out the garage or partake of that most sacred of modern national pastimes – shopping. Independence Day usually fares somewhat better – given that the object of the remembrance and the rituals (as well as the date) are a little better ingrained in the common consciousness – but not much.
The explanation for this apparent holiday obsolescence is complex. Some of it has to do with collective memory loss. Every year, the original reasons for the various holidays recede further and further into the rear view mirror.
As the survivors of the World Wars become fewer and farther between, the two war remembrance days have lost much of their spirit. Ever since Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays were combined into a generic combo, both have seemed to also lose a little luster.
For the most part, this is just the way things go. As much as some of us might like to think of these events as sacrosanct, the truth of the matter is that most holidays have finite shelf lives and will, without a constituency to keep them going, tend to decline and even expire. That's why the King Day holiday retains some energy after 20-plus years and why Flag Day and Columbus Day are clearly on the way down, if not out.
Labor Day is a particularly interesting case study. We certainly don't have any fewer people "laboring" than we did when the first Labor Day was celebrate in the 1880's. More Americans than ever before are working hard – many of them in very tough circumstances. What then is the explanation for the widespread indifference that the holiday will surely provoke this coming Monday?
A victim of its own success?
Many would argue that the demise of Labor Day is a byproduct of the changing nature of the workplace. According to this argument, if there ever was a need for a day to celebrate the downtrodden American worker, it has long since passed. As with the general decline of the labor unions themselves that have long promoted the holiday, this argument holds that, having won much of what they were fighting for, workers have simply lost interest in maintaining a separate identity and battling their bosses. The days of an "us against them" working world are over.
There may be a kernel of truth to all of this. It's true that American workers are no longer as widely and systematically abused as they were a century ago. Child labor has mostly been eradicated. Most workers no longer slave away six or seven days a week, 16 hours a day in crowded, dangerous factories. Workplace safety has been improved and, clearly, more Americans are better off than they were a century ago. Indeed, huge segments of the middle and working classes don't even necessarily think of themselves as "labor."
And in a testament to the resilience of the American dream of social and economic mobility, millions of Americans who will almost certainly spend their lives as working men and women still dream of escaping their paycheck-to-paycheck worlds and finding a way to join the ownership class. Even though they're extremely unlikely to realize such dreams, these people still identify as much with those whom they aspire to be like and live like as they do with their actual peers.
The main problem with this phenomenon is that in their haste to stop thinking of themselves as "labor," Americans have often blinded themselves to the reality that still afflicts large segments of the working world – often their own.
As two recent studies from the National Employment Law Project make clear, things may be better than they were during the era of the Industrial Revolution and the 19th Century robber barons, but millions of Americans still toil in absurd, even obscene, conditions that ought to anger and mobilize anyone with a brain and a conscience – whatever societal class they happen to identify or not identify with.
In a report released this past week entitled "Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers," a team of authors reported on the results of a comprehensive survey of 4,387 low-income workers in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles in 2008. According to the report, the group was representative of more than 1.6 million workers – or about 15% of the combined workforces of the three cities. Here are some of their rather remarkable, but eminently believable findings:
- Fully 26% of the low wage workers were paid less than the legally required minimum wage during their previous work week.
- Nearly one in five had worked overtime and not been paid the legally required overtime rate.
- Large percentages of workers had been subjected to being compelled to work "off the clock," to meal break violations, to pay stub violations and illegal pay deductions, to tip violations, to illegal employer retaliation for complaining, and to workers' compensation violations.
Last week's report came on the heels of a broader, even more damning study released in July entitled "Confronting the Gloves-Off Economy," in which the authors state:
"Over the last three decades the lowest rungs of American labor have endured a quantum shift in working and living conditions as many employers, aided by lax enforcement, have made a lucrative game of flouting labor and employment laws. But the erosion of protections hasn't been limited to the working poor. Well before the current economic downturn, the sweatshop ethic expanded broadly throughout the economy, with a wide range of business owners and managers adopting a "gloves-off" approach to their own employees."
Add to this harsh reality the general wage, prosperity and economic security stagnation that afflicts so much of the "middle class" – especially with the unsustainable growth in health care costs – and it's clear that Americans have sacrificed a lot by abandoning their "labor" identity.
A different approach
So what's the solution? Is it time for a rebirth of worker solidarity and activism? Certainly. There's no doubt that American workers could and would secure a fairer share of the national pie if they hung together on core economic issues and spent less time quarreling over guns and sex and religion. This is clearly the experience of other many western democracies.
As for the form of such a revival, however, it seems unlikely that Americans are likely to make breathing new life into "Labor Day" a centerpiece of the effort. Twenty-first Century workers are probably too diverse, too worldly, too connected, and too contrary to unite under such an old-fashioned banner.
What might actually work better is some kind of honest, "aspirational," even edgy and ironic, moniker like "American Capitalism Day." Rather than merely celebrating or remembering a movement from a different era, the idea would be to dedicate a day of our lives to honestly examining, praising, and questioning the economic system that connects us all today.
How about that for an idea? An actual holiday that calls upon all Americans to reflect honestly upon a system that is the source of so many of their best and worst attributes – the amazing wealth and productivity, the despicable greed, the inspiring innovation, and the shameful inequality. A holiday that calls upon people to think seriously not just about where we are and what we've done, but also about where we want to go, what we want to build, and how we can come together (or fight it out) to make things better. In short, a national holiday in which all Americans would always have a present-day stake.
A crazy idea, you say? Probably. Getting our huge and complex country to come together on anything new and different these days requires a herculean effort that's probably best saved for more important matters than which holidays to celebrate.
But there is one thing that you can say for sure about the idea of an American Capitalism Day holiday: if, over time, it fizzled and simply turned into another shopping day, at least the name would fit.