Happy Labor Day! Now Get Back to Work or, A Call to All for Justice

DSC01714Does anyone else find it incredibly ironic that the people who have to work on Labor Day are the people for which the day was created? It’s the laborers who still have to work to support the non-laborers who celebrate a day dedicated to laborers.

A person I know who is a manager at a national retailer (a big box chain) told me the story once of how he had to sit down and talk about personal hygiene with an employee. The employee had to stop the person and say he knew how to bathe, he just had to choose between food for his family or the water bill that week. He chose the food and thus couldn’t shower. Keep in mind, the person who told this to me is incredibly loyal to his company and an ardent conservative, so there was no hidden agenda.

As many people enjoy a day off tomorrow, many others will be hard at work to ensure that the others are able to enjoy that day off. Some are essential – such as police, doctors, firefighters, and the like – but others are completely non-essential. Their essential jobs are to make sure we can get our stuff checked out to enjoy our Labor Day sale, or put food on our plate at the restaurant after a long day of doing nothing.

The holiday was originally set aside to celebrate the contributions of organized labor, or unions, after the US Marshals and others killed a few laborers during a strike in the 1880s. Organized labor brought justice to work, or at least attempted to, during the Industrial Revolution; thus, Labor Day recognizes their contributions. The modern celebration is ironic because 28% of America’s workforce is in retail (considered a laborious job), but only 3% of workers are unionized. Considering that the US unemployment rate is at 6.3% (give or take), but at least 49% of Americans take some form of government assistance. Perhaps part of the problem for the rapid increase of poverty, or necessity of government assistance, is that the average retail worker working full time brings in $18,500 a year.

Now, while there are practical reasons for considering a wage increase in just the retail section alone (the aforementioned link shows that increasing wages for retail workers would actually benefit out economy and only cause a 1% increase in prices), we must first consider the ethical ramifications of what we’ve been doing to our economy and, more importantly, to ourselves. Labor Day was created to celebrate not just the work done by laborers, but more importantly, to celebrate laborers. People who work for a living, who do construction, who come and fix the toilet, who work on your car, who mow your yard, who clean up after you and your rotten children at a restaurant, who help you find the clothes you “need” to have, these are people that we treat differently: they’re servants. Though no one wants to realize it, we’ve done away with most of the middle class and shifted them to the servant class. Who cares if the servants aren’t paid well and are mistreated? Perhaps they ought to get a better job and an education to help achieve that better job, never mind the fact that if everyone did that then there’d be no one to mow the yard, to fix the car, or to fix the toilet (which would lead to a pretty crappy society). 

Our Two Problems

The problem we suffer from in today’s society isn’t political, it’s economic, it’s moral; we have an ethical crisis in this country because first, we no longer value labor and second, we’re rabid individualists.

Not everyone is meant to labor for a living. While there is a freeing aspect to it and everyone should partake in it, we do need the lawyers, the bankers, the writers, and so on. Such works should be viewed as valuable and necessary for society. But what is more necessary, the banker or the construction worker? The banker can accomplish nothing in life without the construction worker, but the construction worker can get along just fine without the banker. So why is it, then, that being a banker is viewed as more prestigious than being a construction worker?

We ceased valuing labor because we viewed it as hard, and anything that is hard is for whatever reason disdainful in our society. We are a society of getting what we want when we want it. Our over reliance on credit ought to serve as the perfect example of how we are unwilling to save and work for anything; we’d rather just throw it on the card and get what we want now. Ignoring the very practical concern that our credit card culture is helping to drive inflation, the bigger issue here is that we’ve developed the mentality that getting things easily is somehow virtuous, while having to work for what one gets is somehow shameful. How ironic that Christians would celebrate and defend God’s labor in creating the world and therefore “needing” a rest on the 7th day when the implicit ideology followed would teach that he simply should have outsourced the job.

Ultimately, the reason we do not value labor is because we do not partake in labor. Long ago, either we or our parents thought labor was below us and therefore we embarked upon a different path, one that did not require us to labor. While choosing such a path isn’t inherently wrong at all, we placed a value on it. “I don’t want to be like them.” we said as we saw the construction workers on the side of the road, or the waiters in the restaurant, or the cooks in the kitchen. We placed a non-monetary value, an ethical value, on the work they did, and viewed it as lesser than what we wanted to do (and now do). In devaluing the labor, we devalued the laborer, viewing their utility to society as lower than our own. Such a judgement actually points out the bigger problem with our society, namely that we are rabid individualists.

We are Ayn Rand’s hated children (for I’m assuming if she ever had kids, she would have hated them to the point that even Jean Jacques Rousseau would feel sorry for them), seeking what is best for ourselves. She promoted selfishness as a virtue and many years later Gordon Gecko came along and declared, “Greed is Good.” Selfishness is a good thing, we’re told to look after ourselves first. Even in liberal circles, which tend to be more community minded, we’re constantly reminded about how we “own ourselves,” which of course then begs the question, “If I own myself, why should I then care about the community if I’ve no use for the community?” Whether one is a conservative or a liberal, one tends to be an individualist.

