Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

Labor Day: It’s About Time


CC, Tom Blackwell. Click on image for license and information.

The first Monday in September is a federal holiday in the United States. It marks Labor Day—a tribute to contributions made by American workers to the growth and development of the country (or at least those in a position to contribute without being exploited).

The history of labor day is the history of labor—and laborer rights. Not too long ago, American workers were subject to horrible working conditions. Twelve, fourteen, even eighteen hour workdays were common; children as young as five were put to work in mines and factories; and benefits, like healthcare—or even simply access to fresh air and bathrooms—were virtually unheard of. As the Industrial Revolution gained ground and more people migrated to manufacturing jobs, labor unions also began to grow. They organized rallies and strikes and protested these poor conditions. The most famous and deadly of these is the Haymarket Riot of 1886, during which a bomb was thrown at police when they tried to dispatch the crowd. Seven officers and four civilians died and numerous others were wounded. The day became an international day of observance for workers.

A similar, though more peaceful event, is attributed as the precursor to Labor Day: On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march in New York City in what was essentially the first Labor Day parade. This idea of a "workingman's holiday" was seized by other metropolitan areas and recognized by their states as holidays. However, federal sanctioning of the holiday didn't happen until 1894. During that year, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago striked to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. The American Railroad Union joined them in a show of solidarity that brought rail travel to an effective halt. Federal intervention only fueled greater unrest, and in an effort to later restore relations with American workers, Congress recognized Labor Day as a holiday.

That is not to say that the struggle for laborer's rights ended. Unions have had a tumultuous history in the narrative that brings us to this Labor Day. Unions have been criticized for creating wage imbalances, reducing profitability, and reducing the availability of jobs. They've been charged with corruption and racism, creating monopolies, and generating social unrest. But perhaps the most frequent and public criticism relates to efficiency. Stop me if you've heard this one before:

A: "How may union workers does it take to change a light bulb?"

B: "Fifty."

A: "Fifty?!"

B: "Yeah—fifty. It's in the contract."

Union labor is often highly specialized, requiring multiple workers to get a job done, and this becomes a point of tension as technology reduces the need for manual labor in some cases. For example on the west coast in many ports, shippers have relied on chalkboards to dispatch longshoremen because there has been opposition to introducing computers to manage the process. Management sees technology as a way to improve and retain business by preventing shippers from looking for more modern ports and increasing profitability, while longshoremen see this as a threat to their livelihood.

There's no question that technology has helped to create a safer workplace. But there's also no question that technology is changing the workplace—as well as the laborer. In the coming years, we'll have to redefine what it means to work because there is no question that we'll see more and more automation of labor. Skills may become less of a commodity. Laborer rights will have to be re-evaluated and redefined. And the struggles between the worker and management will continue. Which is why it's probably easy to lose sight of the most valuable victory the American labor movement won for it's workers in Labor Day: Time.

Labor Day is a day off for many people. It's a paid day off. It's a workday where labor is not required. Now this isn't true for everyone. There will be open restaurants with a working staff, and open stores with a working staff, and there are countless undocumented workers for whom Labor Day is no different. But for many around the globe, the struggle for basic rights and wages continues. While we're no longer obligated to work twelve hour days in the United States, in places like Bangladesh, China, India, and Turkey, clothing workers are working in buildings that have failed fire and structural inspections for less than a living wage. And they are likely working twelve hour days. As Marx teaches us, time is the ultimate commodity. We're paid for how long we work, not necessarily by how much we work. And with Labor Day, the American unions gave some of that time back to the worker.

So if you're observing the holiday weekend, make the most of it. It was hard won.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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