krys méndez ramírez

At last, Labor Day Weekend… and Retail Worker Exploitation?

In Class Politics, Identity Politics, The Revolution on September 1, 2012 at 11:51 PM

My fatigue has kept me from doing much writing since returning back to the East Coast, where I’ve been focusing my attention on routinizing healthy practices (eating plenty of greens, doing yoga, and experimenting with a new set of painkillers).

But it’s the first of September, Labor Day weekend, and the following entry from Wikipedia entry caught my attention:

“Paradoxically, because of the importance of the sale weekend, some of those who are employed in the retail sector not only work on Labor Day, but work longer hours. More Americans work in the retail industry than any other, with retail employment making up 24% of all jobs in the United States. Only 40% of those employees have health insurance [9], and only 3% of retail sales employees are members of a labor union [10].”

It’s a sad state of affairs, but emblematic of our post-industrial, neoliberalized economy, that Labor Day has become co-opted in such an egregious, surreal manner. First celebrated in 1882, before the notorious Haymarket Riot that many activists and revolutionaries commemorated this past May Day, Labor Day weekend has now become a summer send-off holiday for barbecues, weekend getaways, and, of course, my favorite spiritual and intellectually uplifting exercise: shopping. While workers with secure jobs can enjoy these luxuries, what about the folks who have to run the hotels, work at the retail stores, keep the trains and buses running? Even if a personal decision was made to work this weekend (to make those much-needed bucks to pay for groceries or electricity bills), isn’t that as much a sign of how deeply entrenched worker exploitation is? That we’re making so little that we’re left asking for more hours at a job we probably dislike, as opposed to doing something more gratifying at home or in our community?

The significance of Labor Day was never all too well-acknowledged in my mind until this year, when I started to digging back into labor history and recognizing the relentless sacrifices our ancestors made to enable even the smallest reprieves from capitalist exploitation. Global neoliberalism has reversed many of those gains for many of us, with the precipitous drop in unionization rates and substantive, full-time jobs with health insurance.

Image

Supposedly: first Labor Day march to Union Square in NYC, 1882

This issue strikes a personal chord with me, and not only as young adult who has experienced a fair share of low-paid work with little benefits. My 54-year-old mother just started a job at Pathmark where she’s being asked to work this weekend. It’s part-time, no health insurance, and no real benefits. And what has she gotten for decades of toiling away in this country, helping serve clients at delis and restaurants morning after morning? Minimum wage. One must truly salute the flag for that.

Worker Exploitation Articles

[9] “Low, Low Prices, But At What Cost?” http://www.phillytrib.com/commentaryarticles/item/5475-low,-low-prices,-but-at-what-cost.html

[10] “Union Members – 2011.” Bureau of Labor Statistics News Release: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/union2.pdf

History of Labor Day:

History.com  http://www.history.com/topics/labor-day

U.S. Department of Labor   http://www.dol.gov/opa/aboutdol/laborday.htm

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