Laboring to make sense of a holiday
Despite great celebrations in Florence and Burdick and a traditional season-ending rush of tourism at local lakes, Labor Day has become yet another of our nation’s orphaned holidays — orphaned because its original purpose has been lost.
Trade unions, which the holiday was intended to celebrate, no longer dominate our nation’s economy.
They sought huge pay increases for workers who performed repetitive physical tasks, and they got what they wished for — so much so that pay rose to the point where technology became an economically viable competitor, capable of automating jobs at lower cost.
The same people whose jobs were automated out of existence even helped pay for the process by voting to provide huge tax breaks for mega-corporations to purchase equipment.
The widespread downfall of trade unions suggests an alternative name for Monday’s holiday: “Be Careful What You Wish For” Day — a celebration that would have greater relevance here than would a day to honor trade unions, which never were that big in rural areas.
Hereabouts, disputes over pay and working conditions historically were negotiated face-to-face. If an employer was mistreating his or her employees, everyone in town quickly heard about it, and pressure was brought to bear not through picket lines but in grocery lines, at coffee klatches, and in diners.
Few lines were drawn between labor and management. Business owners and business workers went to the same churches, shopped at the same stores, ate at the same restaurants, and belonged to the same clubs. They treated each other with civility and respect because they were residents of the same community, and the community demanded it.
The Golden Rule meant what it was intended to mean, not its modern incarnation — “He who has the gold rules.”
Save for an ever-dwindling number of locally owned and operated businesses, that’s no longer true.
A steadily rising portion of our community works not for friends and neighbors but for distant corporations whose chief executives they have very little chance of ever seeing or even of knowing who they are, in part because many CEOs hide behind elaborate veils of interlocking holding companies.
As workers, we wanted to be treated like our city cousins, with big corporate benefit plans. But we should have been careful what we wished for. In the process, we traded away our ability to deal with employers on human terms and lost the civility and respect — and most importantly, the willingness to help out in times of need — that smaller, locally owned businesses provided.
Loyalty died. We became disposable employees and in return began acting with an “I just work here” attitude.
Labor Day isn’t a celebration for workers at those distant big box stores to which we clamored to build ever speedier highways, neglecting to be careful what we wished for.
Their reliance of sweat-shop workers to produce cheaper goods spelled the beginning of the end for local clothing stores, local shoe stores, local furniture stores, local office supply stores, and other local businesses.
At big box stores, Labor Day is a celebration not of workers but of the third-largest retail sales day after Black Friday and the day after Christmas. Taking the day off is pretty well out of the question. If you’re an employee, you need to be on the job, helping shoppers — not by explaining how an item works or finding just the right item to do the job, but by rushing them to the checkout lane.
When big box stores are too far away, rather than support locally owned businesses we wish for convenience and dollar stores. But we aren’t careful what we wish for. Both challenge local grocers by selling at lower prices the high-markup items that allow grocers to provide essentials like fresh meat and produce.
Local grocers stock their shelves with what the community needs. Dollar and convenience stores stock them with what their bottom line needs.
If we’re not careful what we wish for, we’ll soon find ourselves, like a growing number of rural and inner-city communities nationwide, in what experts call a food desert.
And it isn’t just in retail that we have to be careful what we wish for. Allowing ourselves to become dependent on all manner of chain stores instead of locally owned businesses deprives our community of the quality of political leadership that local entrepreneurs provide. Chain stores can quickly become chains of oppression for what once were vibrant local communities.
So this Monday, take some time to celebrate in Florence or Burdick, visit one of our lakes, avoid big box and chain stores, thank community supporters like our local grocers, and devote just a bit of the holiday to thinking about being careful what you wish for.
— ERIC MEYER
Last modified Aug. 28, 2019