Labor Day and Leisure
Labor Day. In America, this holiday is more often associated with barbeques, sales, and the farewell to summer and white linen than with the contributions of workers. By design, it’s a less overtly political holiday than the workers’ holidays in Europe—the U.S. intentionally picked a day other than the International Workers’ Day of May 1st to avoid any whiff of radicalism.
Yet there’s an inherent radicalism even in the organization of the holiday as a day of leisure. Certainly, current political discourse suggests that we could use a refresher course on who actually built America. But this Labor Day—having spent the better part of the past year developing JWA’s newest social justice educational resources on Jews and the Labor Movement—I’m thinking about the words of Pauline Newman, a lifelong labor organizer and one of many Jewish leaders who shaped the labor movement. After spending time at Unity House, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) camp for workers, she wrote,
“A trade union is something more than an organization to fight for our rights, to increase our wages in the shop. It is also a great cooperative group which should spend together as well as earn together, which should enjoy together as well as suffer together, which should learn together as well as fight together… We learned at Unity House that there is a mysterious bond between working sisters just as there is between sisters in a family. And we only wished that devotion and that sisterhood would have more opportunity to lift its head in our shops.”
To me, this is one of the great insights of the labor movement—that working people constitute a powerful community existing not only in the workplace but also in leisure, in the classroom, even at the mall. Ideally, the labor movement seeks to cultivate the full humanity of workers, to see them as more than just cogs in the machine. This is why Pauline Newman devoted so much of her life to the education of workers, and why unions such as the ILGWU built retreats like Unity House and offered cultural and educational activities.
The picnics and barbeques of Labor Day aren’t intended only to provide a break for workers or to acknowledge that they’ve earned a rest; they can also serve as a reminder that workers come together in joy as well as toil. My Facebook feed today is full of important declarations that “this long weekend is brought to you by the blood, sweat, and tears of the labor movement.” Yes, and let’s also add laughter, love, and community to that list.