Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day

As a teacher I am quite familiar with Labor Day.

It means the end of summer vacation.

To teachers (and students alike) it means that 2 month stretch of summer possibility is over.
Those endless summer days that we imagined, and never quite materialized, have slipped out of our grasp for another year.

Among parents, I swear there is a collective sigh of relief. Yes, I know you love summer. And I know that gearing up for the school year is hectic to say the least. But I have heard no shortage of mother's murmur a word of thanks for the start of a new school season. We all know that routine can be a good thing.

Somewhere in the midst of my musings on the importance of Labor Day as an end-of-summer celebration, I do occasionally remark that the holiday is named "LABOR day"

To be honest, this seems completely normal to teacher and students. Who wouldn't associate the end of summer with the start of labor?

But of course that is not its real meaning. According to the US government, Labor Day was founded as a "workingmen's holiday", a celebration of labor and labor unions. It was a celebration of the working class, at a time when the working class was celebrated as "the creator of much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership". far we've come.
Fallen... I mean.

The working class are no doubt still with us. Though in smaller numbers it seems. Or maybe simply with less fanfare...and less voice.

But it is no wonder that we have recreated Labor Day as a celebration of the end of summer. We have to recreate it as something.

How ironic would it be to continue celebrating the working man in an era where the working man has become increasingly hard to find, not only because he (and she) is fewer in number, but because we've all come to believe that we are something else. I've worked at vocational schools where "the vocation part" was being phased out. Why? Because all students are college material, our government says so. We are all on career paths. And we've got the Bachelors, masters and PHDs to prove it. And the debt as well.

What happen to celebrating working men and women as the backbone of our country? How have so many of us become managers, consultants, experts, academics, social-entrepreneurs, bloggers...

Or how have we come to redefine ourselves this way?

How many of us would define yourself as working class? In the real traditional sense?

In an era where unemployment is high, but equally high are the number of hours that Americans work each week, we've somehow ceased to define ourselves principally as workers. And we've certainly ceased to unite as such.

Labor Day (and even more so the International Workers Day around the globe) was a celebration not of the individual workers, but of collective workers. And there in lies the rub. Today, we all might define ourselves as hard-workers, but it is on an individual scale. Few of us see ourselves as part of a collective group of workers. This is where the American working class has gone. It's not that we've all gotten lazy and stopped working, it's that increasingly, we are all in it on our own. We jump from job to job, change careers, put it long hours, chase the American dream, largely on our own.

"Social-Entrepreneurship" is one of the hot new majors at university. This myth of the individual entrepreneur, kind of like the pioneer of a different century, fits perfectly with our ideals of the American dream as something that we chase individually. It's interesting that we've come to see entrepreneurship as a solution to our social problems as well. As though even our collective problems, will be solved not by group action but the brilliant ideas and energy of a few. Indeed we've created a form of social activism that comes complete with its own "rock-stars".

In honor of a different "Labor Day", one with its roots in collective action I am quoting again Marge Piercy's poem (that I love so much).

"I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real. "

1 comment:

Alain said...

I completely agree with you that it's a beautiful thing the way work used to be: an opportunity to make people come together and co-operate.

I wonder if some people will not point their fingers on you and call you all the names that are opposite to capitalist... see what I mean?