Labor Day without Labor?

I am sure that you have noticed this as well. The tendency has been underway for years, though at certain moments it seems to reverse itself. Labor Day takes place with little mention of labor. I don?t mean that unions are not mentioned. I mean that there is little or no discussion of workers, struggle, the nature of work, etc., in the mainstream media on Labor Day altogether. Labor Day, in other words, simply becomes one more holiday we celebrate with no attention to its content.

As simple a point as it is, it is worth remembering that any positive attention to workers comes through successful struggle. When there is little struggle, or in periods of defeat, that attention drains away. But it is not just attention. Labor education in colleges and universities is under attack. Only a few weeks ago the University of Missouri at Kansas City announced its intention of eliminating its labor center. Though this move seems to have been at least temporarily blunted, it is part of a larger phenomenon aimed at eliminating or marginalizing the standpoint of the worker in higher education. In the University of California system, for instance, alleged social liberal/fiscal conservative Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has repeatedly attempted to terminate the state?s comprehensive labor studies programs.

Couched as financial, these attacks are quite ideological, as is the general silencing of the worker?s point of view in the mainstream media. As unions have weakened over the last 30 years and as neo-liberal economics has become the dominant framework in the USA, any notion of labor/management partnerships, or even just the continuing relevance of unions, has diminished in establishment circles. Only in rare moments of union and/or worker insurgencies, such as the reform movement led by John Sweeney that took control of the AFL-CIO in 1995, or grassroots struggles such as those among immigrant workers, does mainstream attention seem to refocus on the plight of the worker.

It is ironic, then, to overhear discussions where sincere labor activists and their allies will bemoan the absence of labor education in public schools as well as higher education, often seeing this as the solution to the crisis of the union movement. What is missed is that it is more than likely that greater attention to the worker and his/her struggles will reappear in education circles, not to mention in the mainstream media, as a direct result of the nature and scope of NEW struggles by workers themselves. To put it another way, there is little to be gained by pleading for greater attention in the absence of new strategies and struggles by the workers themselves that change our conditions.

Some of these struggles are taking place, often in a very different context than many of us are used to. The Miami Worker Center, for instance, has found itself right in the middle of a major struggle surrounding public housing in Dade County, Florida. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, until very recently not known for high-energy campaigns, has been pursuing a major organizing effort of Smithfield meat workers in Tar Heel, North Carolina, a campaign that outreaches to Latino immigrants, as well as African American and Anglo communities. The Los Angeles Bus Riders Union emerged over the last several years as a major voice on transportation issues. These and other struggles are and have been underway, yet few of them gain the attention that they deserve. Additionally, these struggles have not yet created the critical mass necessary to announce a new stage in the class struggle.

In all it should be of no surprise that little mainstream attention goes to the condition of the global and domestic worker. While workers and their organizations?including but not limited to unions?are under assault and as the magical myths concerning the alleged new economy prevail, the struggles of workers are viewed as, at best, an anachronism. All the complaining in the world will not change this. What will change it is a new approach to working class organization and struggle.

So, let?s get busy!


Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time labor and international activist and writer. He is the immediate past President of TransAfrica Forum and can be reached [email protected]

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