Labor Day

The industrial revolution changed the world. One thousand years ago, Chinese technology created a new and better version of steel. Over the centuries that recipe spread, until it reached the British Isles, where iron and coal were abundant and were near each other, and where transportation by water made it easy to distribute what was manufactured. Labor-saving devices such as mechanical spinners and looms allowed increased production, and what happened in Britain began to happen in other European countries, in North America, and eventually throughout the world.

Capitalism had already begun to develop in medieval Europe. Workers formed guilds which controlled each craft, putting the power of production into the hands of workers. Along with the guilds came financial leagues which led to modern banking and a new financial system. With the industrial revolution came a new form of capitalism. Only those who had access to wealth could buy the new machines. Now workers came into the factories and worked for the investors instead of working at home and controlling their own careers. Following the precepts of capitalism, investors and factory owners paid as little as they could to workers and got as much work out of them as possible, thereby keeping prices low for their customers which allowed them to gain a profit.

Many people realized the problems implicit in the system of capitalism. Even Adam Smith, who wrote the book defining and defending capitalism, explained that workers needed to be treated well to produce a better product—and to be the customers that the factories required. Karl Marx was not the first thinker to attack capitalism, but he offered the most dramatic solution. He complained that the system was rigged to keep the many workers under the control of the few people who had wealth. Government and even religion, he said, always took the side of the wealthy few against the many workers. Marx predicted that the workers would rise in revolt. They would overthrow the wealthy few, along with government and religion, and create a new and fairer system. For a time, the government would own and control the factories and farms on behalf of the people (socialism). After a while the government would wither and die and the people would own the factories and the farms. They would distribute the wealth they produced according to the workers’ needs, and each worker would willingly labor according to his or her ability (communism).

Marx said that the revolution would begin in the countries where the industrial revolution began and would spread as industry had spread. When it had reached the entire world, then the conversion from socialism to communism could happen. Marx did not foresee any way the workers could achieve their goals of proper wages and decent working conditions without violent revolution. He did not foresee any way that capitalism could be preserved.

Marx was wrong. Workers in Europe and North America found ways to organize themselves into unions which could speak to the owners of factories on behalf of all the workers. Christian sensibilities took the side of the workers and implored factory owners to treat them better—fair wages, fewer hours of work, better and safer working conditions. Swayed by Christians and by the growing power of the labor unions, governments began making laws to require the workers in factories to be treated properly. Child labor was gradually abolished, work hours were regulated, and inspectors were sent into factories to guarantee the safety of the workers. Although there were exceptions, generally governments required factory owners to permit their workers to form unions that would negotiate with the owners for the good of the workers. Socialism and communism were not necessary. Capitalism, under limited government regulation, could be preserved, with investors and customers and workers all benefiting from the system.

In the United States we celebrate workers and their contribution to the nation and the world with a holiday called Labor Day. Unlike Memorial Day (which was originally May 30, until it was moved to the last Monday in May), Labor Day has always been celebrated on a Monday, the first Monday in September. Originally that Monday was meant to be a time when workers would parade through the streets of the city to be recognized by their fellow citizens. It was, naturally, an extra day without work for the laborers, a day when they could gather with their families and those of their coworkers in picnics and other festive occasions. Labor Day weekend has become the social end to summer, as Memorial Day weekend is the social beginning of summer.

Every Memorial Day a few people speak out about the importance of recalling the reason for the holiday. Memorial Day is not just about cook-outs and the beginning of summer. On Memorial Day we remember soldiers who lost their lives fighting for their country. I have written such reminders myself. Scolding Americans because we have forgotten the meaning of Labor Day happens far less often. Of course we should be grateful to those workers whose labor improves our lives. We might not go into factories and shake the hands of laborers there, but each of us can mark this Labor Day weekend in some appropriate way. Be kind to the restaurant workers and grocery store workers you encounter. Thank them for doing their jobs. Think of those other laborers who do not get time off for the holiday—police officers, fire fighters, hospital workers, pastors, and all those expected to continue working on a holiday weekend.

Labor Day recognizes workers. It also reminds us of a process—the way labor unions, governments, and Christians concerned about the lives of factory workers combined to assist those workers. Along the way, they rescued capitalism from the danger of revolt. We continue to debate how much regulation is necessary and which laws hinder capitalism excessively. We should debate these things. On Labor Day, though, we also rejoice and are glad for the good things we have because of the work of our neighbors. J.

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