In the past few months to a year, I’ve become a lot more interested in ideas like class struggle, class consciousness, and the rights of the working class, both in America and abroad. I’ve always had at least some degree of interest in those topics but they are at the forefront of my mind now more than ever.
I feel like Labor Day weekend is an appropriate time to discuss these issues, because people’s attitudes towards the holiday itself are reflective of their attitudes towards the working class in general. People are happy for a day off, but they’ve either forgotten or they don’t care about the original reason for the day off.
Labor Day, as it is now celebrated, is fairly far-removed from how it was originally celebrated. Much like Xmas, Labor Day has evolved significantly from what it started out as. The original holiday took shape over a span of several years, but it was always intended to be a celebration of labor unions and the triumphs of the working class in an unforgiving capitalist system. A history of labor struggle is beyond the scope of this post, but feel free to read about the Haymarket Riot as an example of how much blood was spilled in the name of achieving the relatively common-sense idea of an 8-hour work day.
Nowadays most people, even those in the working class themselves, see Labor Day as a final end-of-summer party where everyone eats, drinks, goes swimming, or enjoys other outdoor activities. Businesses even use Labor Day as an excuse to have sales, and then pound us with even more advertisements than usual for stuff we don’t really need.
The ad stuff is one thing, but the even sadder reality is that people whom Labor Day was originally intended for often do not get the day off themselves. If you work in retail, the service industry, agriculture, or a number of other sectors of the economy, you are lucky to get one day off during this weekend, let alone three.
It’s about more than just a day off in early September, though. The fact that Labor Day does not guarantee a day off to a large part of the working populace is, to me, indicative of a much larger problem. I very much get the impression that employers and business owners, along with government, care less and less about the people that make their businesses and offices run every day.
Several facts have led me to this conclusion. Wages have generally not kept up with inflation since the Reagan administration (citation 1). Union membership is also at a historical low, from 1 in 3 workers 50 years ago to 1 in 10 workers now (citation 2). Also, whenever a business runs into financial troubles, it is the lowest-level employees that are often sacrificed in order to keep profits steady (examples in citation 3). CEOs make a disproportionately higher amount of money than the median worker (citation 4). Workers are also routinely denied overtime pay, meal breaks, and paid time off (this I know from personal experience). The most damning example though is the fact that the only goal of a given corporation is to make money for its shareholders. Corporations have no legal duty to care for their employees nor to be responsible members of the communities in which they do business, and as a result, it is the ordinary workers who suffer the losses of the business most.
There has to be a shift in mentality among the working class. I’m not talking about just those who get paid hourly, I mean everyone. From the guy who picks strawberries in the hot sun to the six-figure salaried attorney, we all have to wake up and realize that we are being exploited by this system. Workers have to realize just how much power they really have. Think about it: who are the real wealth creators in a business? Does the boss do literally everything that makes the business run? No. He might have an idea for a business, but he needs others to help him run the business. He then hires people to do the various tasks needed for the business to be successful. So then the question becomes, “at what point does the owner or manager of a business become useless?” If all the workers are doing their jobs correctly and dedicated to making the business successful, why do we need an owner?
Until and unless the workers wake up, there is nothing to keep employers and business owners from shitting on those who actually run the businesses they own. Unless the workers collectively realize that the wealth of this nation is slowly being concentrated in the hands of a few, we will continue to be underpaid and unappreciated. The rich love to divide us in as many ways as they can, because the more divided we are, the easier it is for them to exploit us. Race, religion, national origin, politics, sex, and sexual orientation are some of the many mechanisms they use to make us hate others who are just as much victims of exploitation as we are. It shouldn’t be about black vs. white, Democrat vs. Republican, or gay vs. straight. It should be about the working class vs. the wealthy.
I’d like to think that some simple legislative reforms could fix these problems, and while reforms might make things a little better for workers, at the end of the day the problem is our capitalistic system. It is a system that is exploitative by it’s very nature. For every positive product or service capitalism produces, someone somewhere has to suffer. Any and all reforms would just be band-aids on a problem that requires intensive surgery. Until the workers own their own means of production, we will continue to be exploited, disrespected, and unhappy.
So what can we do about this problem right now? Well, I can’t in good conscious advocate for armed revolution right now. It simply wouldn’t work in the current mentality we have as a nation. No revolution will be successful without the support of at least the majority of the population, and we are a long way off from that right now. Right now we have conservatives (who generally think that only white Christian men should be allowed to exploit working class labor), and liberals (who generally think anyone should be be allowed to exploit working class labor). No matter who we vote for, all we get is more exploitation.
What we can start working on right now is a revolution of the mind. We have to stop looking down and being negative towards the poor. Being poor does not mean one is inherently lazy or incompetent. Don’t think less of a person because they are unemployed or working a shitty job. In essence, members of the working class have to stop hating other members of the working class. If we can spread some class consciousness (understanding your class position and recognizing exploitation of the lower classes), then that is big first step towards making the world a better place for everyone.
The good news is that this awakening has begun, kind of. Although Bernie Sanders is still a capitalist, he did a great job of spreading awareness about income inequality and the fact that corporations essentially run this country during his campaign. We have to take that momentum he created and turn it into something more substantive. More progressive/leftist leaders at the local, state, and national level can help create a new national mentality: one that favors people over profits instead of the other way around. Then and only then can we have a real revolution, one in which the workers take control and become masters of their own destinies.