Labor Day in the USA.


My state’s governor Andrew Cuomo emails me every (non-holiday) weekday with a COVID-19 update. In Friday’s missive he mentioned that Labor Day, celebrated today in the United States, was first celebrated in New York City.

As is the governor’s practice, he included an “image of the day.” Here it is:

The bottom caption reads: NEW YORK CITY—GRAND DEMONSTRATION OF WORKINGMEN, SEPTEMBER 5th—THE PROCESSION PASSING THE VIEWING-STAND AT UNION SQUARE—From a Sketch by a Staff Artist—See Page 55 The side caption reads: September 16, 1882] FRANK LESLIE'S ILLUSTRATED NEWSPAPER.In case it’s hard to discern in this format, the bottom caption reads:

NEW YORK CITY—GRAND DEMONSTRATION OF WORKINGMEN, SEPTEMBER 5th—THE PROCESSION PASSING THE VIEWING-STAND AT UNION SQUARE—From a Sketch by a Staff Artist—See Page 55

The left side caption reads:

September 16, 1882]  FRANK LESLIE’S ILLUSTRATED NEWSPAPER.

Something that really resonates with me about this image is my own presence at Union Square countless times, including for  protests and political gatherings. (And the truly amazing greenmarket. And chemo and radiation and too many doctors appointments to keep track. And monitoring the Sciuridae menace.)

Long ago, there was a pavilion built specifically for protesting at Union Square; once upon a time, the city was actually required to construct spaces for public meetings and protest. (More Union Square history and some great historical pics at this link, including the immediate aftermath of an anarchist’s failed mass bombing of a socialists meeting in 1908, and a barbers strike in 1913.)

It’s both exhilarating and humbling to know I’ve walked the same paths – and for many of the same reasons – as so many before me.

Of course, it’s also very, very disheartening. Which brings me to the second thing that really strikes me about that image: the messaging on the signs.

LABOR CREATES ALL WEALTH

It’s true, but not in every sense. Corruption creates a fuckton of wealth. Unless of course we define the word labor to mean “words spoken on exclusive golf courses,” “deals made in posh backrooms” and “perfectly legal bribery.” LET’S NOT.

8 HOURS TO CONSTITUTE A DAYS WORK

It’s a myth that labor movements succeeded in legally capping work days to eight hours. (Ask any nurse.) Even here in the bluest blue that ever blued state of New York, there are no limits on the number of work hours per day an employer can “ask” an employee to work (except for children under 18). That’s not to say that norms haven’t improved as a result of labor movements, but entire classes of workers (e.g. undocumented immigrants) are exploited by employers in every way possible.

ABOLISH CONVICT LABOR

It is also a myth that either President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation or the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished legal slavery in the United States. The text of the 13th Amendment reads:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

That caveat “except as punishment for a crime” is the glaring loophole whereby the nation’s white power structures have criminalized Blackness (and poverty) ever since. Prison labor isn’t even the half of it. Indeed, the end of the Civil War was the beginning of modern policing, and that is no accident. This is why “abolish the police,” “dismantle the Prison-Industrial-Complex” and “end the school-to-prison pipeline” are the farthest thing from extraordinary demands. How can we “reform” our way into fixing any institution that sprouted from roots this deep in violent, racist oppression? WE CAN’T THE END.

WHO STOLE THE TENEMENT HOUSE REFORM BILL

Now, I can’t say for sure. But if I had to guess, I’d go with the same motherfuckers who stole the only hospital on the West side of Manhattan below 59th street and turned it into seriously swanky luxury condos. You know how the casino capitalist banks own the federal government? Well in NYC it’s the real estate developers – with a City Council and City Hall as equally and perpetually owned as the US congress and White House are by the banks. Neat!

PAY NO RENT

Good luck with that. (See above re: who stole the tenement housing reform bill.) Although, there used to be a guy here who ran for mayor every cycle on The Rent Is Too Damn High party ticket. Pretty sure he got votes, too.

ALL MEN ARE BORN EQUAL

Some men more equal than others amirite? Still. To say nothing of the women toiling in firetrap sweatshops during the very parade illustrated above. Still not equal.

THE TRUE REMEDY IS ORGANISATION & THE BALLOT

“Voting is necessary, but not sufficient. We need movements.”
-Iris Vander Pluym, all the goddamn time since forever.

LABOR PAYS THE TAXES

Of course! Why should America’s Owners pay taxes?! That’s who tax breaks are for! Duh! #socialismfortherich

VOTE FOR THE LABOR TICKET

LOL. Very, very few jurisdictions have such an opportunity at the congressional level, and exactly no one in my lifetime has had the opportunity to vote for anything resembling a “labor party” in a presidential election on either major party ticket. Except maybe Carter? I was way too young to remember then, and I am way too lazy to look it up now. It’s a holiday, goddammit.

AGITATE EDUCATE ORGANISE

Well I’m seriously agitated! Fairly educated too! But alas, entirely disorganized.

UNTO HISTORY

Maybe not so much?

Comments

  1. Sean Boyd says

    Whether or not “labor creates all wealth” is completely true, I’m perfectly happy blaming the corrupt fuckers who do exploit it. As far as protest signs run, it also reads better than “labor created 87.4% (+/- 3.7 %) of the increase in wealth in the US during fiscal year 2019.”

    My Labor Day pet peeve runs thus: so I went for a nice mellow bike ride yesterday through (ahem) beautiful Tacoma, Washington. Noticing a long string of cars in my rear-view mirror, I pulled over onto the sidewalk so as to be nowhere near them. On they drove, then, Mustangs and old vintage Chevys and obscenely large, smelly trucks streamed by, roaring their engines, blowing their horns, the whole obnoxious nine yards. And many of them were flying USAian flags. So Labor Day is a wave the flag holiday now? It’s Labor Day, not worship lil’ baby Reagan day or some such thing. We’ve made the transition from “placate the masses by creating a holiday celebrating labor” to “go buy your furniture and appliances for 40% off” to “‘Murika woo hooooo!” I fully expect Halloween to be co-opted by the flag wavers before long.

  2. says

    I’m so sorry the Ugly Truck Brigades ruined your peaceful bike ride. And that sure would be a good way to make the US flag look even more hideous than it already does, both literally and symbolically: declare that Halloween has always been a patriotic holiday, and slap the red-white-&-blue right in there among the traditional Halloween colors of orange and black. 🤮 It’s just so… Amurikkkan.

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