Above my desk at work I have a historic photo of a sign that reads, “If you don’t come to work on Sunday, don’t come to work Monday.” People often stop to puzzle over it; its meaning is not immediately apparent in our twenty-first century work atmosphere. It is part of the nearly unknown history of work in our country. On Labor Day, it is appropriate that we remind ourselves of that history.
The sign was posted outside a factory in the 1930s as a warning to workers that they had no right to their own time when they worked for that factory owner. Their labor and their time belonged to him. When he needed them to work every day (including Sunday) they were obligated to do so. If they chose to claim their own time by the simple act of attending a worship service on Sunday morning, they lost their job.
Today, we have numerous laws governing the workplace. These laws grant us benefits that we take for granted. It is a rare history book that informs us about the painful struggles to obtain these rights. Labor history is not at the forefront of our collective consciousness. And yet we live with the eight-hour work day, the 40-hour work week with overtime pay, sick leave, minimum wage, laws that protect against sexual harassment and more. These benefits, however, were not always part of the world of paid work.
Over the years, many women and men worked tirelessly (and even died) to make these things a reality. They insisted that there is dignity in work and that workers should not be required to give their entire lives to management at the cost of their health, their freedom to live and worship as they wanted, and without a living wage. The eight-hour day crusade had the motto: “Eight hours for work, eight hours of sleep, eight hours for what we will.” When people found work in the early twentieth century, they quickly discovered that it stripped them of time for themselves, for their families or for their communities.
Although many of those early workplace injustices have been addressed, there is an ongoing struggle for safety and a living wage in certain segments of our economy, such as farm labor right here in our Valley. In a globalized economy, these issues again take on a sense of urgency in workplaces around the world. As we ponder legal gains we have made, it would be good to remember that some of the problems we have eliminated here have been transferred to other parts of the world: to maquiladoras in Mexico, to sweatshops in Thailand and to many other workers in developing countries.
You might ask why we should learn labor history or care about current women textile workers in Indonesian sweatshops, about the forced labor of children who bring us our Nikes and our soccer balls, about sex slaves in Eastern Europe. In a culture that venerates individualism, it is difficult to remember that there is more to life than reveling in our own rights and privileges. We are, however, part of a community that extends around the world, a community of human beings who are broken and hurting due, in part, to our desire for cheap goods. For some, the reason to care comes from a biblical mandate to love our neighbors; for others it comes from a humanitarian belief in basic human rights for all. For all of us, however, I hope that we can come to a place where we understand how we got to where we are today and that we must be concerned, just as labor activists have long been concerned, about the value of each global neighbor and about the dignity of work.
So when you celebrate your final summer fling in whatever way you choose to celebrate this Labor Day, remember this: your holiday comes to you, along with all your other workplace rights, as the fruit of the struggles of many people who gave their time and even their lives to this cause. Then go to the library and look up a bit of labor history, taking note of the names of people and organizations who gave you this gift. After that, promise yourself to help make it a reality for others.
Hope Nisly is acquisitions librarian and teaches women’s history course at Fresno Pacific University. She is on the steering committee of the Reedley Peace Center.