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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Labor Day’s legacy


How Labor Day reminds us of the importance of work

At St. Joe’s, Labor Day is a break in the class schedule, a day off at the beginning of the semester and one less Monday to worry about on Sunday night. But national holidays are supposed to be more than that. They’re supposed to be opportunities to reflect on some principle, event, or person integral to America’s values. Labor Day reminds us that work always has defined and united America.

First, Labor Day honors one of the great fights of American history. The labor movement started during the inequality of the Gilded Age, with workers who risked their lives and livelihoods, protesting for the barest minimum wage laws, protection for union membership and eight-hour workdays. 

Those victories at first applied only to skilled, white, male labor. Women, children and every different minority group had to go through their own labor movements, led by the likes of Frances Perkins, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and at the time of his death, Martin Luther King. 

After more than a century of strikes and strife, the labor movement empowered America’s middle class right when America’s own riches peaked, creating a historic wave of prosperity that changed your life before it even began. Chances are your family has its own labor heroes, who worked in fields, mines, or factories to provide for your family.

For all its historic significance, Labor Day helps younger Americans make sense of our own lives. 

My generation grew up in an era of weak unions, rich executives, bank bailouts and rising cost of living. For working families, it was an era of fights about money, exhausted parents and deferred dreams of home ownership and vacation. 

Millions of young Americans have used money from their own first jobs to help their families and pay for their own education. In an era of inequality and insecurity, Labor Day reminds us that the work done in our own lives, by us and for us, always matters.

That reminder is more important now than it has been in generations past, because Americans face more dangers at work than just low pay. White collar workers find the deck rigged against them by opportunity hoarding and unpaid internships. Women face emotional and sexual harassment, in Hollywood and in offices, but also silently, in America’s restaurants and hotel cleaning services. Older workers face increased workloads, weary bodies and fears of never getting to retire. 

Manufacturers face offshoring, automation and plant closures. Individuals who are undocumented face lower wages, harder work, a lack of legal protections and the specter of needless deportation arrests. Even in America’s success stories, like the auto shops of Mississippi and Alabama, non-unionized workers face sweatshop conditions and poor training, leading to fatigue, workplace injuries and violent deaths. 

Across America, work is not working. Behind every political argument about work there are a thousand people whose labor desperately needs recognition and dignity.

At the core of that recognition is something very fundamental about America, the notion that hard work and good decisions pay off. In the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., there is a pastel-colored painting of families playing on a sunny beach and eating pink ice cream. It’s a mural from the first office of the Social Security Administration and it reminds us that the American Dream has always been about getting a reward for your labor – enough to breathe and enough to live for more than work. 

As labor leader and Gompers Elementary’s namesake, Samuel Gompers, put it 100 years ago, fighting for labor means wanting “more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more constant work and less crime; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”

I’m not saying you have to go join a picket line, go to work in a sweatshop, or stream a podcast about mine disasters. Labor Day is about taking a much-needed break from the hard and heavy side of life. Barbecuing is more than appropriate. Crack open a cold one for the labor movement.

But at some point, even after Monday is over, stop and think about the work that got you where you are and more importantly, the people in your life who worked hard for you. If you can, thank them, because it’s who we are.

More than 160 years ago, some priests founded a school for the sons of Philadelphia’s immigrant dockworkers, steelworkers and sockmakers. They named the school for a carpenter who labored quietly for his own family, Saint Joseph the Worker. Now, as then, this city and school run on the labor of thousands who wake up early, work hard all day and go home late. 

So honor them. Learn. Grow. Take a break.

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