Labor Day and Its Ironies

“Work is a divine gift and those who refuse it are sinners.” Historian Richard Donkin thus describes George Pullman’s secularized version of the Puritan work ethic. At least Pullman (manufacturer of sleeper train cars) understood the connection between a satisfied workforce and increased productivity. His late 19th century worker town, just outside of Chicago, gleamed in comparison to the filthy stockyards and slum settlement of Packingtown, only miles away. Pullman City had parks, schools, a boathouse, and recreational access to Lake Calumet; its company homes even had indoor plumbing. No shit – literally. Pullman, however, had his grabby fingers in every transaction that occurred in the town. With the economic downturn of 1893, Pullman slashed worker positions and wages without reducing rental charges for the company housing, which led to a worker strike. President Grover Cleveland, claiming the strike to be illegal (US mail service had been disrupted), sent in federal troops to quell it.  The ensuing conflict resulted in the deaths of thirty workers, and Pullman City and its architect/owner were doomed. (When Pullman died just a few years later in 1897, his coffin was encased in thick concrete lest any of his legion detractors were to desecrate his grave.)

The Pullman worker strike lasted some two months during the summer of 1894. The conflict and accompanying deaths of workers, ironically, sealed the deal for President Cleveland to nationalize a Labor Day holiday (various states had been passing legislation for such a holiday as early as 1887). Designated the first Monday in September, it was purposely distinct from the May 1st holiday – International Workers’ Day – chosen in 1889 by the worldwide Communist and Socialist movement. This organization was one of many advocating for an eight-hour, five-day workweek.

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People rush and race every morning to arrive to their jobs as fast as possible. Is it because of the great love they have for their work? Somehow I don’t think that’s it. Many of us are sleep deprived and we allow minimum prep time before leaving for work. On top that – none of us want to spend more time than necessary on the road arriving to work. That’s why we are racing to work, with a small minority of us every morning getting in a fender bender (or worse) as we participate in the big race. Who in their right mind wakes up in the morning thinking today would be a good day to get into an accident on the way to work? American workers have been described as “crazy, driven, hard-working believers” – and that makes it tough to slow down. Why smell and savor the coffee, when instead, we can have it splash onto our laps when we slam on the brakes? (Sorry, not enough time to have put on the coffee cup lid!)

Some 25% of us will be working this Labor Day. Schools, banks, and government offices are closed for the national holiday. Stores, restaurants, hotels, and other service sectors will be laboring away. Some will be happy to be working and earning; others will not be. For these latter, their taskmasters demand obeisance. The irony of Labor Day – officially born only six days after federal troops violently cracked down and broke the Pullman strike on the side of an autocratic employer – continues in this society so defined, uplifted, and desecrated by work. Remember, at the time of the Pullman strike, Andrew Carnegie’s steel workers were putting in 12 hour days, seven days a week.

Work is, without question, a great blessing. Productivity for self, family, and community makes it so. This Labor Day weekend, it will be good to ask the following question: Whom does our work benefit – ourselves and our community, or are we unwittingly part of some larger design where our contributions are parasitically annexed for someone else’s gain? If you go to worship this weekend, perhaps you’ll hear some recapping of the Exodus story (chapter 3) where God tells Moses that he has heard his people’s cries and has seen the oppression that they have suffered. God did not create his people to serve as the slaves of the Egyptians. Enough was enough. God led the protest, Moses organized the people, and liberation blossomed for a people that had slaved under the hot sun of injustice.

Swiss historian and economist Jean Charles Leonard de Sismondi (1773-1842) warned long ago: “Humanity should be on guard against . . . the error of identifying the public good with wealth, abstracted from the sufferings of the humans who made it.” The God of Israel, no less, agrees.

 

These ideas are adapted from my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available at the Blue Ocotillo website.

 

 

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