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When laborers work together

Monday is Labor Day, a holiday unique to the United States It is a day set aside to honor America’s laboring masses, a term – like class – that is out of favor. The rest of the world unites in solidarity May 1st, May Day, International Workers Day. That day masses of people in countries around the world gather and march. International Workers Day recognizes and remembers that in union there is strength That day affirms, yes it is true, we are all brothers and sisters working together to bring a better world into being for all our fellow brothers and sisters. In the somewhat distant past workers worldwide, and in every country, knew instinctively that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Today, not so much. And even less so in the United States. Because so many know so little of our history, too many are unaware that 19th century working conditions were hellish, full of child labor, brutally long work days and six day work weeks.

Successful organizing over many decades changed that. That is why people display the bumper sticker, “Unions: the folks that brought you the weekend.” There is an 8-hour day because workers fought – and died – for it and over a long period of time, won it. But we have neglected and forgot that.

Now we celebrate Labor Day as the summer-ending holiday, the last chance to relax before the weather turns.

This is not meant to be a screed, or a history lesson. For too many, whatever color their collar, workday hours are constantly long and weekends off are too few. Whether in a union workplace or a home office, work is sadly isolating and solidarity oddly absent. Work – our labor – gets too often taken for granted. Too many live to work and too many do it too much of the time in a bubble of stifling individualism.

Yet, laborers are having real, specific present-day successes. The courage and efforts of store and warehouse employees at Starbucks, Amazon, REI and Trader Joe’s are gaining some hard fought victories, won under difficult circumstances. They are to be applauded. Alas, they are dribs and drabs, maybe 12 people here or even 100 there, pebbles in the ocean of the U.S. economy.

These new union locals are winning some measure of victory for their members. For the union to make them strong, as the old labor song has it, requires thousands and tens of thousands such victories.

In the 1930s and into the 1960s an organizing victory in the factory or farm fields meant all at once a company or city or region was unionized. People found common ground across the assembly line or while harvesting. Their complaints were clear and so was the source of their pain: the boss, the owner, the corporation.

All that is still true: that is the complaints and bosses and owners. But the comparing notes and sympathy and empathy seem as distant as the thousand car parking lots our parents and grandparents trudged across before and after punching in or out.

Too much of gathering together has people connecting by electrons seen through screens. How real are those relationships? They are often not regularly physical. People unite in their minds, where for many the connections are closer and tighter than in the flesh.

Today workers join in tribes of true believers instead of as sisters bonded by our common blue shirt collars. The sharing is not as laborers struggling side-by-side but too often a mind meld of hopes, yes, but also fear and loathing. We separate ourselves from each other, too often only finding agreement after mental gymnastics of narrowing ideologies.

Success, as always, is in laboring together.


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