Cesar Chavez was Mexican-American fighting for the rights of farmworkers. In 1968, he organized a five-year “grape boycott,” working to ensure better pay and working conditions. His work helped to change the lives of millions of farmworkers. “Si, se puede” (Yes, it can be done.)
My post today is not specifically about Cesar Chavez, but he stands out in my mind as someone who symbolizes best the need to celebrate all workers. He used fasting, boycotts, solidarity movements, and non-violent protests to work for farmworkers’ rights.
As I reflect on Labor Day, a day in America that has come to celebrate the advancement of rights for laborers, I see an opportunity to reflect on the contribution of all workers. Educators who continue to work without a contract. Farmworkers who are subjected to humiliating and demoralizing work conditions, to say nothing of little pay. Business managers who once were considered impervious to exploitation.
Many refer to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 to herald the need to improve working conditions and fair wages.
Who the originators of Labor Day were continues to be debated. As proposed by united workers, it was first recognized in 1885 by many local municipal ordinances and soon spread to become a state acclamation, eventually being adopted as a national holiday, the first Monday in September.
Labor Day is –
A unique holiday in that it is not religious.
Not meant to be focused on one sector of society.
Not a day to celebrate someone who has died and left a legacy.
To recognize the legacy we all give to the progress of our country.
Indeed, it is thanks to united workers we have made advancements as a country with fairer wages, shorter workweeks, better working conditions, increased benefits, with a growing emphasis on the general laborer. Celebrating achievements, decrying continued inequities with speeches, less through parades, our traditional means of celebrating.
As we are want to do as a country, we have focused on providing “American” citizens the opportunity to organize and work for fairer wages and working conditions. But, unfortunately, we neglect to consider the “Invisibles.” Those workers who clean our homes. Pick our produce. Clean our barns and milk our cows. Often migrant workers here from Haiti, Mexico, and the like. Workers stopped and asked for papers to prove they are here legally simply because they have brown skin—workers who are sold through the market of human trafficking. Fieldworkers, particularly women, are subjected to demeaning working conditions but must put up with it because they need to feed their children and have no rights to organize for better conditions and wages.
I strive to remind us all, including myself, that people matter. That when someone is suffering, that is their moment. It is up to us as individuals, as a nation, to not stand by and do nothing. Rather it is our duty, our responsibility, to make that moment count. In the long run, to the betterment of everyone.
So I ask you, reader, what will you do to improve your co-worker’s lives and working conditions? Educators who work without a contract. Migrant farm laborers who work for a pittance. Hourly employees are not making enough to support a family. Salaried personnel increasingly see their benefits and salaries cut while they too lose their homes, access to food, benefits, and hence, their dignity. All “invisibles” who toil away for a scrap here and there thrown to them.
Labor issues for all sectors continue to be rampant. Issues concerning wages, hours, working conditions, discrimination. The laborer is the person in the cubicle next to you—the person who works the store register. The farmworker picking the tomatoes for our salads and burgers. Healthcare providers and educators. An injustice to one is an injustice to us all. Yet, it is the work and dedication of all that moves a country forward. That was the intent of the first recognized Labor Day. Recognition of all labor.
It is then not about grapes and lettuce. It is indeed about people.