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The Hypocrisy of Labor Day


Today is supposed to be a celebration of American labor. Instead, it’s a crass spectacle of commercialism.

The first thing that sets our Labor Day apart is when it’s held. Over 80 countries around the world celebrate their workers on May 1st, otherwise known as May Day. The American equivalent is set four months later. This was a deliberate choice made to undermine labor movements, especially those with socialist or anarchist elements. That’s all water under the bridge at this point–it’s not like we’re going to move our holiday to another time of year.

But instead of a celebration of workers, the US celebrates Labor Day essentially in two different ways: there are those who get the day off, and get to use it as an occasion to cap off the summer season; and those for whom it’s just another day at work, but one in which they hopefully get holiday pay rates for working. These styles of “celebration” are divided by class. Retail, food service, and hospitality workers generally don’t have today off. Those who work in other industries, who collect salaries, or are management or executive staff, they get a holiday–usually a paid one. I am among those who gets paid not to work on Labor Day.

Labor Day is a big shopping weekend in the US. Many retailers are having Labor Day sales and specials. If you want to find a good deal on almost anything, this is a good day to hunt for one. But to me, at least, this seems to miss the entire point of the holiday. I can’t ignore that other holidays provide similar messages: the day after Thanksgiving, after all, is the biggest shopping day of the year. It seems the entire purpose of getting the family together for Thanksgiving is so everyone can hit the stores the next day to do their Christmas shopping (another holiday obsessed with consumerism). I get it, we live  in a capitalist, consumerist, commercialized society. There’s no escaping that. But it deprives the holiday of meaning.

What good is a day meant to celebrate workers if no one’s actually using it for that? It ends up being another day off with no real purpose or meaning except that some people who’d normally have to work, don’t. Others, meanwhile, go to work anyway. I won’t say that they are unequivocally exploited or anything like that–many businesses look for volunteers to work holidays, since there will almost always be someone who wants that extra money and doesn’t care about missing out on a day off. But the way the US celebrates holidays is distinctly different from how European countries tend to. A holiday usually means most businesses are closed–only essential services remain running. The whole point of a holiday is to _have the day off. _A day of rest or reflection or whatever the individual wishes to use it for.

Historically, of course, holidays were entirely religious in nature–the very name means “holy day.” It’s self-explanatory. Secular societies still have people who want holidays from work, though, so while most holidays have lost their religious tone, we still celebrate them. I suspect we always will, and we might add a few more in the future. (This is avoiding, for the moment, the question of a future in which most people don’t work. At that point, the concept of “holidays” may well lose all significance. But then we probably wouldn’t be living in a recognizably capitalist, consumerist culture anymore, either.)

It’s hard to pin down exactly when holidays started being so heavily commercialized. Given that Christmas has had commercial elements at least since the mid-19th century, Labor Day–a much newer holiday–probably never had a chance. Having no specific gift-giving ritual associated with Labor Day, its position near the end of summer offers a perfect commercial opportunity. It’s the chance to end summer with a bang, perhaps with a brief vacation trip. Or it can be used to buy goods for the impending autumn season. Really, there’s no particular occasion needed–just spend your money!

It seems there are even those who think the chance to make a buck is worth compromising people’s safety, according to some stories surrounding New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s declaration of a state of emergency as tropical storm Hermine approached:

"It's freaking Labor Day Weekend," said Cheryl Venezia, of Annette's restaurant in Ventnor, which was seeing a quiet Sunday morning breakfast, who was upset with the relentless hype of the storm by media outlets. "Give us a chance on our last weekend," she said. "They scared everyone away. Even this morning, it's beautiful out, and they're still telling people to go home." Venezia said Ventnor restaurants were near empty Saturday night, and most had pulled up outside seating in advance of the storm. "Every restaurant was so dead, I feel bad for everybody." Frank Dougherty, of Dock's Oyster House in Atlantic City, said he thought decisions were made prematurely to declare a state of emergency and urge visitors to leave town.

I’m no fan of or friend to Governor Christie, but this sort of talk is absurd. The best models we had predicted a vicious storm with record coastal flooding and storm surges. It’s extremely fortunate that this didn’t happen, but we only know in hindsight that declaring a state of emergency was excessive. There were also no mandatory evacuations issued–people could choose whether to stay or go. The state of New Jersey merely issued a warning and prepared for the worst.

I’m sympathetic to those who lost business because of this–it will no doubt hurt the bottom line for many coastal businesses. Some of them, at least, are more understanding:

Some merchants were more forgiving. "I'm grateful," said Noel Feliciano, of One Stop Bait & Tackle, a few blocks from the inlet in Atlantic City, where waves kicked over a new sea wall at the morning high tide, but did not flood the street. "It really hurt our business," said Mark Lios, at Hot Bagels in Margate, usually a madhouse on a holiday weekend. "You can't really blame them because they have to protect everyone. But you wish they could be more accurate." Musa Can, of Marcacci Meat Market in Ventnor, said he understood. "They're looking at models, it's not an exact science. That's life."

It’s certainly not for me to say what everyone should do with their holidays. People are free to celebrate however they like, whether it involves going out and spending money or staying at home with friends and family, or simply spending time alone. But something seems a bit wonky when the best measure of a given holiday is how much money people spend on that day–and when merchants complain that efforts to prepare for a potentially very deadly, destructive storm hurt their businesses.

To people who feel that way, I would humbly suggest perhaps spending holidays being more grateful for what they have, and for having a government that cares enough to make such preparations at all. And maybe just enjoy the day off next time.