workers picketing with signs that say one job is not enough
Bastian Greshake Tzovaras

State of Disunion

Photo by Bastian Greshake Tzovaras

We’ve Forgotten the Meaning of Labor Day


The holiday weekend has come to signify the last moments of summer, and not a celebration of labor. But is that any surprise for a nation of millions trapped by their work, exhausted to the bone, trying to claw their way free?



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We are a run-down people, Americans. We are worn out by these last 18 months, and the late events have only made it worse. This summer and its calamities—the spread of the Delta strain, the storms and fires, the machinations of a government that is breaking down—have made us yearn for a holiday, and Labor Day weekend obliged.

So often a time for snatching up the last moments of summer or getting a quick steal from a sale, Labor Day rarely fulfills its stated function of celebrating labor. In one of the great dark ironies of American culture, the holiday was conceived as a sop to militant labor activists and set on a day months later than international labor celebrations on May 1st in part to break U.S. worker solidarity with the rest of the world. And it worked. Until my teens, I didn’t understand what the holiday was meant to represent, and until college I knew little of the history behind it. After all, as far as I had seen, the people who kept the world running all worked on Labor Day.  

That is still true, even as our society is upended by a pandemic that has forced us to reckon with everything we have built. On labor, we have largely chosen denial over introspection perhaps because we know what we will see: a nation of millions trapped by their work, exhausted to the bone trying to claw their way free.

It doesn’t matter which sector of the economy you occupy, if you aren’t at the top, you are giving every ounce of energy to keep from falling to the bottom. Intellectual workers are overburdened and overstimulated, running ragged the very instrument they need to survive. Meanwhile, service workers are struggling under the emotional weight of a society self-immolating—and all of the rage and entitlement that comes with it. Essential workers—from resource extraction to transportation and packing to grocery clerks and orderlies—have been fed into the gears of modern civilization with little more than token gestures of gratitude as compensation.

Work is broken, and we know it. We bus and wait on tables for pennies and scrape by on tips when our wages are stolen; we analyze, review, develop, and share niche information that sustains crucial operations while shredding our psyches with isolation or overexposure. We maintain sanitation, care for the elderly, teach and educate children, and transport all of the workers who make our world possible, and still cannot afford the basic dignity of a roof over our heads and a hot meal in our bellies. These millions of collective hours of skill, dedication, and focus create billions in value—which is promptly siphoned off into the holdings of the inconceivably wealthy.

This is the incontrovertible truth reflected in the thousandth essay about navigating burnout, the selfish complaints of a “labor shortage,” the horrifying reality that millions are going to be turned out into the streets because the Supreme Court asserted that the desire for profit outweighs the need for shelter. Everywhere, the evidence of our social fabric’s rapid decay is on display, producing new nightmarish stories to tell us, over and over again, that we cannot continue to work at this pace, for this long, with this deprivation, for that pay. We are not in the midst of a cry for help; workers have let loose a primal scream.

We can no longer pretend that our economy is an autonomous system, unaffected by our deliberate trade-offs and decisions. We have selected suffering by allowing unemployment benefits to lapse; we have courted death by putting our economy ahead of our public health; we have painstakingly crafted a system that buoys billionaires atop unspeakable human misery.

We defend this paradigm with arguments and deflections and lies, keeping the discussion mired in abstractions while precious days and weeks and years pass away. We refuse to invest in people’s lives by giving them the resources to buy their time back from the customers and bosses and corporations that demand their every waking moment. We diminish and degrade our most precious and most limited resource, treating the time it takes to clear our minds, master a craft, or raise our children as worthless without a product attached. We can summon a thousand defenders of Jeff Bezos’s grotesque wealth, but never take a moment to consider that his fortune implies that his value to the world is equivalent to a year’s work from 2.5 million nurses. Somehow, after these last 18 months, I cannot imagine anyone trading the impact of the latter for the former, and yet we feted the same man for achieving a fraction of what public science accomplished more than half a century ago.

American society has confused the worth of life with the value of cash, and the pandemic has made us pay for our mistake. It is time that makes a society flourish and life worth living. Time offers us the opportunity to share and learn and laugh and grow; it gives us the space to process and heal and renew. Time is the necessary ingredient in developing any skill, sharpening any talent, building any success, crafting any joy—and for too many people in this country, it is bought too cheaply.

The labor of this society drives our progress, but the work involved in making it possible receives a fraction of the value. Our economy has spent decades feeding the fortunes of a few at the cost of depriving the many, and wasted time we did not have. Now the bill has come due in the form of inadequate infrastructure for historic weather, starving children as food rots, and a “land of plenty” where more than half the population has almost nothing at all. Months ago, our elected representatives set benefits to expire on Labor Day with the expectation that we’d restart the economy in the interim, and the churn would go back to normal. They never considered that with our lives and time to lose, we might ask what all the work is for.

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