Bad to the Bone: Labor Day, Protests and Change

It’s a tragedy, I’ve gained 5 pounds.  I was planning a full-fledged, hide under the covers breakdown this holiday weekend; I was going to stay in bed past 7:00am, nap on the couch and binge watch all three John Wick movies while eating 3 hand packed pints of Ben & Jerry’s salted caramel blondie ice cream. I got on the scale and apparently, I started early without the entertainment courtesy of two pizzas on Tuesday,  a an entire bag of orange slices (the candy) and a pint of pistachio ice cream with syrup on Wednesday, a family size bag of Lays potato chips and Dean’s sour cream and onion dip on Thursday ending with  a box of shortbread cookies with lemon curd on Friday. My friend David, a fitness professional, said years ago, fitness is not like a saving account where you can build it up and take a break; you have to keep working at it; you have to fight the bad habits. This week, I was bad to the bone.

The structures I had in place to keep me fit and healthy are gone and I’m in stress eating, comfort food mode.  My options were to accept, ignore or fight. I will fight and as this fight starts Labor Day Weekend, I am reminded that democracy, justice and equality are a fight too. Structures have to be in place and as things change, those structures need to change.

Labor Day is rooted in civil unrest. In 1633, the Massachusetts colony capped wages because the Puritan Governor Winthrop believed too much income would lead to idleness and bad habits. At least that was stated reasoning. The first worker strike in the US was 1791 by carpenters demanding their work be shortened to 10-hour days. The labor unions asked congress to mandate an 8-hour workday in 1866. In 1882, the average American worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. Child labor was widespread and included children as young as 5 years old. Labor unions demanded 8-hour days and better working conditions through strikes and started protests joining the worldwide labor movement with May 1st as Labor Day. Some of the events turned violent and deadly, most notably the Haymarket riot of 1886 and the May Day Riots of 1894.

To appease the ongoing civil unrest, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday signed into law on June 28, 1894 by President Grover Cleveland. But, unlike the rest of the world, the holiday was not to be on May 1st, but moved to the first Monday in September to distance the day from the May Day protest¹. Was this really an acknowledgement of poor labor conditions or was this just a way to quell unrest? In 1921, Teddy Roosevelt campaigned for the 8-hour workday for his presidency; 50 years after labor unions requested an 8-hour workday.

Imagine young children in uniforms with their knapsacks and lunch boxes walking to work; not to school because people were once comfortable with the 5-year olds working. Imagine you were purchased to work, you never receive a wage, you will be beaten if you refused to work and hunted down if you ran away, because people were once comfortable with the idea of slavery. Imagine working 12-hour days, 7 days a week, because people should not be idle. Historically, we can look at protest and wonder why conditions were so bad for so long. Consider, it takes work to mask a wrong that historically can be viewed as despicable. There has to be institutionalized beliefs, processes and laws in place to justify. The American South is reviled for the slaves while often forgotten are the Native Americans captured as slaves in the north where once again, Governor Winthrop shows up. He shipped Native Americans to the Caribbean as slaves in exchange for, as he stated in his diaries, “cotton, tobacco and Negros.”  The Europeans didn’t just sail over, steal land and drive the Native Americans off; the enslaved the people they stole from.

The equal rights amendment that would guarantee equal pay for women doing the same job as men has languished since 1972 and is not federal law. So, while Labor Day is thought of the end of summer blowout, back to school sales and barbecues; be aware of the inequities in labor.  Women have to work well into the next year to earn what men make in one year. If you found yourself rationalizing the pay differences, consider the aforementioned paragraph; it takes work to mask a wrong. It takes work to make people ignore and disregard the obvious. Protests and riots are not the same thing. Protesters are protesting, not rioting, not looting, not vandalizing and not inciting violence. Most protests are peaceful.

In the current environment of civil unrest around racial equality, today’s protests are 93% peaceful. When polled, 43% of people believe the black lives mater protest are violent; but again 93% are peaceful. There is a stronger narrative in place to keep status quo; incidents are played over and over on a loop, commentary is directed to a few incidents, but 93% are peaceful.  Which takes us back to labor. people acting on anecdotal evidence justifying draconian measures such as Governor Winthrop capping wages and endorsing long workdays, so people do not become lazy and idle. Or moving the sanctioned Labor Holiday to September so there are not riots.

Protest are like the bathroom scales. A lagging indicator of society; you can’t ignore the unrest because it is uncomfortable. Protests are the way to fight social injustice. I weighed myself and saw I had gained 5 pounds, I don’t throw out the scale, dim the lights and cover the mirrors. I accept the measurement and choose to fight. Protests are a mirror of society.  Child Labor, Slavery, Equal Pay, Fair Pay are labor related societal ills. One of the current labor debates are gig workers; how should they be classified? Covid 19 has been a major disruption in how we view work with essential workers and work from home. What does workplace safety look like when you work from home? Should essential workers get more pay or hazardous pay? This Labor Day week, reflect on labor and consider what’s next for equality and fair treatment in the workplace.


¹While Canada joined the US in making the legal holiday the first Monday in September, however, the unions in Canada still commentate May 1st as labor day. 

²Congress passed a law for an 8 hour workday for federal employees in 1868. It would be another 50 years before the concept of an 8 hour workday for all. 

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