“Freedom is Slavery”
-George Orwell, 1984
This weekend is Labour Day. If you’re visiting from south of the border, that is not a typo. Different country; different currency; different spelling; same meaning; longest undefended border—unless you count all those armed, uniformed border security people.
Labour Day was created to celebrate, well, labour. Not the kind of labour that made all our lives possible. We celebrate that labour on Mother’s Day, although it wouldn’t be a bad idea to call mom up this weekend and thank her for her labour. If nothing else, it’ll confuse her.
Labour Day raises a glass to work, to the hard-working men and women, to the not-so-hard working, to the self-identified, maybe working whatever. Labour Day therefore constitutes the most ironic statutory holiday on the books, unless you want to get into the argument or controversy over the irony of celebrating Christmas nowhere near the time of year Jesus Christ could have actually been born… and I don’t care to go there, thank you.
Among other things, we celebrate the New Year. We celebrate St. Valentine, the Easter bunny, Queen Victoria, Canada, B.C., and Thanksgiving. We celebrate those things because of their historical and/or social importance, coincidental timing, remaining religious overtones and because on one level or another, celebrating them makes us feel good.
We do not celebrate labour because we enjoy labouring. In the diminishing sense history still has any meaning in the world of fake everything, we don’t actually celebrate labour at all. We celebrate the concept of the labouring class. Therein lies part of the irony. We give working persons the day off to celebrate their labour, which is to say all their days on.
Labour Day was created at a time in the misty past when workingmen and women were considered, if not important, at least valuable. They created the wealth that made what was then called the First World the place people from the Third World wanted to sneak into. Even the folks they made all that money for, the captains of industry, the financiers, the monopolists, the indolent wealthy, understood their value. Of course that didn’t stop them from calling in the goons to bust them up when they tried to organize for better wages and working conditions, but at least they gave them a holiday once a year. Noblesse oblige.
The ultimate irony though is how thoroughly, how completely the very people who have profited most from the labours of others have managed to vilify them and convince almost everyone else—including the labourers themselves—to buy into that myth. As a society, we’ve come to speak of labour unions in the same distasteful tones we use when discussing loathsome diseases. We blame them for what Sam Gompers, early head of the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organizations, said was their raison d’être: wanting more. More of the wealth their labour creates, more of the increased productivity wrung out of them by management, more of the North American dream of a better life for themselves and their children.
But to give labour more, management and corporate shareholders would have to take less, an option that’s become simply unacceptable in the greed-fuelled zeitgeist of the past five decades. In order to justify keeping more for themselves and sharing less with labour, it was necessary to create a fiction to justify their raw greed. The fiction was this: All the ills of the capitalist system—not perfect, but better than anything else—can be laid at the feet of labour.
Why did General Motors and General Electric almost go bankrupt? Because of labour’s overly-generous, unfunded pensions management was “forced” to give them when profits were big and times were good. It had nothing to do with the management decisions at GM to continue to build crappy cars no one wanted to buy, to resist innovation because of the investment in outdated plants, to continue to pay themselves big salaries, bigger bonuses and rich pensions, none of which were cut in the name of austerity. Ditto GE, but adding in their forays into unprofitable lines of business.
Why are so many North American towns facing bankruptcy? Same overly-generous pensions. They too are unfunded because the people elected and hired to run those towns preferred to spend the tax dollars they might have used to fund those pensions.
Labour never bankrupted a company. Failure and bankruptcy are the exclusive domain of management’s myopia, greed and bad decision-making. That they’ve been so successful in creating and spreading the big lie that it’s labour’s fault undoubtedly has Joseph Goebbels smiling in hell.
They spread the lie with the help of governments that believed in no value higher than economic gain at any cost, and certainly no value lower than that of collective bargaining rights.
They spread the lie with the help of middle management who want so desperately to become top management they don’t really understand they too are simply labour dressed up in suits. Now they are seeing their own jobs—those high-power, high-paying service jobs our economy was going to be about once we sent manufacturing offshore to the developing world—outsourced. They’re seeing their own salaries under downward pressure and their own labour so completely devalued that they are quickly becoming the new slave class, tethered 24/7 to their “smart” phones that have extinguished the line between work time and personal time. They no longer understand all they have to trade for their dreams of the corner suite is their own precious lives. Joke’s on you, chumps.
The game is rigged and the house is always the winner. All the gains in worker productivity have gone to the guys at the top and their bagmen. They’re the only ones who believe a just society, a civil society, a caring society is one where they make 400 or 600 times as much as the poor schmucks who labour for their one-day-a-year holiday. They’ll continue to reward themselves and spread the big lie that whatever goes wrong is labour’s fault. They’ll continue to see their compensation go up as everyone else’s goes down. They’ll continue to outsource, downsize, raid pension funds, and run to governments to bail out their bad decisions until… until we stop letting them.
When that happens, I’ll celebrate Labour Day.
Until then, it’s just another day in the life of Tiny Town. It’s a day many will be working to serve you breakfast, make your beds, clean your rooms, rent you a bike, sell you a lift ticket, flip your burger, bring you a couple of cold ones, manicure your golf courses, fix your boo-boos, give you directions, entertain your limited attention span, sell you a T-shirt and try our hardest to make this a pleasurable weekend for you before you trundle off to your own work on Tuesday.
But do enjoy.