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Reflections on labor

Dave » 17 years 25 weeks ago

Yesterday marked Labor Day in the United States. It’s a day many people regard as a last chance for leisure before being plunged back into the regular work cycle and the colder, shorter, darker days ahead.

The day itself was founded as a celebration of the American worker, and, ironically, we celebrate by not working. We light up the backyard BBQ and kick back with some steaks and beer instead.

It all seems very appropriate to me. After all, many of us see our work as the daily grind — a monotonous, but necessary, cycle of struggle to bring home the cash to support you and yours. It’s no wonder Monday is traditionally dreaded and Friday is looked forward to. Makes sense that Labor Day is always the first Monday of September then, doesn’t it? It’s good to stop, relax, and put labor into context.

“Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country,” said Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor. “All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day…is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”

The labor movement

Labor Day is a tribute to our working men and women and their contributions towards the strength and prosperity of our country. Though there is some doubt as to who first proposed it, Labor Day clearly stemmed from the labor movement in this country. The labor movement has campaigned for workers’ rights, focusing on agendas like paid holidays, minimum wage, and ending child labor in the United States.

The labor movement began with the industrial revolution, as agricultural jobs declined and employment moved to more industrial areas. While conditions for the working class had been bad for ages, the industrial revolution concentrated much of this labor into mills, factories and mines. This in turn facilitated the organization of trade unions meant to help advance the interests of working people. A union could organize a strike, effectively stalling production while demanding better terms. Membership in labor unions in the United States reached an all-time high in the 1950s when about 40 percent of the work force belonged to unions. Today, union membership is about 14 percent of the working population.

Ever increasing international trade and the rise of multinational corporations have led to efforts by the labor movement to organize and collectively bargain internationally. As global economic integration increases, and as the world becomes more interconnected, the American worker is no longer easily defined. Thus the attention is turning towards general workers’ rights. And to be sure, trade unions have their critics, and many see them as detrimental to a free market system.

Socialist roots

The labor movement also has its roots in socialism, it seems clear to me. As wealth was increasingly centralized, workplace abuse was high, and the disparity between the wealthier middle class (bourgeoisie) and the working class (proletariat) was widely evident, the labor movements championed socialist principles, advocating for the collective ownership of the means of production. The American Federation of Labor, publicly attributed as the likely initiator of Labor Day, was itself an offshoot of the secretive Knights of Labor union, which pushed for equal pay, cooperative businesses, and currency reform. Communism, a distinct and historically more inept form of socialism, featured the hammer and sickle, symbols of the working class, on its flag.

The push forward

When looking towards the future of work, it is important to understand its history and its context. The system that powers our economy and our production (called capitalism, of course) is the prevalent system around the world, but it didn’t come about without resistance (which continues even today), and it certainly has its detriments. It’s important to understand these forces which profoundly affect us all, and it’s important to look at how we might continue pushing towards an even better world. It’s a constant exploration.

At Woven, we believe technology will play an ever more vital role in supporting this better world, creating more opportunities for flexible and fair work, increasing our ability to produce, further distributing wealth around the world, and enabling more and more of us to work together as we collectively push forward. Whatever you’re working towards, we wish you well. After all, it is you, the laborer, whose contributions power it all.

Updated for clarity.