Love for labour lost as respect for workers can’t even be faked
It wasn’t always about the hot dogs. Originally, believe it or not, Labor Day actually had something to do with showing respect for labour.
Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who once said of workers: “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Photograph: Stephen Crowley/New York Times)
Here’s how it happened: In 1894, Pullman workers, facing wage cuts in the wake of a financial crisis, went on strike – and Grover Cleveland deployed 12,000 soldiers to break the union.
He succeeded, but using armed force to protect the interests of property was so blatant that even the Gilded Age was shocked. So Congress, in a lame attempt at appeasement, unanimously passed legislation symbolically honouring the nation’s workers.
It’s all hard to imagine now. Not the bit about financial crisis and wage cuts – that’s going on all around us. Not the bit about the state serving the interests of the wealthy – look at who got bailed out, and who didn’t, after our latter- day version of the Panic of 1893.
No, what is unimaginable now is that Congress would unanimously offer even an empty gesture of support for workers’ dignity. For the fact is that many of today’s politicians can’t even bring themselves to fake respect for ordinary working Americans.
Consider, for example, how Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, marked Labor Day last year: with a Twitter post declaring: “Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.”
Yep, he saw Labor Day as an occasion to honour business owners.
More broadly, consider the ever-widening definition of those whom conservatives consider parasites.
Time was when their ire was directed at bums on welfare, but even at the programme’s peak, the number of Americans on “welfare” – Aid to Families With Dependent Children – never exceeded about 5 per cent of the population.
That programme’s far less generous successor, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, reaches fewer than 2 per cent of Americans.
Yet even as the number of Americans on what we used to consider welfare has declined, the number of citizens the right considers “takers” rather than “makers” – people of whom Mitt Romney complained: “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives” – has exploded, to encompass almost half the population.
And the great majority of this newly defined army of moochers consists of working families that don’t pay income taxes but do pay payroll taxes (most of the rest are elderly).
How can someone who works for a living be considered the moral equivalent of a bum on welfare? Well, part of the answer is that many people on the right engage in word games: they talk about how someone doesn’t pay income taxes and hope that their listeners fail to notice the word “income” and forget about all the other taxes lower-income working Americans pay.