Many of us celebrate Labor Day as the last chance to take a family vacation before school starts. This used to be my view before my children grew up. But now that I am retired and every day is a vacation I have opportunities to reflect upon the various public holidays and what they really symbolize to me.
I am of Chinese ancestry and am aware of my ancestor’s role in the building of this nation. It was not a very pretty picture. Chinese labor was very close to slave labor and the Chinese Exclusion Act limited immigration to men of working age and they were denied citizenship and many of the rights and protections of other groups in this country. They were exploited primarily for their willingness to endure very hard labor for little pay. But many Chinese men found this slightly more desirable than being jobless at home and the little pay that they did receive was relatively better than what they would have received in China at the time. They usually sent a little money back home and had to pay back those who lent them money to come here in the first place. It took about 100 years before the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed during WWII when China became an ally with the US and the Chinese were treated closer to the equals of others. But racism still existed until more and more Chinese started to get college educations and get good jobs.
The Chinese story is only one of many stories where labor and racism came in conflict with those hiring them. Blacks, Hispanics, Irish, Jews, and many other racial and ethnic groups have had to struggle for equal rights to employment and pay and to a lesser extent the struggle still continues. Women who are half our population also had and are struggling for equal pay and opportunities for advancement.
But if it weren’t for the struggles and hardship of labor, this nation would be no better than a third world nation. Without labor there would be no industry. Without better working conditions and pay there would be no middle class or economic prosperity allowing labor to spend their earnings on goods and services. There would only be the very wealth and the very poor, a feudalistic-like existence.
So for me Labor Day represents an acknowledgment of the struggles our ancestors had to endured and the triumph of such leaders as Cesar Chavez and organized labor to shame our nations into giving labor a living wage and fair working conditions from employers whose only concern was to make a profit. But an affluent labor force is what distinguishes this nation from many other nations. It has made this nation economically strong and has been responsible for our high standard of living and the ability of labor to spend and dream of a better future. Had industry had its way wages would be low and working conditions harsh. The average American would have had little money to spend on their dreams or much of anything. So the affluence we now enjoy came from past struggles for a fair living wage, decent working conditions, and opportunities for advancement.
Labor Day symbolizes to me the acknowledgement of labor’s struggle for dignity and a fair living and the celebration of the common man to aspire to dream for a better future for themselves as well as their families. It also acknowledges a change in awareness by employers that it is in their vested interests to keep their employees content and able to spend on the goods and services they provide. After all Employees are Employer’s best and most profitable customers and clients.
It is true that the struggle for labor rights and justice covers more than just racial and ethnic minorities but this is my personal perspective as a racial minority.
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