Toward the end of the 19th century, the average American worker labored 12 hours per day, seven days per week— all to earn a basic living. I became acutely aware of this when I learned stories of Jews at the time who had to quit their job every week simply to observe the Sabbath, with the hopes of finding new work on Sunday or Monday morning. Religious freedoms aside, it was not uncommon to find kindergarten-age children working in mills or factories, earning an even lower wage.
Even though there was dignity in labor — the Bible commanding: Six days shall you work, but on the seventh do not work — labor in the United States of America was unfair, uneven and unsafe. These conditions gave birth to active labor unions. Though they had been around for nearly 100 years prior, the unions mobilized to strike and rally.
On September 5, 1882, the first Labor Day Parade, so to speak, was held in New York City. Some 10,000 workers took unpaid time off and marched from City Hall to Union Square. Just over ten years later, Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894 and initially served to honor the contributions and achievements of American workers. The purpose of the first Monday in September was to hold a workingperson’s holiday — one day universally when people can have the day off and society would reflect on workers’ rights.
The ancient Greeks and Romans looked down on labor. Aristotle taught: “Labor stupefies both mind and body and deprives man of his natural dignity. The title of citizen belongs only to those who need not work to live.”
Not so, here in America. The United States of America is to be a country where labor is dignified and speaks to our communal obligation and contributions. As the great rabbinic sage Shemaya taught 2000 years ago, we are charged to love labor and loathe those in authority who shirk their responsibilities.
I was born on Labor Day. Though the double entendre was never lost on me, over time the day became far more to me than the unofficial end of summer. And today, one day is not enough. We have the responsibility to make some serious changes and respond.
We have spent the past six months defining and re-defining who is “essential.” We have watched businesses both close and reinvent themselves. We have seen communities come together to support the newly unemployed. But what we must realize is that our current predicament is an opportunity for us to come out stronger and better on the other side — but only if we understand the ways we must support working America.
Five hundreds years before those 10,000 workers marched on this side of the Atlantic, the Black Death killed half of Europe’s population. As a result of the population decline, labor was in high demand and this led to increased wages. Parallel to those raised wages were growing expectations and demands among the working class. This led to the Peasants Revolt of 1381, which effectively served as the climactic turning point in medieval Europe’s 1,000-year-old feudal system.
We hope and pray that the COVID-19 pandemic will not claim as many lives as the Black Death. COVID-19 has already significantly impacted our work environment, for better or worse. And we must use the pandemic as an opportunity to examine how we value work and workers.
First and foremost, this pandemic emphasizes the need to give workers at the bottom end of the income ladder some economic security, like by increasing the minimum wage to at least $15. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a $15 minimum wage by 2024 would generate $120 billion in higher wages for workers and would also benefit their communities. Lower-paid workers often spend most of their extra income; the increased minimum wage will initially stimulate the economy and spur greater business activity and job growth.
Second, we need to ask ourselves: Why are our “essential” workers often compensated at the lower end of the pay-ladder? How do we live in a society where NFL players can voluntarily opt-out of playing for fear of COVID-19, and receive a salary-advance stipend of $150,000, but a teacher or home health care worker cannot do the same?
Third, what does it say of our country to have, as former Vice President Joe Biden puts it, a “tax code that rewards wealth more than it rewards work”? My grandfather always told me that taxes were a good “problem” to have. We should have a tax code that not only is easy to navigate and understand, but one that allows the average person to feel as though they are contributing to their country by their time toiling.
Lastly, this pandemic has also emphasized the importance of the family unit. Businesses now have no choice but to underscore the importance of spending time at home, of availing their employees time to support their children, of caring for the vulnerable and sick among them.
At the same time, distance learning and remote working have blurred the lines between home and work environments, and the idea of “clocking in” and “clocking out” has also become an anachronism for many essential workers. Our policies should support families and the need for true family time. The Family and Medical Leave act of 1993 was a start — but we should expand it so that employees are not forced to make unbearable sacrifices and decisions, while also helping employers deal with the loss of critical labor.
This year on Labor Day, hold your socially-distanced barbecue, but also engage your local electorate, and advocate for workers’ rights.