It’s All About the Community

While AMC’s hit series Mad Men has yet to finish its final season, I do love what it’s done to Ayn Rand’s philosophy. In the very first season, Bertram Cooper constantly tells Don Draper to read up on Ayn Rand. The hints are dropped all along the way. In fact, the first few seasons display many of the key characters living a type of Randian lifestyle, an individualistic lifestyle. Don, Peter, Roger, and others all act in their own self-interests. They’re selfish for the first few seasons. But the creators of the show don’t celebrate it, they show that every single character is absolutely miserable living this type of life. Even going into its final half of its final season, we see how none of the main characters have found happiness, all of them are still floating about aimlessly looking for some purpose, not having found it in themselves; they’ve crushed their families, they’ve almost ruined their careers, and have almost crashed their fortunes all in their pursuit of self-interest.

What the creators of Mad Men seemingly get and what Ayn Rand (and modern American society) forget is that no individual can survive without the community. There’s really no such thing as an individual, none of us truly own ourselves. Classical philosophy, from Socrates all the way up to the 18th century, teaches us that a person does not own himself, but rather owns his actions within a community. The English poet John Donne famously penned, “No man is an island unto himself.” The line is taken from “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions,” and the full quote is:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the SeaEurope is the lesse, as well as if aPromontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Donne’s idea is that all of us are a part of something greater, that when one thing happens across the land, we feel it where we are. Donne’s argument comes from the classical idea that we are obligated to the community. Some might take issue with such an idea, saying it sounds like socialism, to which I would argue that socialism is a perversion of classical politics, so of course they sound the same. But that doesn’t make classical politics wrong. The classical philosophers all saw that humans are nothing outside of the community. Aristotle famously quipped, “He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god (Politics, I, 22).” Cicero was even bolder, stating, “We are not born, we do not live for ourselves alone; our country, our friends, have a share in us (On Duties, I, 22). He goes on to propose,

“Moreover…everything produced on earth is created for the use of mankind, and men are born for the sake of men, so that they may be able to assist one another. Consequently, we ought in this to follow nature as our leader, to contribute to the common stock the things that benefit everyone together, and, by the exchange of dutiful services, by giving and receiving expertise and efforts and means, to bind fast the fellowship of men with each other.”

In other words, we exist to function within a community and we ought to contribute to whatever benefits the common good. That is, whatever benefits everyone, not “the greatest good for the greatest amount,” but to do whatever is best for everyone in common. Such a view respects the individual without diving into individualism, it recognizes that people are individuals, but do not belong to just themselves; they also belong to the community. And think about it, just exactly who are you apart from where you grew up? The languages you speak, the accent you have, your personality, your very existence is dependent upon other people. There’s literally no such thing as a “self-made man;” we all are in debt to someone or multiple someones for where we are in life.

As John Médaille argues,

We cannot own ourselves for the simple reason that we cannot create ourselves; we cannot seize control of our origins or be present at our beginnings. Rather, all of us are called into being through an act of love into the ready-made community of the family. From this little society, we receive certain gifts. The gift of being itself, in the first instance, and a sufficiency of material gifts—food, clothing, shelter—or else we would not have survived. But beyond these material gifts, we are graced with other kinds of gifts: language, culture, our first ideas of right and wrong, our first experience of love and beauty.

Who we are, what we want, what we desire, and who we become is created not just by our choices, but by our community. Thus, we hold an obligation to our community to make sure that everyone gets the same aid we did (or, in the cases of those from broken communities, that people get the aid that we never had).

What Does it All Mean?

How does all of this tie back to Labor Day? It means that perhaps it would be best for me to start valuing not only the work of the laborer, but the person himself. Instead of seeing the person in the retail store as part of the store (and subsequently treating him that way), perhaps I could view him as a person who is a part of my community, a person who has directly or indirectly shaped who I am.

It means that I should concern myself with the plight of the working poor within my community. Aside from the fact that those in poverty can’t buy from my business, meaning I make less money, meaning I can’t buy as much, meaning it hurts companies that could sell to me, meaning it could crash the economy, I should concern myself with those in poverty because they’re human beings, they’re in poverty, and they’re within my community. I should value what they do, no matter the task, not because of the utility it provides, but because they’ve elected to do it, and they are intrinsically valuable.

More than anything, on Labor Day, I should resolve myself to the new way of thinking (which is rather old), that I belong to my community, meaning I have an interest in what happens to it. For if I ignore the cries and plight of my community, if I remove myself from society, saying I no longer need it, do I lay claim to the title of god, or am I just a beast?

I must concern myself with those who are living in or near poverty. There are very real practical reasons to do so, but most importantly I must do so because I have an ethical obligation to my community to do so. And when I see that they are mistreated, when I see a company makes billions on the backs of their labor, I have the obligation to speak up, to rise up, and to demand justice.