In 1894, Eugene Debs led a a nationwide boycott against exploitative employment practices in the government-subsidized rail industry. President Grover Cleveland called in the U.S. military and marshals to squash the movement. A few days after the strike, in a ploy to appease unions and undermine the popular, worker-created holiday of May Day, Grover Cleveland pushed legislation through Congress that created Labor Day. Most American workers continued laboring twelve to fourteen hours a day for decades to come, albeit not on the first Monday in September.
The holiday was not a celebration of workers but a cynical consolation prize for unions and a distraction from the simmering May Day movement for an eight-hour work day.
Labor Day exemplifies the conceit of “progress.” Thanks to President Cleveland’s acts of political violence, workers gained lip service and a day off, but lost the fight for true recognition and reform. Even on Labor Day of 2016, when an eight-hour work day is more common, how much progress is there to celebrate?
We can measure progress in numerical terms such as hours worked or wages paid, but these superficial measures tell us little about the context in which to understand a life of work in America. To be clear, the eight-hour day was worth fighting for, as were the nine and ten hour work days before that. And we should fight for a six-hour day now. Considering the numerical progress made in a span of a few decades from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, we are overdue in the early 2000s.
But more importantly, what is the quality of the hours worked and the hours not at work? How much freedom and power do we enjoy as workers and as individuals outside of work? How healthy, how fulfilled, how actualized are we workers? Do we kill ourselves slowly, sitting in office chairs, breathing recirculated air, performing tasks that mean little to us, feeling alternately bored to the point of stupefaction or stressed to the point of agony? Do we come home enervated and watch TV , or scramble to perform family duties without a moment to be enervated? Are our paltry weekends consumed by chores and errands, by mindless release and existential dread?
Americans still typically work over forty-hour weeks, and the power dynamics have not changed much. Businesses commanding huge sums of wealth still buy political power to further entrench their dominance over workers and consumers. They still oppose popular, pro-worker measures such as a living wage, student debt reform, and payday loan regulation in the name of a “free” market. Consider that workers in America work 53 more days a year than in Germany, where free higher education, collective bargaining, economic regulation, and tax-and-spend programs benefitting small businesses give people more power relative to holders of concentrated wealth.
In the American context of drastically disparate power dynamics, Labor Day is not a sign of progress but a self-congratulatory distraction from the system of control that we remain subject to. The true measure of progress is this: how much power do we have to determine how we use our bodies, our brains, our precious hours of the day? This is a question not just of incremental gains in the number of hours off or the rate of pay, but in our ability to critique, create, and cooperate for a life and world of our own making.