Opinion » Maxed Out

Labour never bankrupted a company



"Freedom is Slavery"

– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

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 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 working men and women. 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 was actually born... and I don't.

We celebrate the new year. We celebrate St. Valentine, the Easter bunny, Queen Victoria, Canada, Thanksgiving and the beginning of August. We celebrate those things because of their historical 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, we don't celebrate labour at all. We celebrate Labour, not the party, the class. Therein lies the irony, at least partly. 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 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 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 acquiesced to letting them have a holiday once a year.

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 repulsed tones we use when discussing loathsome diseases. We blame them for what Sam Gompers 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.