Why Labor Day Matters to Ethical Culturists
In my Ethical Culture home, Labor Day was perhaps the most sacred holiday, perhaps the only sacred holiday that we observed. Some of my earliest memories are of my stroller being decked out with crepe paper streamers to go to the annual Labor Day parade in Manhattan.
I was so proud to be able to participate in the parade as a union member myself back in the early 80's. I was a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the first parade I was in was during the year that Ronald Reagan was busy breaking the PATCO union. There was a lot of pro-union energy at that parade.
Supporting labor unions, not crossing picket lines were just something I grew up breathing. My parents were both active in their unions - my mother 1199, which continues to this day, although expanded from its scope as a union for health care workers, and my father, District 65 and even at 6 years old I could tell you that RWDSU stood for Retail, Wholesale, Department Store workers Union.
So I come to write about Labor Day for ESWoW this weekend and it occurs to me it is worth asking the question, why does labor day matter to Ethical Culturists, and of course, the underlying question, why do labor unions matter to Ethical Culturists. Of course, being a non-dogmatic religion, I can only tell you why labor day and labor unions matter to me. It has been a useful exercise to consider why unions were so important to my parents, and why I support unionization today.
I start with the the Kantian premise we adopt in Ethical Culture - that people are to be viewed as ends in themselves, and not to be a means to benefit oneself at the expense of another. So that leads me to the observation that any system which treats others as means to one's own advance, without regard for the well-being of the other, is not ethical. I see much of the way our capitalist, corporate system operates as taking advantage of workers for the benefit and profit of management and owners.
Unions are intended to help workers also benefit from their own labors in a more fair and just manner. I see unions as an opportunity to actively use the idea of acting so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in oneself. On a very simplistic level, labor unions offer management the opportunity to behave in ways that are more respectful of others, of the workers who make their businesses possible. Negotiating contracts is a way for people with varying interests to interact with each other to find their mutual benefit.
I was struck by a quote in HowardZinn’s A People's History of the United States, in the section where he is writing about the very beginnings of a labor movement in the United States. The quote is from someone referred to as an "unlettered mechanic" and is from 1827. He said "We find ourselves oppressed on every hand - we labor hard in producing all the comforts of life for the enjoyment of others, while we ourselves obtain but a scanty portion, and even that in the present state of society depends on the will of employers."
Why is it that some people have such immense greed, such an immense need to hoard beyond any expectation of being able to spend their accumulated billions, who can be part of a system, who can watch as the basic needs of millions of people are not met? Why is it that people think it is OK to benefit at another's expense, without fair recompense? Why do some people adhere to the Calvinistic notion that their wealth is an indicator of being in favor with their deity? Some explain this with the notion that it has been an evolutionary advantage for people to be able to hoard in order to survive in times before agriculture. Even if this is so, I find that explanation lacking, an excuse.
In Ethical Culture we have a strong sense of infinite interdependence, one of my favorite terms from Felix Adler. I see it as calling us to a sense of mutuality, an understanding that while it is important for us to be unique individuals and to honor each being's uniqueness, yet knowing that at least part of our very best selves lies in understanding the importance of interacting with others so that their uniqueness can be obtained.
When people are struggling to have adequate means to support themselves and their families, it is hard to be moving towards one's own best self. Labor unions, with their mission of providing fair compensation and benefits for workers, help create the conditions in which each person's unique best may be brought forth. Supporting labor unions, observing their strikes and boycotts, is a way in which those of us who are not directly involved with labor unions can help elicit the best in others.
That's what I think. What do you think?