Monday is Labor Day in the United States.
It is the only holiday each year that is dedicated to the average Joe. Christmas and Easter celebrate Christ. The 4th of July celebrates American independence. Thanksgiving is a day for, well, thanksgiving. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrates the Civil Rights icon. Presidents Day celebrates men like Lincoln and Washington. Memorial Day celebrates the American servicemen and women who’ve given all in defense of their country. And Veterans Day celebrates the American military veterans.
Then there’s Labor Day, which celebrates the contributions and achievements of the American worker — particularly the blue-collar workers whose efforts often go under-appreciated (not to mention under-paid).
Like so many other holidays, we tend to celebrate with a day off work — maybe a BBQ or a get-together with friends and family — without putting too much thought into what the holiday actually means. Specifically, we view Labor Day as an unofficial farewell to summer, and many use it as one last chance to go to the lake, or to do other end-of-summer things.
When I think of Labor Day, I’m reminded of an old song by the legendary country band Alabama, “40 Hour Week.” It’s an ode to the American worker: “There are people in this country / Who work hard every day / But not for fame or fortune do they strive / But the fruits of their labor / Are worth more than their pay / And it’s time a few of them were recognized.”
There may not be a holiday in America that is as under-represented as Labor Day. Every holiday, to varying extent, has been commercialized and misrepresented. But, at the end of the day, Christmas and Easter are still filled with tributes to Jesus and to Christianity, Memorial Day is still filled with tributes to America’s war dead, Veterans Day is still filled with tributes to our troops, and et cetera. But you won’t hear too many tributes to the working men and women of America on Labor Day.
But Labor Day is an uniquely important American holiday. Understanding why requires revisiting the history behind the first Monday in September.
Labor Day has been around for well over 100 years. It was born at the height of the Industrial Revolution, when the morale of the American worker was very low. Average Americans worked 12-hour days, and many of them worked seven days a week just to get by. In factories and mines all across the nation, young children could be found on the job. Workers were under-paid, over-worked, and subjected to unsafe working conditions.
There was a lot of civil unrest in the 1880s, in the years leading up to the creation of Labor Day — civil unrest that was not a lot unlike what America has experienced this summer, except it wasn’t race-related back then. Rather, it was the result of American laborers rising up to protest low pay and working conditions. Labor Day was literally born on September 5, 1882, when 10,000 workers left their job to march from New York city hall to Union Square. It was the very first Labor Day parade.
This Labor Day is especially important, as Americans continue to toil through the coronavirus pandemic. When the virus first reached America’s shores and there was still much that was unknown about how contagious and dangerous it was, millions of Americans had the luxury of working from home. Millions more received federally-supplemented unemployment benefits that actually earned them more for taking time off than they were making on the job.
Then there were those who worked through it all, some of them literally scared half to death that they would carry the virus home to their young children or to elderly parents.
It starts with America’s health care workers — doctors, nurses and everyone else who trudge off to work every day to care for America’s sick and dying. A report two weeks ago indicated that more than 900 of them had died of Covid-19, after contracting the illness while working to treat their fellow man for it.
But it doesn’t end with these health care workers. From EMT personnel to police officers to grocery workers to fast food workers, anyone deemed “essential” was still on the job through those dark early days of the pandemic, not afforded the luxury of taking time off or working remotely.
The grocery clerks is one profession that stands out the most. Amid uncertainty about a nationwide quarantine and lockdowns, Americans made a run on the supermarkets. In areas where the coronavirus was spreading early, those stores became literal breeding grounds for Covid-19, as too many people crowded into stores too small — without the protective masks and the plexiglass barriers around cash registers that have since become commonplace. Nobody knows how many grocery store workers have died of coronavirus, but the number surpassed 100 way back in May.
So many stories stand out. There was Jason Hargrove, the bus driver in Detroit who posted a viral video about the dangers blue-collar workers were facing after a coughing woman refused to cover her mouth on his bus in late March. “We’re out here as public workers, doing our job, trying to make an honest living to take care of our families,” he said. Eleven days later, he died of coronavirus.
There have been stories of Covid-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants; among migrant workers in agricultural operations (including some here in East Tennessee).
Through it all, America’s “essential,” blue-collar workers have angrily decried the system as unfair. And who could blame them? When the federal government spent hundreds of billions of dollars to create a $600-per-week unemployment stipend for workers who lost their jobs, no one gave much thought to the workers who were still on the job. There was no hazard pay for these workers; no bonuses, except the few that were implemented by employers. It’s hard to work for $9 or $10 an hour, in harm’s way, and not be bitter at the idea that someone else is being paid the equivalent of $20 an hour to not work at all.
On Monday, we have an opportunity to salute those who kept America running as a virus cast a cloud over the entirety of society. Let’s take it. They didn’t get to take time off during the early days of the pandemic; in fact, many of them worked overtime. On Monday, most of them will have a paid day off. It’s a single day, but it’s symbolic — a day of rest for those who could least afford to rest while much of the world hunkered down.
On Veterans Day we take to social media to say “thank you” to the American veteran, and rightfully so. On Memorial Day, we take to social media to say “thank you” to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and rightfully so. During the month of November, we use social media to give thanks for all the blessings in our life.
On Monday, let’s pause to say “thank you” to the American workers who keep this nation running — especially this year. They don’t hear it very often.