Putting ‘Labor’ Back into the Celebration of Labor Day

John OstenburgCommentary
By John A. Ostenburg
The Outpost Observer

For more than 125 years, Americans have observed Labor Day on the first Monday of September.

The observance began with a ceremony in New York in 1882 and soon spread across the nation, becoming a federal holiday in 1894. Today it is considered by many as representing the start of something: e.g., a number of school districts across the country begin classes on the day after Labor Day; the two major political parties traditionally have used Labor Day as an official kick-off for their campaigns; fall fashions are considered to be in vogue after Labor Day. By happenstance, a few people even use the day to talk about workers and their plight.

Throughout the rest of the world, working men and women are honored each year on May 1 — International Workers’ Day — rather than on the first Monday of September. Ironically, the May 1 date was selected in observance of one of the most important American labor events ever to occur: the 1886 Haymarket Massacre that took place over a two-day period, May 4 and 5, on Chicago’s Randolph Street a short distance from the Loop. In the U.S., May 1 passes with only a slight nod toward workers, even — unfortunately — within the ranks of organized labor itself.

The Haymarket tragedy occurred because three elements suddenly were juxtaposed: (1) laborers were demanding fair treatment in the workplace and a decent wage for their on-the-job performance, (2) their employers were unwilling to provide either, and (3) political bosses sided with the economically powerful rather than the struggling worker. I suspect I’m not alone in thinking that something close to similar conditions may be present in our nation today.

Today’s problem situation is less based on wages and working conditions than on the fact that so few jobs are available for the large number of potential workers who are seeking them. While economic studies are showing that American businesses are on a financial upswing as a result of the stimulus that the federal government has provided, those same studies also show that the improved businesses are being extremely reluctant to create more jobs for American workers. Too many Washington politicians are turning their heads and refusing to confront this dichotomy.

Financial giants Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, and Bank of America are advertising jobs that are available in overseas markets, most notably in China. Each of those institutions received stimulus dollars. While it is understandable that these U.S. businesses and others might have the need for overseas employees, shouldn’t they have certain obligations for creating jobs here at home first, considering that they survived economic ruin because taxpayers bailed them out?

As part of his Labor Day message, President Barack Obama proposed some new incentives to encourage business to engage in more research and development in order to move into new areas of manufacturing that will increase the potential for more American jobs. While that’s a very good carrot, I think lots of Americans are wondering, "But what about the stick?" What are the President and Congress prepared to do if those businesses take the government’s money, do the research and development that’s being urged, but then create the new jobs in overseas markets, where costs may be lower and their profit margins thereby greater?

While I don’t suspect that unemployed Americans are contemplating the kind of protests that resulted in the Haymarket event, or the Pullman strike and demonstration of 1894, or anything else quite so volatile, I do believe the current anti-government environment that’s being fostered by our economic conditions is the kind of fodder that nurtures anarchy. It’s most likely to materialize first in the defeat of a number of incumbents in the coming mid-term elections, but it could develop into broader protests if angry unemployed Americans begin to think the electoral process isn’t working to their advantage.

Any new programs that Washington is considering as a means of assisting business need to include some specific and clear consequences for anyone who takes the money but then fails to produce returns. The President needs to be clear on this point. Full and total accountability must be the order of the day. Anything less is an insult to the nation’s taxpayers, especially those who are out of work.

Revolutions, even when they are less than successful, destabilize governments. Each time anarchy emerges, no matter how limited it might be, it challenges the solid foundation upon which the common good is based. Yet, sometimes segments of the public seem so disenfranchised that they see no avenue for correction other than to attack the system by whatever means may be available. I fear much of the current unrest that’s being generated by right-wing extremists can have influence over ever larger segments of the current American population that in better times would send the extremists packing. Politicians who ride on the backs of the extremists for personal political gain may be causing greater threats to our national fabric than would any outside terrorists.

The bottom line is this: America needs to wake up and give more attention to its average citizen, the every-day worker whose only desire is to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow and thus to provide for his or her family. President Obama and members of both parties in the Congress had better awaken to this reality and begin to collaborate on programs that truly are of benefit to workers.

Talking about the creation of jobs isn’t the answer. Criticizing someone’s else’s plan for the creation of jobs isn’t the answer. The answer is the creation of jobs!

When that finally happens, we’ll have lots more happy celebrants on Labor Day, regardless of whether it’s observed on the first Monday of September of the first day of May. The time of the celebration is irrelevant; it’s the reason for the celebration that matters.

John A. Ostenburg is mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He recently retired as the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union. E-mail him at [email protected].