Reflecting on Labor Day

Labor Day

Once upon a time, people made useful things in the shop under their apartment or in the shed out back.

The product of their labor was very much a piece of themselves. A little bit of their soul went into their creation.

Then some men had a brilliant idea. Since the demand for many things was increasing and it took too long for craftsmen to make the products, new technologies allowed machines to be set up along a line powered by water, then steam, then electricity. We can bring people into one place to make many products cheaply and sell them at a profit.

Thus, the birth of the Industrial Age in the mid-1800s.

As the price of men grew, capitalists turned to women for less expensive wages. And then they brought children into the factories.

People worked 7 10-hour days per week. Sometimes never seeing the sun. Conditions were hazardous.

Mid-to-late-19th century philosophers identified this as “alienation”, as in people were alienated from the fruits of their labor. One of my fields of study in graduate school—Marx’s theory of alienation.

Labor was divided from capital (the ownership of the factories) and each grew ever more distrustful of the other. Laboring people began striking (withholding their labor) in order to force improvements in wages and working conditions. Some strikes were bitter and bloody. The Pullman strike in Chicago led to the establishment of Labor Day.

The machinery developed in the last 30 years have served to remove humans from unsafe areas and alleviate back-breaking work. We sometimes curse automation and robots for taking jobs away from people. In reality, these have made jobs in factories cleaner, safer, and more intellectually challenging. All good things.

Loss of jobs can usually be traced to the root cause of either bad management decisions or the rise of increased competition.

I struggle to understand how management and politics combine to squeeze the wages of laboring people. These are people who build the economy and the things and buildings we enjoy. The growing gap of wages between the lowest and highest is morally indefensible.

On the other hand today Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson wrote on his blog about the technology companies that have been good about giving employees stock in the company. Something I was promised a couple of times but it never came through.

Today is Labor Day in the US. Most people celebrate a day off for one last outing before all the fall activities kick off in earnest.

Taking a few moments to pause and reflect on all those who build our good things is worth the time.

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