Is Labor Day for Workers or Politicians?

highlight-img2Berlin   Every four years Labor Day marks the official beginning of the “real” campaign for President in the United States. Of course these campaigns are endless and began years and years before for most candidates, like a Hillary Clinton. Even Mr. Surprise Candidate, Donald Trump, has been hard at it for at least a year now. Both candidates had their big-bodied planes in Ohio on the same tarmac on Labor Day. Reporters could run back and forth between the planes. Candidates could nod in each others’ direction and note how important Ohio is as a battleground state. Democrats could show up at some of the few remaining Labor Day parades, marches, picnics, or whatever we might call them and genuflect to what’s left of the remaining power of labor unions, much of which is in fact on the goal line stand defense of politics and elections.

It is worth wondering if Labor Day really exists anymore to celebrate workers and their unions or just an easy access bridge for politicians to have their photo ops with workers, and then move on to more fundraisers and other touchstones of micro-targeting. It goes without saying for most people Labor Day is more the mark of the end of summer and perhaps the beginning of school sessions, and a last chance at a 3-day holiday in the long stretch until Thanksgiving. What’s labor got to do with it?

Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada’s head organizer forwarded me this piece she had gotten commemorating Labor Day, and it’s worth sharing:

In 1894, it [Labor Day] became a national holiday in Canada. The Canadian government was seeking to accommodate the Labour Movement after the rise of the Knights of Labor and the strengthening of unions in the 1880s. Shortly after, the American government followed suit, wanting in particular to offer a counterpoint to May Day, which commemorated the state violence against the 1886 Haymarket demonstrators. The contrast remains between the North American Labour Day holiday and May Day, which is Labour’s day elsewhere. While May Day stands for the international struggle against capitalism, Labour Day signifies the accommodation of workers within the capitalist system. Canada and the U.S. are the only countries where Labour Day rather than May Day celebrates the achievements of workers.

Accommodations are much, much different than achievements, especially with the disappearance of any social contract between labor and management involving an equal sharing of the benefits of work and wealth. When Labor Day becomes little more than a showcase and access point for politicians, that’s an even further dilution of the critical content of the day.

We have to hang on to it of course. At least we have one day that we can still try to claim as our own, since almost every other day of the year seems to celebrate business and the rich for all of us, and perhaps especially for politicians.

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Great Union Organizing Songs for Labor Day

 

Billy Bragg singing with 'Cotia Pit folk group at Durham Miners Gala, a 120-year-old festival in which mining communities from all over County Durham (the largest coalfield in Britain; there have been 218 pits in Durham County over the years) march with banners and bands to the centre of the town 2004.

Billy Bragg singing with ‘Cotia Pit folk group at Durham Miners Gala, a 120-year-old festival in which mining communities from all over County Durham (the largest coalfield in Britain; there have been 218 pits in Durham County over the years) march with banners and bands to the centre of the town 2004.

New Orleans     There used to be a bumper sticker saying “Unions:  The People Who Brought You Vacation.”  Unions definitely brought us all Labor Day.  There were years of giant parades, now largely in the United States something for San Francisco, Chicago, and maybe New York City, while the rest of the world celebrates May Day for workers’ solidarity.   In New Orleans when I was Secretary-Treasurer of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO we brought back the Labor Day picnic which has now endured more than 15 consecutive years.  Not the same, but at least it’s something.

            But for too many it’s just a welcome day off, a turn of the calendar marking the rush of school buses hitting the streets and leaves getting ready to fall.   For us it’s a chance to remember the importance of unions, and even more, union organizing, so let’s hear it in the words of the great Woody Guthrie, the classic Ballad of Joe Hill, and then Billy Bragg from Britain, a modern union troubadour.

Union Burying Ground

by Woody Guthrie

I see they’re lowering a right new coffin
I see they’re letting down a right new coffin
Way over in that union burying ground

And the new dirt’s falling on a right new coffin
The new dirt’s falling on a right new coffin
Way over in that union burying ground

Oh, tell me who’s that they’re letting down, down
Tell me who’s that they’re letting down, down
Way over in that union burying ground

Another union organizer
Another union organizer
Way over in that union burying ground

A union brother and a union sister
A union brother and a union sister
Way over in that union burying ground

A union father and a union mother
And a union father and a union mother
Way over in that union burying ground

Well, I’m going to sleep in a union coffin
I’m going to sleep in a union coffin
Way over in that union burying ground

Every new grave brings a thousand new ones
Every new grave brings a thousand members
Way over in that union burying ground

Every new grave brings a thousand brothers
Every new grave brings a thousand sisters
To the union in that union burying ground

The Ballad of Joe Hill

by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me:
Said I, but Joe you’re ten years dead;
I never died said he.
I never died said he.

In Salt Lake, Joe, Great God, said I,
Him standing by my bed;
They framed you on a murder charge,
Said Joe but I ain’t dead;
Said Joe but I ain’t dead.

The copper bosses framed you Joe
They shot you Joe said I;
Takes more than guns to kill a man,
Said Joe I did not die.
Said Joe I did not die.

Joe Hill ain’t dead he says to me,
Joe Hill ain’t never died;
Where working men are out on strike,
Joe Hill is at their side,
Joe Hill is at their side.

And standing there as big as life
A-smiling with his eyes.
Said Joe, what they forgot to kill
Went on to organize,
Went on to organize!

From San Diego up to Maine,
In every mine and mill – 
Where working men defend their rights
It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.
It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.

(repeat first verse)

There is Power in a Union

 by Billy Bragg

There is power in a factory, power in the land
Power in the hands of a worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand
There is power in a union

Now the lessons of the past were all learned with workers blood
The mistakes of the bosses we must pay for
From the cities and the farmlands to trenches full of mud
War has always been the bosses way, sir

The union forever defending our rights
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite
With our brothers and our sisters from many far off lands
There is power in a union

Now I long for the morning that they realize
Brutality and unjust laws can not defeat us
But who’ll defend the workers, who cannot organize
When the bosses send their lackies out to cheat us?

Money speaks for money, the devil for his own
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone
What a comfort to the widow, a light to the child
There is power in a union

The union forever defending our rights
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite
With our brothers and our sisters, together we will stand
There is power in a union

 

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie

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