Everyone knows what Labor Day means — the end to another summer, just as Memorial Day represents the beginning. However, it seems that every Memorial Day, we are bombarded with pleas to remember why and for whom. We get a day off with pay, but no such fanfare is made for Labor Day. It is meant to be the day we get to spend memorializing the struggle of working Americans, but we don’t. Most of us will not spend the day concerned with rising unemployment, decreasing value of wages and the cutting of benefits; but rather, it is a day like any other at the College of William and Mary — we go to class and socialize. We forget about the struggle of working Americans, the hardship of maintaining a household making $7.25 an hour. This seems to be as unpatriotic — if not more unpatriotic — than forgetting about veterans on Memorial Day.
First federally recognized in 1894, it is on this day that we are meant to celebrate the social and economic contributions of working women and men who continually work at making the United States a strong and prosperous nation, not once-in-a-lifetime furniture sales or the last day the pool is open. It is the average American working in manufacturing, textiles and other industries, who built up the greatness of our country. The U.S. Department of Labor says that Labor Day “constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”
This day is dedicated to them and memorializes the personal sacrifices made by members of labor unions in order to secure the safe working conditions and fair employment laws we currently enjoy. It was the work of average Americans, through labor unions, that brought us the 40-hour work week, child labor laws, the eight-hour work day and the concept of minimum wage. They are the true heroes of our democracy. Thus, Labor Day is meant to remember and celebrate the Americans who created the backbone of our economy and the backbone of our society.
Along with memorializing the past successes of working Americans and labor unions, on Labor Day it is important that we recognize our connection to one another. We must recognize that our interests lie with the interests of those serving us dinner, tending the campus grounds or even those cleaning the dormitory bathrooms. According to the Department of Labor, states with higher rates of unionization have lower rates of poverty, crime and failing schools.
Unfortunately, Virginia has one of the lowest rates, with only 4 perent employed union members. In a study published in the Journal of Labor Research, researchers found that a large union presence in an industry or region can raise wages even for non-union workers. It is clear that when people band together, we can achieve real social good for everyone — exactly what Labor Day is about. It is about recognizing that we have a common interest: to work together and ultimately forge a better society.
So, what would it look like to observe Labor Day properly? A federal holiday that actually applied to the working class would be nice, but it would also look like respecting the person on the other side of the counter, telling them “thank you” and seeing how his or her day is going. American people working long hours for low wages deserve so much more respect than we give them, not just on Labor Day, but 365 days a year.
It would also look like contacting our legislators and representatives in Richmond and in Congress and telling them they need to represent the interest of hard-working Americans. Those are the stories that need to be told, and those are the people who make up a fully functioning democracy.
E-mail Rachel Anderson and Alex Leach at [email protected]