Labor Day has special meaning for me. Unfortunately, Labor Day is probably the most divisive holiday we celebrate-with the possible exception of MLK day among some “traditionalists” in Virginia-and this is sad, I think. Many conservatives don’t seem comfortable with a holiday that celebrates “Organized Labor,” which they think of as a tired old shibboleth. In “Right-to-Work” Virginia, Labor Day seems to have the whiff of the industrial cities north of the Mason-Dixon Line. For me, Labor Day is a bit more complicated.
As a former School Board member, I was annually confronted with the Commonwealth’s so-called “Kings Dominion” law, which forbids school districts from starting the school year before Labor Day. Supposedly, this enables the theme park and other tourist venues to capture a couple of weeks of additional business, with its student-heavy staff intact. Perhaps, but to this day this constraint is upsetting to me because it sends two unsettling messages. The first is that, in Virginia, under the Davis Rule, all power resides in Richmond, even on what should clearly be local matters. The second is that Virginia chooses commerce over education, and this applies to many Democrats, Republicans and to many of my supporters. But, it is not their children that wind up paying the price. Increasing the total instructional days in the school year is by far the single most achievable approach to improving student performance, especially for students with special educational needs. At a minimum, we should mandate that school districts provide an option for students whose families want an extended school year.
Fortunately, each year the mild indignation I feel on this holiday is offset by the celebration. I truly enjoy the rallies and picnics I have the good fortune to be invited to by my many friends who are union members. For me, Labor Day commemorates the better impulses in the American character, to fight on behalf of the dignity of work and the elimination of exploitation. The history on this point is clear. The labor movement was integral to the development of a relatively prosperous working class, to the end of child labor, the establishment of the 8 hour day, improved working conditions and workplace safety and employer-financed health care. These factors served as foundation of our economic development and provided a model for union and non-union employment alike.
Union membership is definitely on the decline as a percentage of all workers, but with over 12 million members, organized labor continues to wield significant influence. The labor movement is also a powerful advocate for all ordinary working men and women, with many unions supporting health care for the uninsured, green infrastructure investment, progressive immigration reform, and other programs that benefit all.
Our country is at a point in history where economic inequality and insecurity are on the rise, while the Supreme Court has sanctioned unfettered spending by corporate interests to control the economic and political agenda. Our path out of economic doldrums will continue to be painful in the short run, and must confront unsustainable trends (social security, health care, carbon emissions) in the long run. Though organized labor may not be perfect representatives of the interests of everyday working Americans, I have not yet heard labor blamed for the current financial crisis. Who is a better choice? Politicians? Corporations? CNN or FOX News? No. In my experience, most leaders of the labor movement are very true to their democratic and egalitarian origins. This year on Labor Day, once again, I celebrated the waning days of summer and Labor’s past and future contributions to “liberty and justice for all.”
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected].