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Monday, September 06, 2010

Labor Day musings
Posted by Jill | 8:31 AM
I'm actually somewhat surprised that we actually still celebrate Labor Day, given it's history of having been created by unions to celebrate union workers. Yet the very same people who have been excoriating unions for the last thirty years will be out at block parties and other holiday events extolling the working man while ignoring their own histories of outsourcing jobs (Carly Fiorina) or calling those who have lost their jobs due to downsizing "spoiled" (Sharron Angle) or railing against labor unions, even though unions have next to zero clout in labor negotiations these days.

Today is the day when many people have their last barbecue, their last swim, their last outing of the white pants before the fashion police come and beat them with sticks for wearing white after Labor Day. Here in New Jersey, it's yet another beautiful day, as it's been all weekend, with the kind of bright blue skies that set off the remaining oak trees -- a color that only exists when the humidity is low and the air is clean enough of pollutants. There's a certain forced gaiety about Labor Day weekend that doesn't exist on the other summer holidays. Memorial Day's meaning gets lost in its symbolism as an unofficial kickoff to summer. Independence Day shows us relaxed and still looking forward to another month of summer. But Labor Day is a winding down, a reminder that we still have to paint the wrought iron railing in yet another vain attempt to keep the rust away, that soon the heat will cut on at night, that we can actually sleep at night without an air conditioner or a fan in the window, and find ourselves staring at the ceiling because it's just too darn quiet.

What Labor Day isn't about anymore, is about working people. Last week The Hill ran a piece about the "blitz" that business groups plan against Democratic candidates today:
Business groups plan to go on offense against vulnerable Senate Democrats in their backyards to mark Monday's Labor Day holiday.

Local groups will target Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Rep. Paul Hodes, the Democrat running for Senate in New Hampshire, and Kentucky Senate Democratic candidate Jack Conway in their states over their records on labor-related issues.

Local chapters of groups like the National Federation of Independent Business, state Associated Builders and Contractors and other commerce and retail groups will hold events on Monday targeting the incumbents and candidates, particularly on their stance on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA, or "card-check").

Because nothing demonstrates the true spirit of Labor Day by big spending by greedy corporatists who are making record profits and keeping those profits in their pockets like using the terminology of war against candidates who might want to do something for those who have to work for a living.

Yesterday I read either a column or a letter to the editor -- I'm not sure which -- opining whether most of us would give up being able to dress casually for work and instead put on a suit and tie if it meant working from 9 to 5 and being home by six. Mad Men may be about people caught between a postwar world of conformity and the upheaval to come, but as usual with pop culture, the Mad Men phenomenon has been all about the style -- the clothes, the drinking, the constant cigarettes, the furniture. It's a stunningly-wrought set piece, to be sure. But lost amidst all the lamenting of the bygone days of Canadian Club and Parliaments are people like Christopher Hitchens, now dying from esophageal cancer, the primary risk factor of which is the combination of alcohol and nicotine. It's hard to argue that these days Don Draper is one iota happier because he gets to leave work at 5.

And yet, for those of us lucky enough to have jobs, but find ourselves leaving the house by 7 and getting home at 6:30 -- and that's during a slow time when we aren't working every weekend -- there's this constant feeling of having no life. We find ourselves in this never-ending cycle of feeling thankful that we still have a job even if it means we stumble home every night, eat a dinner of reheated Trader Joe's food, watch Countdown and maybe Rachel Maddow and then go to sleep to repeat the same thing tomorrow; then saying to ourselves, "Yeah, but that's what THEY want you to think!", and then looking around and seeing that we have a roof over our heads and being thankful again.

Why has it come to this? Why are employer and employee now enemies? Perhaps conformity is no longer the price we pay for being employed, but having to constantly prove our devotion to the company above all else in our life is. And yet we are the lucky ones, those of us who have jobs doing something meaningful, with supervisors who may be tough but are usually fair, with co-workers who are diverse, interesting, and intelligent people. What about those for whom the mind-numbing sameness is of getting out of bed every day with nowhere they have to go, nothing they have to do, other than scour the job boards for eight hours in the hope that something will show up for which they are completely qualified, and hoping that their resume comes over the fax first?

Is this what the two possible paths in America in the 21st century are -- having no life because you have no time or having no life because you have no job?

Sometimes I go with some colleagues to a local Fuddruckers for lunch. At the Fuddruckers, there is a woman who is clearly in her seventies. She works there. Her job is to bus tables. Every time I go there I leave a tip on the table and hope she's the one who gets it. Every time I go there seeing her simultaneously breaks my heart and frightens me to death. Because this is the future that Americans are going to vote for in November -- a future where you work into your seventies and eighties busing tables at Fuddruckers -- and that's if you're lucky.

A year ago, Alan Grayson took no end of shit from Republicans and the media for saying that the Republican answer for health care was "Don't get sick, and if you get sick, die quickly." Grayson was right, but he didn't tell the whole story. Today it's "Don't get old and don't lose your job, and if you do, die quickly."

Republicans demonize the unemployed because they think (rightly so, unfortunately) that if they can make the unemployed yet another hated "other" (like illegal immigrants or their latest favorite boogeyman, Muslims), they can distract the attention of the still-employed DOWN the economic ladder insted of realizing that the rich guys are stealing the few singles and fives they still have their wallets. Wages are flat, but more health care costs are being passed on to workers. Corporate profits are up, but hiring is down.

We live in a country where everyone was told from birth "If you work hard and play by the rules, you too can be a millionaire." If the hatefulness of their words didn't infuriate me so much, I would feel sorry for the unemployed truck driver, the out-of-work machinist, the guys bussed to the Glenn Beck rally by an organization funded by giant corporations and industrialists. These are people who believed the bullshit, the nonsense that everyone gets an even shake -- and now find themselves looking for someone to blame that it isn't true.

Today is Labor Day, and unions lie in wreckage around us. People who are out of work are getting ready to vote for the very people who would yank the very unemployment benefits that allow them to avoid homelessness. The Koch brothers aren't demonized by these people, but those with even less are. The reality that George Carlin spoke bitterly about in 2005 has come to fruition, making me think he died just so he wouldn't have to see multimillion dollar media "personalities" like Glenn Beck be greeted as practically the reincarnation of Christ by these people.

Labor Day always has a certain melancholy to it. This year it seems more melancholy than most.

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Blogger Nan said...
Labor unions gave us all the 8-hour workday, the 40-hour work week, and a minimum wage -- and almost no one remembers that.

One thing that I've never understood is why the people who don't enjoy the benefits of working in a union shop are always so intent on eliminating the unions and dragging everyone down. It would seem to make more sense, if you're resentful that other workers enjoy higher wages than yourself, to try to figure out a way to improve your own situation -- if unionized workers have it so good, why not try to become one, too?

Blogger D. said...
Back in the '70s, I worked in an office.

My office was non-union. (Mostly women, you know.)

All the other jobs, so far as I remember, were union jobs. So that when contract talks ended with raises, we got raises too.

I have always benefitted from unions. I'm extremely grateful.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
"They" had slavery once, and "They" liked it! This was my bon mot that I discovered in the heart of some 20 years-post-strike & post-reject-union local (legal system sided with City, workers got fined; disillusionment in union & local charter was "sent-back".) 1975...then, 1995, after 2 years of clandestine meetings, the local was back. Precipitating factors included management that happily ignore various aspects of hour & wage provisions, employee safety (one died in 1997--oops), to say nothing of just any supervisor deciding to pick favorites without any accountability. Finally, union local, in 2005, had a binding-negotiated-work contract. I'm sure the story is true throughout the last 75+ years; but until the first sentence is believed by 'the working class,' & we realize there's 'safety/security' in numbers (and don't get greedy with a contract), we'll be "taken-by-the-MAN at every opportunity.