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Friday, August 29, 2008

Labor Day Weekend: "We have been oxen long enough"

"We have been oxen long enough" is the view of O.I. Richardson in his article contained in a fascinating booklet published in 1900 by the Milwaukee Trades Union Label League, and preserved and published on the web by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The booklet, titled End of the Century Labor Day Souvenir, was published as part of the festivities on September 3, 1900. It's an interesting snap shot of the economy and politics of that time, including a pitch for Eugene Debs, candidate for President of the United States on the Social Democratic ticket (pages 10, 11, and 34).

In 1900, workers were losing their jobs to a cheaper manufacturing source: machines. Some of the frustration of that job loss is reflected in the opinions of one writer: "'Can't a man who is replaced by a machine turn to something else?' Well, shall he turn to shoemaking? But the machine is there. Shall he turn to furniture making? The machine stares at him there also. Shall he turn to farming? He has neither land or capital, and capital is required to get machinery to compete with the bonanza farms. Wherever he turns his hands, he finds thousands striving for the same thing." (page 26).

These frustrations from 1900 sound like the frustrations of today as workers lose their jobs to cheaper labor markets in other countries.

Labor Day is also a time to rally people to make further efforts. In the booklet, workers are are urged to continue to fight for a better life and not simply be content with their lot. Ella Wheeler Wilcox writes in her poem: "Prize what is yours but be not quite contented; there is a healthy restlessness of soul by which a mighty purpose is augmented, in urging men to reach a higher goal." (page 24).

If you are enjoying a three-day vacation from work this weekend, thank the people who weren't content, who demanded safety in the workplace, dignity for the worker, and fair compensation for working people's labor. And in looking to the future, demand the same for yourself and for future generations. Reach for a higher goal. Strive for a better future. We are not oxen.