A Labor Day Call to Arms

Fire up the old grill, do a few twelve-ounce elbow bends to stay limber and just kick back. That's what Labor Day's all about, isn't it?

No, Labor Day has gone all soft on us, and it's time to harden up on its true meaning. This holiday is not some vague tribute to men and women who labor. Rather, it's a radically democratic declaration of the intent to build and sustain a middle class in America -- as bold a statement (and as fraught with peril) as Jefferson's Declaration. Far from being about taking a day off, Labor Day is about people taking democratic power.

From the start, Labor Day was a bottom-up holiday, our only national celebration to be put on the calendar by the working class. It started when feisty Matt McGuire of the Carpenters Union and dauntless William McCabe of the Typographers called for a massive march in New York City to show the strength of laboring people.

Defying bosses and risking their jobs and personal safety, thousands of workers of every trade left work on September 5, 1882, and marched with banners, bands and bravado right up Fifth Avenue, right past the mansions of the Astors, Vanderbilts, and other Robber Barons.

It was not a parade, but a call to arms, the beginning of labor's fight for an eight-hour day at fair pay. The demonstration was so successful that it spread to other cities, and the idea of setting aside a specific day to affirm that laboring people have rights and are creators of wealth took hold. It was a demand for respect, finally achieved in 1894 when President Grover Cleveland signed the law creating Labor Day. What a nice gesture... except that Ol' Grover had unleashed 12,000 federal troops just days earlier to crush a strike by Pullman rail car workers, killing dozens of union members.

But that's been the story every step of the way in our under-appreciated struggle to establish what is now taken for granted as "The American Way of Life". The 40-hour work week, the wage floor, collective bargaining, retirement security, Medicare, job-safety protections, and so much more that sustains the middle-class possibility for a majority of our people were not provided by the founders in 1776 -- and they certainly were not given to us by generous corporate chieftains. Rather, the middle-class framework was built by us -- We The People.

But now, piece-by-piece, the bosses and politicians are rapidly dismantling this framework. From global trade scams to almost daily administrative rulings by the Bush White House, not only are unions and workers generally under assault, but the very opportunity to achieve a middle-class life is being shut off for millions of Americans.

We've seen pieces of this theft:


  • the looting of our public treasury through givebacks to the rich;


  • the White House assault on regulatory protections for everything from workplace safety to the 40-hour workweek;


  • the high-tech industry's despicable manipulation of immigration loopholes to displace middle-class American employees;


  • the privatization push through every agency of government;


  • the secretly negotiated trade deals that empower global corporations to overturn labor protections throughout the world;


  • the maneuvering to gut the pension laws so corporations can evade their legal and moral obligations to retirees... and so many more.


The latest dismantling is a ruling on overtime pay by Bush's Anti-Labor Department. It lets corporations arbitrarily designate millions of wage workers as "managerial" employees, exempt from overtime pay. Such workers as nurses, firefighters and computer programmers will be forced to work more hours for no pay -- taking money out of their pockets, stealing their weekends... and stealing their right to a life beyond the job.

The whole adds up to far worse than the parts, for it's our egalitarian ethic of the common good that they are abandoning, our hope for middle-class possibilities that they're destroying. It's said that the rich and the poor will always be with us. Perhaps, but it is not assured anywhere or in any time that the middle class will be there.

This Labor Day is no different than the first one that workers themselves declared in 1882 -- it's about taking back power from the thieves who are trying to steal our middle-class future. It's time for America's working class to consider Labor Day again not as a holiday, but as a call to arms.

Jim Hightower is author of "Thieves In High Places: They've Stolen Our Country And It's Time To Take It Back" (Viking, 2003).

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