It’s Labor Day!

It’s Labor Day! September 5, 2011

It’s Labor Day!

The last hurrah of summer; the last day to wear white–a day for boating, beach-going, and barbecuing.

And, you, know, plenty of eating.

Labor Day is supposed to be lots of fun. It originated as a day to celebrate “the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

In other words, a day to celebrate–and remember–the people whose hard work has made beloved American celebrations–like barbecuing, beach-going, and boating–possible.

Labor Day was created by workers within the labor movement in the late 19th century–the brave souls who faced down intimidation, abuse, and threats to campaign for ‘progressive’ measures like 8 hour work days, bans on child labor, and safer factory working conditions.

My heritage is pretty exclusively immigrant working stock. One great-great-grandma came from Ireland in the late 19th century to work as a cook for a wealthy New York family. She met her husband–a horse trainer, also an Irish immigrant–on the steps of the New York Public Library. The other great and great-great grandparents came down from Quebec to work in New England factories, and from Eastern Europe in the wake of early 20th century pogroms to work in New York City factories. They were the men and women whose labor and courage helped build American prosperity.

And they are the people who died in tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. They are the people who suffered the unspeakable abuses fictionalized in The Jungle. They are the people whose efforts to organize helped transform jobs in the meatpacking industry from dangerous, starvation-wage grunt work into a relatively safe and well-compensated industrial career.

But you know? A hundred years after the Triangle fire, a hundred years after The Jungle, the immigrant working poor are still the ones whose labor makes possible chicken that can be purchased for less than $2/pound while the CEO of Tyson takes home $24 million.

They are the people who work some of America’s most dangerous, most invisible jobs.

They are the people who are most likely to be maimed or killed at work for which they are criminally underpaid.

They are the people who are treated as expendable, replaceable, disposable by their employees.

They are the people who feed us.

I know that this may sound suspiciously political. But I also know this:

That God said:

You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

That God said:

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.”

That God said:

“There shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before the Lord.

That God said:

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment…against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner.

But wait? How is this about eating with joy?

Don’t get me wrong. I want you to enjoy your Labor Day just as much as I want to enjoy mine. But this human suffering is a reality. And to paraphrase Wendell Berry:

“The pleasures of eating must be extensive…not dependent on ignorance.”

So please, do go enjoy your beach-going, boating, and barbecue. But please remember that it is not simply the last day to wear white, or the final hurrah of summer.

It is Labor Day, and so I think it is appropriate that in our celebrations, we try to honor the people whose labor makes our celebrations–including all that eating–possible.

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