Flipping the Script: Reflections on Labor Day

By Dan Clendenin

“Rich and poor have this in common: / The Lord is the Maker of them all.”

“A generous man will himself be blessed, / for he shares his food with the poor.”

“Do not exploit the poor because they are poor, / and do not crush the needy in court, / for the Lord will take up their case, / and will plunder those who plunder them.” Proverbs 22:2, 9, 22–23.

The first weekend in September always means three things for my family — my son’s birthday, the first football game of the season at Stanford University, and Labor Day. It’s a fun weekend for us as we sign off of summer and think about the fall.

For most people, I suspect, Labor Day is just another holiday with BBQ’s, parades, and back-to-school sales “events.” This year, I’m reflecting more on why the United States declared Labor Day a federal holiday in 1894, and on the many contributions of “workers” to our country that we rightly honor this weekend.

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Immigrant lettuce picker.

Workers like Richard, whom we met this summer while hiking in Colorado. Richard is a machinist from Eerie, Pennsylvania. He joked that he never went to college until he went as an instructor to teach tool and die making. Richard also represents the disruptions in our economy caused by technology — 3D printers will eventually replace machinists like him.

This Labor Day I’ve thought about my own work experiences growing up. In high school, a tobacco farmer in our church paid me a dollar an hour to help in his fields. I thought I was rich! I worked two grunt jobs on construction crews — perfect for my skill level. One summer I painted houses, and another one I worked in a textile plant.

My father got me two jobs, both on the graveyard shift — driving a forklift in the plant he managed, then clerking at his 7-Eleven convenience store, where every night I swept the parking lot and mopped the floor at 3am.

In seminary I worked at UPS. In my wallet I still have my “Honorary Withdrawal” and “Membership” cards from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — Local Union #705.

I also worked in a men’s clothing store, which sounds easy enough — if you’ve never had a job where you had to stand on your feet eight hours a day.

Labor Day provides an opportunity to flip the script. It reminds us that our national narratives are written mainly by the wealthy and the powerful. Most history is written “from above,” by and about presidents, generals, their wars, peace treaties, and the like. People like George Washington, the richest person in America in his day.

The radical historian and “lovable leftist” Howard Zinn (1922–2010) turns this perspective upside down in his book A People’s History of the United States, 1492–Present (1980). Zinn writes American history “from below.”

He spoke from personal experience, having grown up in the slums of Brooklyn as the son of two immigrant factory workers. After high school he worked for three years in the shipyards. After serving in the Air Force, he completed his doctorate in history at Columbia University.

From 1956–1963 Zinn taught at Spelman College, the first historically black female institution of higher education; and then from 1964 until 1988 he was a professor of political science at Boston University.

Among his more than thirty books, A People’s History is Zinn’s best known work, having sold more than a million copies. It’s a perfect read for Labor Day (except for its 700-page length).

Zinn shows how our history, our politics and our economy all look very different from the perspective of a coal miner, a black slave, an immigrant laborer, a factory worker, or a woman, who for a long time could not vote, own property, pursue education, or advance in employment.

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Underground coal miner.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Shipler says that people like this are forgotten to most of us. In The Working Poor; Invisible in America (2004), he describes life for the millions of Americans who live “in the shadow of prosperity, in the twilight between poverty and well-being.” With few exceptions, these people don’t have “the luxury of rage.” They have to work.

In Nickel and Dimed; On Not Getting By in America (2001), Barbara Ehrenreich describes her experiences as an undercover minimum wage worker. She worked as a waitress in Florida, a cleaning lady and nursing home assistant in Maine, and at a Wal-Mart in Minnesota. Yes, it’s an artificial experiment, but it’s nonetheless revealing.

Gabriel Thompson’s own experiment in “immersive journalism” focused on the 10 million immigrant laborers in our country. In Working in the Shadows; A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] Americans Won’t Do (2010), he describes the three jobs he took as an undercover writer.

In Yuma, Arizona, about twenty miles from the Mexican border, he was a lechugero or lettuce picker. Working for Dole at 37 cents an hour, “on most crews, each cutter harvests six heads of lettuce each minute, or 360 an hour. At this pace, a farm worker earning an hourly wage of .37 is paid just over two cents per head.”

In Russellville, Alabama, Thompson worked the 11pm to 8am shift at the Pilgrim Pride poultry plant. Pilgrim processes 1.5 million chickens per week and pays its workers about 80 cents an hour.

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American auto worker.

Thompson had wanted to work on the deboning line where chickens zoom by at 38 birds per minute. Instead, he dumped 70-pound tubs of meat and ripped apart chicken breasts with his hands. “In a single shift I could be asked to tear through more than 7,000 chicken breasts or lift, carry and dump more than thirty tons of meat.”

Back in his home town of New York City, Thompson worked for two days at a flower shop before being fired. He then worked as a bicycle “delivery boy” at an upscale Mexican restaurant. As with his jobs cutting lettuce and slopping chicken, the immigrants who populate the back kitchens of many restaurants do “punishing work at poverty wages.”

Shipler, Ehrenreich, and Thompson acknowledge that they are privileged people, and that their journalistic experiences are far removed from life as a laborer. As Thompson says, for him his project was “an exhausting learning experience; but for my co-workers it is their life.”

That’s worth pondering this Labor Day.

Image credits: (1) www.teara.govt.nz; (2) Wikipedia.org; and (3) ibtimes.com.

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