Scraps on Labor

Today is Labor Day, hooray. Today is the day that we in the United States remember and celebrate the organized labor movement(s) in our nation’s history. (Among the myriad of other things that happen on holidays.)

Talking about Labor Day often means the valorization of Labor, that is, people performing economically productive work as employees and maybe some other refinements. To crib some history from David Graeber’s The Democracy Project, a great deal of labor organizing has been carried out without challenging the idea that work is good in itself and that more work is necessarily better. To crib some ethics from The Democracy Project, “labor is virtuous if it helps others.” Economically productive labor is not always laudable and other types of labor not typically categorized that way are inherently desirable, everything contributing to “the fact that we are all, and have always been, products of mutual creation,” which Graeber calls “the real business of human life.” So maybe I am not a fan of “celebrate the history and efforts of organized labor” rhetoric.

But actually I am, even though it ignores something I think is very important – the fact that we are often overloaded by labor and work too much even after the intense, violent efforts of over a century ago that won us the 8-hour work day. 8 hours is a good Schelling fence because of the slogan “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will” even though, counting commutes and meals, it really might be more like 8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, 2 hours for commute, 3 hours for meals and chores, 3 hours for what we will. I would be much happier with a 6-hour work day. I would be much happier with rhetoric around labor that declared each worker’s right to really have time to do what they will and pushed for less overvaluation of paid labor. And yet! And yet. I am more than happy to celebrate these labor movements of the past and, sometimes, present.

We have the same enemy, you see. “Take all the reform you can get,” said Max Eastman in 1913 or so. Few real, lasting changes happen all at once; sometimes small slow steps will get you there much quicker than trying to take giant leaps. Pay workers more for the hours they’re currently required to put in, and their lives will be more comfortable. Remember that workers, together, have changed the face of employment in the US and around the world more than once, and can do so again. Even if I think the goal of $15 an hour isn’t enough and would rather be pushing for a six hour work day with a living wage, all goals will get accomplished more quickly if everyone against the current structure is working together. Solidarity!

All movements for labor reform are still movements for labor reform. So even though my pet ethics aren’t addressed by the kind of celebration of labor we see around labor day, I still find it worthwhile.