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Where Labor Day Came From, And Where It’s Going

Economy Memo Pad

Where Labor Day Came From, And Where It’s Going


Webster’s dictionary tells us that Labor Day was “set aside for special recognition of working people.”

That’s nice, but “set aside” by whom? It certainly wasn’t the Wall Street corporate and political powers that be. They nearly swallowed their cigars when the idea of honoring labor’s importance to America’s economy and social well-being was first proposed in 1882. Rather, this holiday was created by the workers themselves, requiring a 12-year grassroots struggle that finally culminated with an act of Congress in 1894.

The campaign helped coalesce unions into a national movement. And its message of labor’s essential role also countered the haughty insistence of the robber barons of that time. The barons insisted that they were America’s “makers” — the invaluable few whose monopolistic pursuits should be unfettered. For they claimed that they and their corporations were the God-ordained creators of wealth.

Notice that the American people do not celebrate a CEO Day, despite their bloated sense of self-importance. Indeed, as Abraham Lincoln put it, the real makers are the many ground-level workers who actually do the making: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital,” Abe declared in his first state of the union address. “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.”

Yet on Labor Day 2013, robber barons are again ascendant, declaring that they owe nothing — not even a shared prosperity — to the workers, consumers, taxpayers, and other American people who sustain them. Quite the opposite, they and their political henchmen are blithely shredding America’s social contract and again insisting that the corporate elite must be unfettered, unions eliminated, and middle-class jobs Wal-Marted.

This intentional hollowing out of our middle class is not just ignorant, but also immoral

Yet today’s establishment economists are asking: Why are so many people so glum? The Great Recession ended in 2009, they note, and even job creation is picking up. So come on people — get happy!

Maybe Labor Day is a good time to clue them in to one big reality behind this so-called “recovery:” Most Americans haven’t recovered. Not by a long shot. In June, median household income was still $3,400 less than in 2007, when Wall Street’s crash started the collapse of our real economy.

Jim Hightower

Jim Hightower is a nationally syndicated columnist and one of America's most prominent progressive voices. His column carried by more than 75 publications across the country. Prior to becoming a writer, Hightower served as Texas Agricultural Commission from 1982 to 1991.

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  1. idamag September 2, 2013

    In Medieval times, those who built fine buildings were held in the highest esteem. However this country wants to go back before that to the Romans whose builders were slaves. The country moves by the grace of those who labor with their hands. It is those laboring people who drive the economy. They pay the taxes to run our government. There has been a big push to devalue the workers so they can bb more easily exploited. They are told that their labors are worth less and there should be no minimum wage while those doing the telling enjoy obscene amounts of money. We have seen our Congress take five week vacations several times a year and nothing really changes. Let an entire sanitation department take a five week vacation and, believe me, something will change. Let a city hospital close for five weeks. My hats off to those who do the most for the many.

    1. latebloomingrandma September 2, 2013

      Your apt examples reminds me of a funny story: The organs of the human body were having a fight over who was most important for life and quality of life. The 2 biggies, heart and brain, were putting forth their best efforts at proving superiority over who was the boss. Soon others, such as lungs chimed in to prove their importance. .Finally, the real boss, by now exasperated, decided to show who was boss. The lowly a$$hole decided to stop working. He completely shut down and clogged up. Soon all the body systems were messed up. the human felt miserable. Pain was involved. The human was able to do nothing but moan and groan. He could not function and wished for relief or death. Moral of the story: the main qualification of being a boss, rather than being essential, seems to be being an a$$hole..
      (I always remembered this when I was a boss.)

      1. Allan Richardson September 2, 2013

        I heard the story also, and it is funny, but insulting to the actual body part; unlike many bosses, it actually DOES perform a useful function!

    2. charleo1 September 2, 2013

      Well said. Ancient Rome had at times a glut of labor. As they conquered
      a region, as they often did. Along with it came thousands of slaves. Since
      they had to be fed, it was a natural solution to put them to work on public
      projects. The same can be said of the Pharos. Who’s giant pyramids served
      as crypts for Egyptian Nobility. But they were also a heck of a good method
      for keeping 10s of thousands of slaves busy, and not planning rebellion.

  2. silence dogood September 2, 2013

    They are about $3.00 an hour away from being replaced by robots. Maybe then they can go to work for the robot manufacturer.

    1. Allan Richardson September 2, 2013

      If it becomes possible to do all the essential work of a society by robots, but only a few have the good fortune to have been able to buy or inherit the robots, and there comes a time when there ARE no jobs by which to work oneself up to the ownership ranks, humanity will have to re-examine the ethos that ONLY by way of (then redundant) human effort can a person (not ALREADY possessing great wealth) justify his or her life. Would the “makers” just let everyone else starve? Or take care of them, just barely, as cheaply as possible, while denying them the vote (not much chance of getting THEIR votes, so you have to suppress that), and chastising them for being “lazy?” Or recognize that the robots were not ONLY created by the “makers” but in a sense by the entire human society, and finally provide the PUBLIC wealth (or commonwealth) for all families not NEEDED in the workforce to have leisure enough to make non-financial contributions to society? And likewise, while the SYMBOLIC economy of money seems to require eternal growth, and the physical limits of our planet will not allow that, will we find a way to reduce competition for NECESSITIES so that no one will go without, and yet the population can be allowed to stabilize at a level the planet can handle?

