Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day and May 1

Today was Labor Day. So I worked. It is to me probably the most meaningless of all holidays on the American calendar. Memorial Day, which kicks off the summer makes sense. It honours those who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our country. Fourth of July makes perfect sense. It marks the beginning of a revolution that shook and shaped the world. Martin Luther King Day underscores the extension of civic equality to alll citizens of whatever ethnicity. Thanksgiving is a good idea, a holiday that is both secular and religious. Christmas and New Years are celebrated by the majority of the population. It is common sense for them to be state holidays. When I in Yugoslavia on December 25 and observed business as usual, it offended me that a predominantly Catholic part of Yugoslavia was forced under communism to ignore its own heritage. I would never want such intolerance here.

So what is my problem with Labor Day? The holiday for workers that is observed in most of the world is May 1. It was an American holiday originally, and started in 1886 when police fired on striking workers and demonstrators in Chicago. The following day, there was a demonstration that proceeded peacefully until someone threw a bomb towards the end of the demonstration. Twelve people were killed in that demonstration, including seven policemen. Labor Day as we know it was founded as a tame alternative to May 1, which is generally more politicised.

May 1 is not exclusively a communist holiday. It is a national holiday in Western Europe as well.

I observe May 1 in the same way that I observe other American holidays. I discuss the history of the holiday with my family and its relevance to modern times. In my opinion, the rights, needs and responsibilities of workers need to be put on the table. American workers are dealing with outsourcing of jobs, the difficulties of obtaining health care and the erosion of real wages. Just as the industrial revolution that swept the 19th century initially created displacement and instability, so too are the technological changes of our time creating instability during the process in which they are absorbed into our changing global economy. Especially in our time, when unemployment is high and rising, we need to remind ourselves of the needs of a large sector of our population.

Where I disagree with some on organising or advocating for workers is the negative attitude of some towards business owners. Bosses and workers need each other. An entrepreneur needs workers to bring his dreams to reality as much as workers come to depend upon him for work. There are positive and non-adversarial roles that workers and bosses can have towards each other.

The hard times that we read about in our history books before labour laws were passed could creep back up on us. There are greedy bosses who will find any loophole they can to exploit workers. And there are greedy unions that make demands that make it almost impossible to turn a profit.

There is a poem by Bertolt Brecht called "A Worker Reads History" that comes to my mind every May 1 and every Labor Day. It reads as follows.


Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?

And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?

In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?

Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?

Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?

Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?

Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?

Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?

So many reports.

So many questions.

It is the spirit of these questions that resonates on Labor Day. I wish my readers a happy and prosperous Labor Day, and the bosses of America success in providing remunerative work. Although I prefer to celebrate May 1, I guess I will have to settle for Labor Day.

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