Labor Day is our last summer holiday, and this year it was a record buster for travel. Estimates are over 40% of the U.S. population traveled somewhere by plane, train, bus or car over the holiday. It is a time for fun, for one last summer pleasure.
As we enjoyed the long weekend, how many of us stopped to reflect even momentarily on the sacrifices of sweat, blood and lives lost to gain a day of recognition for those among us who labor, many in dreary jobs in which they find little to no satisfaction or pleasure? We should remember Labor Day is a day soaked in the blood of workers who stood against exploitation and injustice.
Our history classes tell the story of the “Robber Barons”; the men who developed the industries that made this nation. In many respects, that is a lie. They had the ideas, the vision. But they did not lay the rails for the railroads. They did not build the factories. They did not make the products produced in those factories. That was done by the sweat and blood, and far too often the lives of laborers.
The “Robber Barons” were criminals; thieves and murderers in the truest sense of the word. They stole from those who did the actual work; who labored under horrific working conditions as typified by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaste Fire in Manhattan.
They murdered workers trying to organize unions, trying to defend the basic human rights of men and women slaving in mines and factories. Just look at the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, when John D. Rockefeller had his pet governor call out the Colorado National Guard to slaughter men, women and children. Police often were used too. Originally police forces were created primarily to hunt down run away slaves in the South, and beat and kill union organizers in the North.
Police then were thugs. While there still remain huge problems of cops using excessive force and murdering citizens—primarily African Americans and Hispanics—our police, thankfully, have moved far from the thugs of the past. For that, we should not only be thankful, but we should
commend our police for moving toward what we rightfully expect our police to be—those who genuinely protect and serve. Sadly, 100 plus years ago, it was a very different story from today—something we all should recognize and lament.
On Labor Day, the Rio Grande Guardian published an excellent column by Jim Harrington in which he very accurately argued the ideals of Labor Day never have been achieved in the U.S. Workers still are grossly underpaid while billionaires stuff increasingly huge sums of money into their voraciously greedy pockets.
The Rio Grande Valley has a long history of worker exploitation, primarily by racist Anglo growers typified by Othal Brand. As a result the Valley has been one of the poorest regions in the U.S. In 2013, the 2 poorest Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA’s) in the U.S. were the McAllen/ Edinburg/Mission MSA and the Harlingen/Brownsville MSA. Fortunately, conditions have improved and neither MSA is in the top 10 poorest MSA’s in the U.S. But, the McAllen MSA has the highest poverty rate in the nation at 29.3%, while the Harlingen MSA ranks 5th with a poverty rate of 24.3%. Yet there is substantial wealth in the Valley. It just is held in the hands of a few who, far too often exploit workers by paying low wages.
For the past 40+ years, our nation has endured what probably is the most massive shift in wealth from the bottom 90% of the population to the top 10%, and mostly to the top 1%, in the history of the world. Yet billionaire greed is insatiable. While we were suffering through the COVID pandemic with tens of millions of workers out of a job or working vastly reduced hours for equally vast reductions in pay, people like Jeff Bezos were adding record billions to their wealth. In the face of huge national economic adversity, the billionaire class used COVID to exploit workers, exploit the economy for their own personal gain; to hell with everyone else.
Oil company profits jumped over 250%. Some national trucking companies saw profits increase 3,000%. The airlines received $25 billion in “loans” to prevent massive layoffs in the industry so air travel could return to “normal” quickly after the pandemic was under control. Yet, there were massive layoffs anyway. Once the pandemic ended, airfares skyrocketed, and air traffic has been snarled by insufficient numbers of pilots and crews to meet consumer demand for air travel. Have the airlines repaid the relief money now that air travel has reached and exceeded pre-pandemic levels? Revenue obviously is much higher, even after we adjust for inflation. The answer is a resounding NO! They have repaid a pittance of the money given to them. Will they ever repay all of it? If you think so, you probably believe in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.
And what of workers? Fortunately, our economy came roaring back after we got the pandemic under control. For one of the few times in the past 40+ years, real wages (adjusted for inflation) are up. Many workers were able to ditch jobs they hated and find new jobs that, hopefully, are more pleasurable and fulfilling.
Thanks to Federal COVID relief funds, despite near post Great Depression high unemployment, the poverty rate fell at an historic rate. Sadly, with the end of the COVID relief measures and, for example, millions of people being purged from Medicaid, the poverty level is rising again. Why? Because of greed by the billionaire class and wannabe billionaire millionaires.
In a very real sense, the vast majority of us are laborers. It doesn’t matter whether we are housekeepers, store clerks, truck drivers, supervisors, teachers, or professionals. We work in the employ of others. Even small businessmen who own “mop and pop” businesses are laborers. They may be better off financially than those working for hourly wages. But they labor just like the rest of us to hold on to their businesses and not be driven out of business by corporate behemoths like highly exploitative Wal Mart.
As a nation, we had a lot to be thankful for this past Labor Day. We have come a long way since the working conditions of 100 years ago. We have accomplished that as a consequence of the courage of workers willing to sacrifice their lives so their worker brothers and sisters might have a better life. We owe them a debt; a debt of remembrance and a debt of continuing the struggle for true socio-economic equality in our generally wonderful nation.
Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by writer and educator Samuel Freeman (pictured above). The column appears in the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Freeman can be reached by email via: email@example.com.
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