      These are serious questions, not to be laughed away by name calling and ideology. After all, most of us will eventually become what the elite one percent call “takers,” including many who ridicule them now.

      Go back and read “The Capitalist Manifesto” from 1963. Laying aside their “free market morality” argument (I would say that rather than the market defining how much of the wealth each person should MORALLY be entitled to, the market simply defines how much each person ENDS UP GETTING when morality is ignored), they do make the point that an economy which does not REQUIRE full time labor for everyone needs to have a way for the wealth to be AVAILABLE to all whose labor is NOT required.

      1. silence dogood September 2, 2013

        Your thinking is one step to the left of the flat earth society. The “pie” is not limited,it is always expanding hence expanding opportunities.

  3. Allan Richardson September 2, 2013

    idamag, the builders (some say forerunners of the Freemasons, others say they go back much farther) were held in the highest esteem AFTER the Great Plague wiped out a third of the peasant population, and labor was in short supply. It seems to take a catastrophe that decimates the working population to get any respect from the “makers” (more accurately, the “overseers of the makers”). Labor was struggling from the 1870’s until the 1930’s to be recognized. The immigration boom filled the gap left by the Civil War deaths and then some, even when the expansion of industry was accounted for, so unions remained illegal, and strikers were subject to being executed (if not hanged for riots STARTED by company-hired thugs, then shot BY those thugs, who were not punished). Finally, in the 1930’s, the destitute and unemployed voted in their best interest and elected a President who wanted to make life better for THEM. The the War came, and workers became scarce (they even had to hire WOMEN to work in the weapons factories! imagine THAT!), and were still scarce afterward (because birth rates went down in the Depression). Until the accounting and political tricks caught up with worker shortages in the late 1970’s, labor WAS honored by our establishment politicians and CEO’s. (at least in lip service). The legitimate desire of many women to have their own careers played into the “makers” strategy by doubling the labor force, and before long, prices rose but wages did not, so the majority of two-parent families MUST have both parents working to keep up with the bills (one-parent families have it even harder, and the welfare assistance, meant to benefit widows and their children by freeing them to take CARE of their children, was restricted to those single parents who are ABLE to find work, and consequently CANNOT take care of the children without paying other people to do so, in the quest to stop “cheating”).

    But it is interesting to note that the INTERNATIONAL Labor Holiday, May Day, is not celebrated by our establishment. They cooked up a day when they could HONOR laborers with a day off (except for the retail workers who staff the promotional sales), but not LISTEN to the concerns of workers. And they put it as far as possible on the calendar from May Day!

    1. CPAinNewYork September 5, 2013

      I’m curious: By “makers” do you really mean “machers,” a Yiddish term that means a big shot in business?

  4. charleo1 September 2, 2013

    As Americans we should keep in mind there are 2 billion people on the planet
    that survive on less than $1.50 per day. Labor all over the world is under assault
    from automation, 60 people can now run a factory that used to employ 600. And,
    the great disparity in wealth an equation such as that causes worldwide. And why
    do we Americans need to keep this in mind? Because the next Right Winger that
    tries to tell you the corporations left America for the Shores of Asia, because of the Unions unreasonable demands. You can point out the wage American labor is competing aganist, is about $60.00 per month in China. Less in places like Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Bangladesh was just recently in the news, as a fire killed
    scores of garment workers because the factory doors were locked from the outside.
    So, that is the parity some corporations are insisting American workers meet before
    outsourced jobs can be brought back. It is for this behavior they want corporate
    taxes lowered to zero, and the base expanded. Michelle Bachmann offered the
    poor should pay, “some taxes, even if but a dollar,” she said. “As a matter of
    principal, and fairness!” In fact all of the GOP candidates for President suggested
    an unregulated, unfettered, yet highly subsidized, corporate structure. While
    cutting Social Security, as they all claimed, was ponzi scheme, politicians should be honest with the American People about. Even though raising the cap by $50,000
    could secure this vital program for the next 100 years. Yes, it seems there is no bounds to the generosity they expect Americans to show to our corporate overlords.
    Generosity paid for of course, with low wages, and the elimination of programs, and services depended on by the same people on who’s backs they insist deficits be lowered, and the budget balanced.

  5. masaccio68 September 2, 2013

    Don’t buy any of that mass market crap. Go to your local pizza maker, your local diner, your local restaurant, your local store. Buy from artisans who make craft beers, roast their own coffee beans and make clothes for you.


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