Labor and Civics

Earlier this week, we celebrated Labor Day in the United States – a day which only became a national holiday in the wake of the Pullman Strike; a dark ordeal in which 30 American workers were killed by U.S. Federal Troops.

Of course, most of the world celebrates the contributions of labor on May 1 – International Worker’s Day. But that was a bit too radical for the American palate, so sensible moderates – such as President Grover Cleveland, who authorized the use of force against American civilians during the Pullman Strike – consolidated on the September date.

And now, as Americans celebrate the unofficial end of summer and try to remember rules about when it is appropriate to wear white, they are encouraged to also remember the contributions of the American worker and the progress made by labor unions. The 8-hour work day, the 5-day work week, safety in the work place; these are just a few of the things which labor unions have given us.

But the contributions of unions run deeper than that; indeed they are at the very core of our democracy.

In classical Greek thought, laborers could not be citizens. While there was surely an elitist air to this view, it was driven more directly by a practical belief: citizenship is work.

To be a citizen in the classic sense was not merely to be the recipient of certain guarantees and protections – e.g., rights of safety, security, and redress – it was to contribute wholly to the improvement and wellbeing of your society.

In a practical sense, a citizen could not engage in physical labor because he (yes, “he”) must devote his time and energy to the real work of citizenship. Any other vocation would reduce and ultimately remove his ability to work as a citizen.

Of course, such a view was also elitist and absurd – a society cannot function without laborers and a system in which laborers are excluded from citizenship automatically creates an irreparable class system.

But, on the other hand, the Greeks had a point: citizenship is work, and one cannot engage in that work if they are wholly consumed with other responsibilities.

Neither a person who has to work 3 jobs just to make ends meet nor a high-powered executive who responds to emails in the middle of the night will be in a position to contribute to the work of citizenship.

Labor unions provide protections for workers. They serve as collective bargaining units which give the collective of workers more power than a single worker alone. They provide a vital role in ensuring safe, just, and productive workplaces.

But more deeply, they provide the foundation for democratic engagement – both as a venue where every day people are empowered to share their voice, and as a tool for ensuring that people who work – most of us, quite frankly – have the space to engage in the hard work of citizenship.

In short, our democracy would not function without labor unions, and when we weaken them, we weaken our democracy.

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One thought on “Labor and Civics

  1. Alain Jehlen

    The modern equivalent of the Greek idea that workers can’t be citizens is the “philanthropist”: Someone so rich, they no longer care about making money, and instead devote themselves to promoting the common good. There’s a belief that these people, with no experience in the fields they enter with their money, can nonetheless see more clearly and act more effectively than lesser beings.

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