On the history of this holiday see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_Day. For a conservative response to the crypto-communism seen in this celebration, see http://www.nationalreview.com/article/357369/red-monday-kevin-d-williamson. President Grover Cleveland made the first Monday in September a holiday to avoid May Day associations with the Haymarket Massacre, the latter an event that has taken religious tones for some Leftists. Since the Knights of Labor were involved in Grover Cleveland’s decision, I suspect that the initial modern labor movement was nostalgic for medieval guilds that excluded tyros and enforced standards of craftsmanship that are now gone with the wind. In the early days of the American Republic, it was customary for the various occupations to mount parades celebrating their contributions. Such parades are lovingly resuscitated and honored by academic historians of the labor movement; such scholars are generally devoted to “the new labor history” that confines itself mostly to the “culture” of the industrial working class as opposed to its internal politics and hierarchies. Nestled in academe, with tenure and necessarily silenced and dependent students, these academics can be regarded as aristocratic radicals, blue jeans and work shirts notwithstanding.
I know a bit about the decorative arts and modernism in general, and American craftsmen, once ignored as too severe or kitschy, are now admired as “folk artists, a.k.a. primitivists. But this blog is not about the collecting habits of New England WASPS, or the ways some modern artists had adapted old forms for political purposes in such redoubts as the East Village of NYC in the name of a reinvigorated “spirituality” (opposed to bourgeois “materialism”).
The academic left is assiduous in documenting the spectacular strikes of industrial workers in the 19th C, the Pinkerton operatives who mowed the strikers down like rabbits , the popularity of Eugene V. Debs, the ferocity of A. Mitchell Palmer and his confederates in destroying the IWW, and the sit-down strikes of the 1930s. Indeed, John Dos Passos’s trilogy USA is surely one of the great American novels, though the reputation of Dos Passos has taken a hit after he exposed the criminal infiltration of big labor in his novel Mid-Century (1961). No one on the Left will forgive his defection, a process that began with his break with Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War over Hemingway’s indifference to the fate of the murdered Jose Robles (Dos’s translator). But USA readers should have noticed that he was always hard on Communist organizers.
The 1930s are frequently lauded as a decade of amelioration for the working class under the guidance of New Deal legislation, but see this letter from Emmet (“Sam”) Dorsey, Ralph Bunche’s colleague at Howard University (not dated, but 1933):
[Dorsey to Bunche:] “This town is in an uproar. Labor is raising hell. There are thousands in Union Square every night denouncing the N.R.A. and “Yankee imperialism in Cuba.” An epidemic of strikes are breaking out all over. The government is being driven to the position of opposing all strikes. If this policy of the (gov.) continues labour will be just out of the picture. It’s an anomalous situation. Roosevelt is begging labor to organize! He wants labor to police his codes. Labor is incapable of organizing because of its reactionary and unwieldy craft structure. And Bill Green is pitiable. One of the best and also most tragic stories is the one concerning Swope and Green. Swope asked Green to organize his industry! Such an organization would be an industrial union. Green said that he couldn’t do it because he would have to interfere with the autonomy of the several unions in his (Swope’s) industry. The test has come and the structure, tactics, and ideology of the A.F. of L. [are] found to be terribly outmoded and inept. Only the radical unions are able to move. But they because of the strangle hold the A.F. of L. has upon the Amer. labor movement can’t do the job. If labor were intelligently organized now it could really bargain but as things now stand all that it can do is to call shop and plant strikes which have no national labor support and therefore are treated by the government as attempts to sabotage its program. If labor doesn’t get itself together and seemingly it can’t what can the result be but complete monopolized control from above? Well, it’s their U.S.A. Let them mess it up.” (Swope was a progressive and President of General Electric. Enter the CIO, industrial unionism, and sordid affiliations with gangsters.)
I quoted Dorsey’s letter, because Bunche (during his radical period in the 1930s) was enraged by the power that union bosses had over the rank and file. Such analysis is missing today by labor historians, who have plumped for “the labor movement” (along with the anti-globalization movement), but have not dwelt upon its abandonment of its original noble goals: to ensure the health and safety of its members, to improve their material condition, and to guard the consumer from faulty, even dangerous, merchandise/products. Indeed, government unions are not criticized for internal corruption or for their very existence. Nor has the academic left worried its head over the decline of public education (surely the bedrock of longstanding worker demands). Rather, it has stigmatized the “white working class” as nativist while supporting teachers unions against charter schools or vouchers.
In a short blog, I cannot dwell upon the absence of women’s work in the home as only a recent concern of labor historians (e.g. Alice Kessler-Harris), but it is worth pointing out that technology has made the old glorification of “the dignity of labor” obsolete, for many men, but not for mothers whose exhausting tasks in rearing children go largely unrecognized except on token holidays such as Mother’s Day.
Indeed, it was a communist claim that science and technology had created a revolution in productivity that the social relations of capitalism could not handle, hence the drive to obscene waste and war by profiteers. But the record of the Soviet Union, that bastion of “socialism,” discredited its claims that the future worked. Today, the industrial working class has largely disappeared, thanks to automation (though sweat shops in Los Angeles exist, along with farm labor and food preparation in Southern and agricultural red states). Bureaucrats in civil service, or low-wage service employees, domestic labor and/or janitors are now targets of lefty organizing, while our populist POTUS wants to make everyone “middle class,” even if there is no money to pay for the innovations of the New Deal and the Great Society. The old industrial working class is no more, and it is hard to see how communist agitation directed toward the overthrow of “exploitative finance capital” can deliver the leisure and higher culture that such communists as R. Palme Dutt promised in 1934. We seem hardly to know what to do with the leisure we do have.
On a personal note: though my European ancestors were apparently not proletarian or engaged in farming, but seem all to have been rabbis or small craftsmen, I have always identified with those toward the bottom of the totem pole: labor, whether these be enlisted men in the armed services, construction workers, plumbers, garment makers , domestics, or mothers/ housewives whose work is never completed. One of my father’s cousins died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire) .
Today I look around and see a shocking disengagement from politics, economics, and the future of our country in favor of apocalyptic cultural pessimism, meaningless chatter/kvetching in social media as in most social gatherings, and few ideas about what should constitute informed and effective political action. Sex (including S-M), fashion, celebrity-worship, raucous popular music, and the culture wars have replaced the once vibrant and contentious political culture that characterized the US from the Revolution onward. Political correctness countered by religious and political fundamentalism and conspiracy theories substitute for a detailed, accurate knowledge of the flawed social movements that brought us to this sorry pass.
Are we not cannibalizing the bones of our ancestors? A cause for national atonement, I dare say.