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Whose Labor Day Is It Anyway?

Ron Ashkenas’ recent post for Forbes about Labor Day has me feeling unsettled, and I finally know why. In his article, Ashkenas explains that the “real purpose [of Labor Day] was to serve as a tribute to the working class — the men and women whose physical, and largely manual, labor had built the country.” He goes on to bemoan (as we have in the past) how the meaning of Labor Day has been lost in end-of-summer soirees and all-American barbeques. So far, I’m totally onboard with his argument. We should find more meaningful ways to commemorate the people who built this country, brick by brick.

Then, in the climax of his article, Ashkenas suggests that it could be “exceptionally meaningful if we redefine the holiday to be more in accord with . . . a celebration of work, regardless of sector. Remember that labor hasn’t become easier” he says, “it’s just changing. . . . perhaps Labor Day should recognize the productivity and contributions of office workers, knowledge workers, and those in service industries along with union workers, whether they are steelworkers, hospital workers, or government employees.”

And this is where I start to shvitz a little. This idea that we should all celebrate how hard we work, regardless of which sector we work in, makes me squirm. While Americans are indeed cramming more and more hours into their workdays, the work that they do is not equally valued. Ashkenas' idea to celebrate EVERYONE and ALL work whitewashes the pervasive problems of economic inequality and inequality of opportunity. It pushes aside the fact that certain jobs, and therefore certain kinds of workers, are shown vastly different levels of respect based on what they are paid to do.

As I have studied Jewish involvement in the U.S. Labor Movement, I’ve reflected on the state of labor and work in our country today. I’ve realized that the beauty of Labor Day, and of the movement that created it, was that even workers who toiled hours on end, who spoke different languages than their neighbors, and who had large families that occupied their time and resources, found a way to build something better. To make the world better, safer, and more just.

Of course it is important to celebrate victory and accomplishment, to “come together in joy as well as toil.” I'm not suggesting that this holiday become a solemn day of remembrance. And yet, the persistence of rampant labor injustice reminds me that as much as our working world has changed, much of it has stayed the same. So this year, I hope you will join me in celebrating this Labor Day with a little something more than just a hot dog. After all, we can celebrate how far we've come while still keeping an eye on how much work there is to be done!

Four ways to make this Labor Day more meaningful:

1.    Educate yourself about the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and make sure that you and your friends are fairly compensating the people who nurture your children and make your house feel like a home.

2.    Support the 78% of Fast Food Workers who are the main breadwinners for their families through the Fight for 15 campaign.

3.    Sing or listen to some labor songs. Learn about their context. They are catchy and relevant even today.

4.    Explore the relationship between mass incarceration and labor issues. The United States has more people in jails and prisons than ever before, and when these individuals finish their sentences, they will earn 40% less annually than if they had never been incarcerated.

Happy reading, and Happy Labor Day!


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If you're interested in this article, you might want to be in contact with the Jewish Labor Committee. [Disclaimer: I am the JLC's Associate Director, and have worked `here' since Labor Day 1987. I can be reached at ] You might also want to peruse these two lists, "Readings on Traditional Jewish texts on Labor and Worker Rights," online here: and "Readings on the American Jewish Labor Movement," online here:

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How to cite this page

Heisler , Etta King. "Whose Labor Day Is It Anyway?." 28 August 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 23, 2018) <>.


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