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Labor Day in America

This first appeared on September 9, 2006 in my column in Weekly Trust, Abuja. By Farooq A. Kperogi This week, I want to take the risk o...

This first appeared on September 9, 2006 in my column in Weekly Trust, Abuja.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

This week, I want to take the risk of writing on a topic that may not resonate with a lot of readers because of its “dryness” and seemingly highfalutin nature. It’s about the peculiar celebration of Labor Day in the United States and the consequence of this for traditional conceptions of social relations of production in capitalist societies.

Well, do I already sound like a crass bore? I am sorry. But I can’t help commenting on this issue because of my intellectual and ideological biases.

As some people probably know already, Americans celebrate their Labor Day on the first Monday of every September, unlike the rest of us who celebrate it on May 1st.

Until this year, I honestly had no earthly idea that Americans celebrate workers’ day on a different day from the rest of the world even though I was in this country last September. The day simply passed me by. Well, I am not ashamed of my ignorance. You live and learn, as they say.

I have just added to the long list of the things that define the so-called American exceptionalism, a term coined in 1831 by Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker and historian, to capture what he perceived as the cultural, historical, economic, and social uniqueness of the United States among the advanced nations of the world.

The term is also used loosely—especially by political scientists—to, among other things, capture the failure of socialism to catch on with marginal groups in the United States in spite of the fertile social and economic conditions for the growth and flowering of this ideology.

It is this use of the term that, I think, converges with the core of this essay. Why don’t Americans celebrate worker’s day on May 1st like the rest of the world? And how do they celebrate their Labor Day? In fact, why do they even celebrate it in the real sense? Does the celebration honor workers? Or is it just another excuse to take a day off and get a break from the madness that is the American work place?

Last Monday, instead of relaxing in the (dis)comfort of my new home in an Atlanta suburb, I took a ride round the city to have a feel of Labor Day celebration in this city whose past and present is defined by the immense sacrifices of workers. Atlanta, after all, started as a railway town.

My discovery of what Labor Day means here provoked a lot of thoughts in me about the form and content of contemporary capitalism, and challenged me to redefine my erstwhile conceptions of the social relations of production in a capitalist economy like America.

First, Labor Day is one of 11 federal holidays in the United States. Which means it is a holiday that is observed by every state in the country. This gives the impression that it must be very important—or that it demonstrates the respect the government has for its work force. Well, it’s not that straightforward.

Last Monday, when I went round to representative parts of the city I didn’t see any marches by workers. There were no worker political demonstrations. No solidarity songs were sung by a coalition of the oppressed. There were no American equivalents of Adams Oshiomhole or John Odah or Issa Aremu speaking truth to power and waxing lyrical about social justice.

It was just a regular holiday. I saw people having barbecues, picnics, water sports, and participating in public arts events. Others simply stayed indoors. And this was as true of Atlanta as it was of most major US cities, according news reports.

Labor Day, for many people that I have spoken with here, represents no more than the end of summer and the “rise of fall.” (Fall, called autumn in British English, is one of the four temperate seasons in the Western Hemisphere, and marks the transition from summer to winter).

Nobody I spoke with associated Labor Day with all the high-minded rhetoric about workers’ rights and economic equality that you would expect in capitalist economies that survive on the exploitation of workers.

Well, I soon discovered that the choice of the first week of September to celebrate Labor Day in the United States was intended to achieve what I observed here. It was deliberately moved away from May 1st because of the fear that American workers would be “infected” with the virus of “proletarian internationalism” that had shaken the roots of many capitalist nations in times past.

There was a preexisting “Knights of Labor” in the United States, which basically consisted in parades that were designed to honor all “who worked for a living.” It was said to have been founded in 1869 by a group of humble tailors who had their first parade on September 5, 1882.

However, in 1886, the then United States president, Grover Cleveland, quickly conferred official status on the event and officially recognized it as the Labor Day because of the rise in the number of American workers with internationalist inclinations who might celebrate the International Worker’s day on May 1st, the commemoration of the epoch-making Haymarket Riots in Chicago to demand for an eight-hour work day—something that we take for granted today.

It would turn out that the rest of the world would choose that as the International Workers’ Day.

Note that unlike the International Workers’ Day (May 1st), the American Labor Day has no specific, invariable date; it’s merely the first Monday of every September, which means the dates change every year. This de-reifies the day.

While I was thinking about the different attitude to Labor Day here, I stumbled on a survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports—an electronic publishing firm that collects, publishes, and distributes public opinion polling information—on the attitude of Americans toward Labor Day. The outcome of the survey is as interesting as it is intriguing.

According to the survey, only 38 percent of Americans said they took the Labor Day to celebrate the contributions of their country’s labor force, and 45 percent said they used the day to mark the unofficial end of summer. Sixteen percent aren't sure what they celebrate on Labor Day.

The racial demographics of the responses are also noteworthy. A majority of white Americans (48 percent) said they celebrate Labor Day as the unofficial end of summer, while 42 percent of non-white Americans said they celebrate the day to honor workers.

Just 22 percent said Labor Day is one of the most important holidays of the year; 16 percent said it's one of the least important; and 59 percent said it's somewhere in between. Just 19 percent of white Americans view the holiday as one of America’s most important. That view is shared by 26 percent of black Americans and 34 percent of other Americans.

The survey concluded: “Regardless of the reasons behind them, barbeques or cookouts are popular Labor Day activities. Forty-five percent (45%) say they plan to include some grilling with family and friends over the long weekend. That's a fitting way to give summer a send off since cookouts rated as the top Summer 2006 activity in another recent survey.”

The survey may appear trifling, but I think it does give an important indication of the shifting identity of the working class in societies like America. As a commentator pointed out recently, almost a third of the American work force spends the last quarter of their lives as “capitalists” rather than as “workers” due to pension plans rooted in the stock and bond markets. Those who fall outside this bracket are recipients of social cushioning incentives like monthly welfare packages or social security allowances.

In a sense, the system has been reconfigured in such a way that you have a relatively small underclass, composed mostly of Blacks and Hispanics, and a relatively large class of middle-class elements who are so content with the distribution of wealth in the society that they have as much a stake in maintaining the status quo as the real movers and shakers of the power structure.

So you have a situation where it is not a tiny capitalist elite that oppresses a majority (as is true of most capitalist and peripheral capitalist societies), but rather a multiplicity of minimally and maximally comfortable groups that oppress a weak minority.

This is complicated even further by the perpetually changing nature of American economy from manufacturing to “service” economy. Most manufacturing is now “outsourced” to China, Malaysia, India, and other Asian countries. The remnants of manufacturing jobs here are done by illegal immigrants and green card lottery winners who feel so grateful to be in America that they will rather be slaves in capitalist hell than be persuaded that they would be kings and queens in some future socialist paradise.

Now, what implications does this have for traditional Marxian notions of an inherent oppositional social class relation between the oppressed and the oppressors in capitalist society? I think the answer to this question has significant consequences for methods of social change, as well as for critical methods and social theory.

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