If you're like me, you hear those words and think only of a Monday not at work; the last barbecue and potluck of the summer; a small-town parade; the day before kids go back to school; no more white pants until next June.
I would like us to reconsider, to reclaim the use of "Labor" in Labor Day. In this era of financiers who imagine themselves above both the law and above all of the rest of us, we might consider the words of Abraham Lincoln, from his very first State of the Union Address in 1861:
Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.
Anyone sufficiently foolhardy to utter these same words today could expect to be berated for months on Fox News. But Lincoln was hardly a socialist; rather, he was communitarian, a man committed to the belief that we all rely upon one another both by choice and by necessity. In fact, in this same State of the Union, he called for the Federal construction of a common railroad as a means of cementing loyalty and manufacturing opportunity.
Even in 1861, the nation was far too large for its citizens to know each other personally. Political gridlock had broken loose into open warfare; clans and gangs ruled much of the territory, regardless of formal political organization. Lincoln's communitarian spirit was not the nostalgic desire for some homogeneous, pleasant small town, but rather the acknowledgement that we don't have to like one another or agree with one another in order to respect one another.
The labor movement rose up in conditions such as these we see today. In the 1890s, power was concentrated in the hands of very, very few. Malcolm Gladwell shows that nearly a sixth of the richest people who have ever lived on Earth were born in the 1830s. Labor was disregarded, dangerous, and so poorly rewarded that a 60-hour workweek was insufficient to provide food and safety to one's family. It was from the bottom of that pit, where the only way to look was upward, that labor organizations began to emerge, to gain strength, to give us the broad prosperity that the 20th Century provided. The painters, the pipefitters, the teachers, the drivers, the dockworkers, all decided that they could do more together than they could accomplish individually. And they were right.
Now labor concerns are on the wane once again, pressed down by a 40-year political cycle of raw economic power concentrated in the hands of the few. The minimum wage has about two-thirds the purchasing power today as in 1968; McDonalds provides a sample budget to its employees that assumes that they a second job equal in pay to the 35-hour-per-week McJob, that they not buy groceries or have a child, that they own and insure a car that never needs gasoline, and that they can get health coverage for $20 per month. Meanwhile, the CEO's salary increased about 50% last year, from $8.8M to $13.8M. So the worker in the store makes $7.50 per hour, and the CEO (let's assume he works an 80-hour week) makes $7.50 every eight seconds.
Mr. Lincoln clearly understood that the desire of the powerful was always to make use of the powerless at least possible expense.
It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent.It is easy to see that the labor movement of the 1880s and '90s was the logical outgrowth of the emancipation movement of the 1860s and '70s. Both were founded on the belief that none of us is superior, as humans, to any other; the belief that work should be justly rewarded; the belief that common effort and common dignity serve us all. Lincoln's words remain as current and important today as they were 150 years ago.
Happy Labor Day.