Today is Labor Day in the U.S. In practice, for most Americans, the primary significance of the day is as the unofficial last day of summer. I just went for a long swim in my outdoor pool, which closes today.
There are also political and union activities on the labor theme, marking the official reason for the holiday. Thus, President Obama gave a speech today in Detroit to a union gathering, previewing the themes of his long awaited address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday, addressing the concerns of organized labor.
This September date as a workers holiday was originally chosen by the Central Union of New York in 1882. It is strange that the rest of the world celebrates May 1st as the international day of labor, marking the Haymarket Affair of 1886, a scandalous labor conflict in Chicago. During the cold war, the U.S. even officially designated May 1st as “loyalty day.” The contrast with the practice of the Soviet Union and its allies was essential. The American Labor Day, though, has an equally serious origin. It became a national holiday after the violent events surrounding the Pullman Strike of 1894. American indeed has an important and rich labor history.
I think it is unfortunate that American labor’s celebration is out of sync with the rest of the world. We commemorate alone, which weakens the power of the ritual. Nonetheless, especially now, when labor issues are so central, as President Obama indicated in his speech, it is important to take notice. I recall some previous Deliberately Considered posts.
Rachel Sherman’s “Domestic Workers Gain Visibility, Legitimacy” noted an advance in labor legislation in the state of New York. She highlighted the achievements of the Domestic Workers Union to agitate and achieve some fundamental rights in the new legislation, concerning overtime, vacation leave and protections against sexual and racial harassment. As she also observed the place of American domestic workers in the global economy and the connection between class and gender, she celebrated the work of the union in empowering its members, through educational programs, research and protecting them from abusive employers.
In her reflections upon her play commemorating another key moment in labor history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Cecilia Rubino commemorates the role women workers played in the early American labor movement, mourns the deaths of the victims of the fire and notes how following this catastrophe the citizens of New York demanded and helped enact significant labor, health and safety legislative reforms. Further, “public outrage over the event galvanized the progressive movement and women’s suffrage, and went on to instigate many of the most important reforms of the New Deal.”
These two posts remind us that unions have played an important role in our history and are still playing the role. There are powerful forces seeking to forget this, as Vince Carduccci’s post on the murals in Maine’s Labor Department explains. Governor Paul LePage, the Tea Party Governor of the state of Maine, really did remove murals commemorating key events in Maine’s labor history because he viewed them as being biased, i.e., pro labor. Even more striking, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, along with other Republican governors, has actively tried to disempower public employee unions. We had a first row seat view of the early rounds of the political conflict over labor rights in Madison, Wisconsin, in reports by Anna Paretskaya and Chad Goldberg. One of the most important issues in the upcoming elections will revolve around this conflict.
And as we think about this issue, we can turn to some “new music.” In his two posts thus far (more coming soon), Daniel Goode reflects on the problematic status of new music in our cultural landscape. But by analyzing this, he works against the trend. And I am happy to report that in his “We’ve Been Demoted – Part II, you can find not only his reflections on the struggle of new music composers to find an audience, but you can also listen to his composition, which confronts Wisconsin labor politics. Note that the audio file of this work is now available on the post, and can also be heard below.
In my next review post, I will address the issue of cultural freedom, as it appeared this past week on music and politics. Here we close with a video of the President’s speech in Detroit, more on these issues later in the week.